Tuesday, February 26, 2008

GOP Halts Effort to Retrieve White House E-Mails

Theresa Payton, White House Office of Administration chief information officer, and Allen Weinstein, United States archivist, testify on Capitol Hill. (By Manuel Balce Ceneta -- Associated Press)

The Washington Post reports:
After promising last year to search its computers for tens of thousands of e-mails sent by White House officials, the Republican National Committee has informed a House committee that it no longer plans to retrieve the communications by restoring computer backup tapes, the panel's chairman said yesterday.

The move increases the likelihood that an untold number of RNC e-mails dealing with official White House business during the first term of the Bush administration -- including many sent or received by former presidential adviser Karl Rove -- will never be recovered, said House Democrats and public records advocates.
The RNC had previously told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that it was attempting to restore e-mails from 2001 to 2003, when the RNC had a policy of purging all e-mails, including those to and from White House officials, after 30 days. But Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) disclosed during a hearing yesterday that the RNC has now said it "has no intention of trying to restore the missing White House e-mails."

"The result is a potentially enormous gap in the historical record," Waxman said, including the buildup to the Iraq war.

Spokesman Danny Diaz said in a statement that the RNC "is fully compliant with the spirit and letter of the law." He declined further comment.

Administration officials have acknowledged that Rove and many other White House officials routinely used RNC accounts for government business, despite rules requiring that they conduct such business through official communications channels. The RNC deleted all e-mails until 2004, when it exempted White House officials from its e-mail purging policy.

About 80 White House aides used RNC accounts for official government business, committee staff members said. Rove, for example, sent or received 140,000 e-mails on RNC servers from 2002 to 2007, and more than half involved official ".gov" accounts, the panel has said.

The RNC dispute is part of a broader debate over whether the Bush administration has complied with long-standing statutory requirements to preserve official White House records -- including those reflecting potentially sensitive policy discussions -- for history and in case of future legal demands.

The committee is investigating allegations that vast stores of official Bush administration e-mails have also gone missing from the White House, which scrapped a Clinton-era archiving system and has struggled with data retention problems.

A former White House technology manager told the committee in statements released yesterday that the Bush administration's e-mail system "was primitive and the risk that data would be lost was high."

Steven McDevitt, who left the White House in 2006, said he supervised an internal study that found hundreds of days in which no electronic messages were stored for one or more White House offices from January 2003 to August 2005. The study stated a range when tallying the total number of days in which an office had no recorded e-mails, from 473 -- which had been previously reported -- to more than 1,000, McDevitt said.

McDevitt also said security was so lax that e-mail could be modified by anyone on the computer network until the middle of 2005.

Administration officials defended their efforts to fix the problems, and said they are still working to locate and identify e-mails reported as missing. "We are very energized about getting to the bottom of this," said Theresa Payton, chief information officer at the Office of Administration.

At the hearing, Payton and GOP lawmakers attacked the 2005 White House study overseen by McDevitt, calling it flawed and unreliable. McDevitt said the 250-page study involved numerous senior technology officials as well as outside contractors.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), the committee's ranking Republican, said in a statement that the missing e-mail allegations are "based on a discredited internal report conveniently leaked to the media." He also said that yesterday's hearing was "less about preserving records and more about resurrecting the spurious claim that the White House 'lost millions of official e-mails.'"

Davis also said, based on a briefing by Payton, that the actual number of days with missing e-mails was 202. "A substantial portion of the so-called 'missing' e-mails appear not to be missing at all, