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Archive for December 2nd, 2006

Next Chairman for Intelligence Opposed War


WASHINGTON, Dec. 1 — Representative Nancy Pelosi, the incoming House speaker, sent a strong new signal on Friday that Democrats intend to confront the White House by naming a Texas congressman who opposed the war in Iraq as the next chairman of the House intelligence committee.

This choice, of Representative Silvestre Reyes to head one of Congress’s most important committees, ended weeks of closed-door lobbying and public posturing among Democrats who had been competing for the post. By choosing Mr. Reyes, a former Border Patrol agent and Vietnam combat veteran, Mrs. Pelosi passed over the panel’s top Democrat, Representative Jane Harman of California, a more hawkish figure who voted to authorize the war in Iraq and a political rival with whom Mrs. Pelosi has long had a stormy relationship.

Mr. Reyes, an affable West Texan, has a far lower profile in national security circles than does Ms. Harman, an outspoken and strong-willed centrist who has become a regular guest on Sunday talk shows since the Sept. 11 attacks.

But Mrs. Pelosi chose him over Ms. Harman in part because he has repeatedly taken a more combative stance toward Bush administration policies like the invasion of Iraq, military tribunals for terrorist suspects, and the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance program.

Mr. Reyes voted against authorizing President Bush to go to war with Iraq, and in June he said that the failures in Iraq “cry out for oversight.”

In September, Mr. Reyes blasted the White House’s justifications for the National Security Agency wiretapping program.

“I take very seriously our obligation to provide the president with the tools that he needs to provide for national security,” he said, “but I also reject the notion that the authorization for use of military force allows the president to ignore the Fourth Amendment and conduct warrantless surveillance on American citizens.”

The choice of an intelligence committee chairman had emerged as the second controversial decision in the early leadership tenure of Mrs. Pelosi. Committee chairmanships are normally decided by seniority, but it is Mrs. Pelosi’s prerogative to choose someone else.

Last month, the Democratic caucus soundly rejected Mrs. Pelosi’s choice for majority leader, electing Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland over John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania. Then, the signal by Mrs. Pelosi that she intended to bypass Ms. Harman for the intelligence post stirred dissent among moderate Democrats, particularly members of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition, who mounted a campaign for Ms. Harman.

Ms. Harman made the case publicly that the centrist course she had taken on national security issues would be crucial to the Democrats maintaining a majority in Congress. Alcee L. Hastings, a liberal Florida congressman who was one of Ms. Harman’s competitors for the position, had also been marshaling support to his side, and had the backing of the powerful Congressional Black Caucus.

But Mr. Hastings, who was impeached and removed from a federal judgeship in 1989 because of a bribery scandal, was opposed by conservative Democrats and ultimately deemed by Mrs. Pelosi to be too controversial for the position.

Mrs. Pelosi called Ms. Harman on Friday morning to deliver the news, and the two Californians spoke for about 10 minutes, according to people familiar with both sides of the conversation. Mrs. Pelosi thanked Ms. Harman for her “service and intellectual contribution.”

Ms. Harman, though, beat Mrs. Pelosi to the punch in announcing the news. In a break of political protocol, she sent out a statement congratulating Mr. Reyes before Mrs. Pelosi’s office had even made the appointment official. In a statement on Friday, Ms. Harman gave her “full and enthusiastic support” for Mr. Reyes and pledged to “stay actively involved in security matters.”

Representative Lincoln Davis, Democrat of Tennessee, was one of the Blue Dog Democrats who signed a letter to Mrs. Pelosi last month urging her to select Ms. Harman. It was Ms. Harman’s instruction on intelligence matters, he said, that helped several Democrats win election and defuse the charge that Democrats are soft on national security.

“Obviously, some of us would have been happier with Jane Harman. She has a grasp of national intelligence issues,” Mr. Davis said in a telephone interview on Friday from his district in Middle Tennessee.

“I really don’t know what the problem is,” he added. “They are both from California, you know.”

But Mr. Davis also said that Mr. Reyes was an excellent compromise and he predicted the storm would quickly blow over inside the Democratic caucus.
Representative Anna G. Eshoo, a California Democrat who sits on the Intelligence Committee and is close to Mrs. Pelosi, said that Mr. Reyes’s low profile would serve him well in the new job.

“He doesn’t shoot from the lip. He’s not a showboat,” Ms. Eshoo said in a telephone interview Friday from California. “He doesn’t alienate people when he offers his views. He’s firm, yet he’s open-minded.”

Born and raised in Canutillo, Tex., a town on the outskirts of El Paso, Mr. Reyes was drafted into the army and spent 13 months in Vietnam as a helicopter crew chief. He lost hearing in his right ear when an explosion rocked his bunker there. Shortly after returning from Vietnam he began what would become a 26-year career in the Border Patrol.

After retiring from the Border Patrol in 1995, he was elected to Congress the next year and has served on the Intelligence Committee since 2001. He will become the seventh Hispanic representative to lead a full House committee.
But he will inherit a committee that in recent years has become one of Congress’s most dysfunctional and partisan panels.

The past two months have been particularly rancorous, beginning in October when Ms. Harman released the findings of a committee investigation over the objection of the panel’s chairman, Representative Peter Hoekstra, Republican of Michigan.

Soon afterward, Mr. Hoekstra suspended the access of a Democratic staff member to classified material on the suspicion that he was the source of a leaked National Intelligence Estimate on global terrorism.
The staff member, Larry Hanauer, was later cleared of wrongdoing.

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Dozens killed in Iraqi bombings


At least 40 people have been killed in three car bomb blasts in the centre of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, police say.

More than 80 were wounded when the three cars exploded in quick succession in a busy shopping area of the city.

The violence came as Iraqi and US forces raided insurgent strongholds in the city of Baquba, arresting more than 30 suspected insurgents.

Meanwhile, a top Shia leader who is due to meet President Bush rejected calls for an international forum on Iraq.

Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri), described the suggestion by United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan as “unrealistic, incorrect and illegal”.

Market blast

The blasts come only two days after US President George W Bush met Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki to discuss ways of tackling the sectarian violence.
The explosions occurred in the predominately Shia al-Sadriya area of the city.

The bombs were about 100m apart and exploded almost simultaneously, police Lt Ali Muhsin told the Associated Press news agency.

A witness said the blasts struck a vegetable market packed with women shoppers.

“The first explosion shook the area and a large piece of shrapnel landed near me. I saw people carrying bodies and dazed people running in all directions,” the witness told Reuters news agency.

The BBC’s Andrew North says this is almost certain to be seen as another sectarian attack.

It is the kind of incident that residents of Baghdad have been fearing ever since the bombings in the Shia Sadr City district just over a week ago which killed more than 200 people, our correspondent adds.

Elsewhere in and around Baghdad nine people were killed on Saturday, including a policeman who died when gunmen opened fire on a checkpoint outside west Baghdad’s main Yarmouk hospital, Reuters news agency reported.
Iraqi police are also investigating a crash south of Baghdad that left some 20 people dead and several injured.

A truck travelling at high speed ploughed into commuters waiting at busy bus station.

Conference ‘unacceptable’

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said last week that it could be helpful to hold an international conference outside Iraq bringing together all the country’s political parties to discuss ways of halting the escalating violence.

But Mr Hakim said Iraq’s problems needed to be solved at home, adding that only the government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki was qualified to find a solution to the conflict because it had been democratically elected.

“This government was formed on the basis of a coalition and it is therefore unacceptable for the Iraqi people that these questions should be debated at international conferences,” said Mr Hakim, whose group holds a majority of seats in the Iraqi parliament and has close ties with Iran.

Its former military wing has been accused of involvement in sectarian violence.
Mr Hakim is due to meet Mr Bush in Washington on Monday to discuss ways of ending the violence.

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Rumsfeld’s ‘chief henchman’ to step down


Stephen A. Cambone, Under Secretary of Defense and a close associate of outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, is resigning effective December 31, according to a Department of Defense press release. Cambone’s departure was not unexpected in the wake of Rumsfeld’s resignation.

Cambone was Rumsfeld’s intel chief at the Pentagon, serving since 2003. Described by various sources as Rumsfeld’s “chief henchman” and “enforcer,” Cambone first achieved notoriety during Senate hearings involving Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, during which Cambone disagreed with Taguba’s assertion that military intelligence was behind actions of prison guards at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Additionally, as Lolita C. Baldor writes in an Associated Press article, Pentagon intelligence during Cambone’s administration had been sharply criticized over the revelation a year ago that “a Pentagon database of suspicious activities contained the names of anti-war groups that had been found not be security risks.”

According to the press release, Cambone said, “It has been a distinct honor and privilege to serve the incredible men and women of our Armed Forces, the secretary of defense, and the President’s national security team during the past several years.” He added that he was “looking forward to spending more time with family.”

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DHS official admits taking bribes to fake documents

WASHINGTON (CNN) — A federal immigration official pleaded guilty Thursday to receiving more than $600,000 in bribes for falsifying documents for illegal immigrants.

Robert Schofield, 57, could face 25 years in federal prison when he is sentenced in February.

He pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, to issuing fraudulent documents to at least 184 illegal immigrants who falsely received U.S. citizenship.

Schofield, a former supervisor for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, was arrested in June.

He had served as a supervisory district adjudications officer at the Washington district office of agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security.

According to court documents, Schofield illegally helped Asian immigrants obtain U.S. citizenship in return for payments of $30,000 or more.

Under terms of the plea agreement Schofield has agreed to surrender his home, his bank accounts and his government retirement account.

“The breadth and scope of Mr. Schofield’s fraud and corruption are truly stunning,” said U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg.

“Those who compromise the integrity of our national immigration system betray the confidence of the American people, and their actions are shameful.”

Prosecutors said Schofield employed a network of brokers to bring aliens to him who were willing to pay for the phony documents.

The government says it has identified a number of these brokers.

One of them, Qiming Ye of Washington, has already pleaded guilty and will be sentenced December 21.

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U.S. gov’t terror ratings draw outrage

WASHINGTON – A leader of the new Democratic Congress, business travelers and privacy advocates expressed outrage Friday over the unannounced assignment of terrorism risk assessments to American international travelers by a computerized system managed from an unmarked, two-story brick building in Northern Virginia.

Incoming Senate Judiciary Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (news, bio, voting record) of Vermont pledged greater scrutiny of such government database-mining projects after reading that during the past four years millions of Americans have been evaluated without their knowledge to assess the risks that they are terrorists or criminals.

“Data banks like this are overdue for oversight,” said Leahy, who will take over Judiciary in January. “That is going to change in the new Congress.”

The Associated Press reported Thursday that Americans and foreigners crossing U.S. borders since 2002 have been assessed by the Homeland Security Department’s computerized Automated Targeting System, or ATS.

The travelers are not allowed to see or directly challenge these risk assessments, which the government intends to keep on file for 40 years. Some or all data in the system can be shared with state, local and foreign governments for use in hiring, contracting and licensing decisions. Courts and even some private contractors can obtain some of the data under certain circumstances.

“It is simply incredible that the Bush administration is willing to share this sensitive information with foreign governments and even private employers, while refusing to allow U.S. citizens to see or challenge their own terror scores,” Leahy said. This system “highlights the danger of government use of technology to conduct widespread surveillance of our daily lives without proper safeguards for privacy.”

The concerns spread beyond Congress.

“I have never seen anything as egregious as this,” said Kevin Mitchell, president of the Business Travel Coalition, which advocates for business travelers. It’s “evidence of what can happen when there isn’t proper oversight and accountability.”

By late Friday, the government had received 22 written public comments about its after-the-fact disclosure of the program last month in the Federal Register, a fine-print compendium of federal rules. All either opposed it outright or objected to the lack of a direct means for people to correct any errors in the database about themselves.

“As a U.S. citizen who spends much time outside the U.S., I can understand the need for good security,” wrote one who identified himself as Colin Edmunds. “However, just as I would not participate in a banking/credit card system where I have no recourse to correct or even view my personal data, I cannot accept the same of my government.”

Privacy advocates also were alarmed.

“Never before in American history has our government gotten into the business of creating mass `risk assessment’ ratings of its own citizens,” said Barry Steinhardt, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union. “We are stunned” the program has been undertaken “with virtually no opportunity for the public to evaluate or comment on it.”

The Homeland Security Department says the nation’s ability to spot criminals and other security threats “would be critically impaired without access to this data.”

And on Friday as the normal daily flow of a million or more people entered the United States by air, sea and land, the ATS program’s computers continued their silent scrutiny. At that Virginia building with no sign, the managers of the National Targeting Center allowed an Associated Press photographer to briefly roam their work space.

But he couldn’t reveal the building’s exact location. None of the dozens of workers under the bright fluorescent lights could be named. Some could not be photographed.

The only clue he might have entered a government building was a montage of photos in the reception area of President Bush’s visit to the center. But there was only one guard and a sign-in book.

Inside, red digital clocks on the walls showed the time in Istanbul, Baghdad, Islamabad, Bangkok, Singapore, Tokyo, and Sydney. Although billboard-size video screens on the walls showed multiple cable news shows, there was little noise in the basketball-court-sized main workroom. Each desk had dual computer screens and earphones to hear the video soundtrack. Conferences were held in smaller workrooms divided by glass walls from the windowless main room.

Round the clock, the targeters from Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection agency analyze information from multiple sources, not just ATS. They compare names to terrorist watch lists and mine the Treasury Enforcement Communications System and other automated systems that bring data about cargo, travelers and commercial workers entering or leaving the 317 U.S. ports, searching for suspicious people and cargo.

Almost every person entering and leaving the United States by air, sea or land is assessed based on ATS’ analysis of their travel records and other data, including items such as where they are from, how they paid for tickets, their motor vehicle records, past one-way travel, seating preference and what kind of meal they ordered.

Government officials could not say whether ATS has apprehended any terrorists. Based on all the information available to them, federal agents turn back about 45 foreign criminals a day at U.S. borders, according to Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection spokesman Bill Anthony. He could not say how many were spotted by ATS.

Officials described how the system works: applying rules learned from experience with the activities and characteristics of terrorists and criminals to the traveler data. But they would not describe in detail the format in which border agents see the results or in which the databases store the results of the ATS risk assessments.

Acting Assistant Homeland Security Secretary Paul Rosenzweig told reporters Friday they could call it scoring. “It can be reduced to a number,” he said, but he clearly preferred the longer description about how the rules are used.

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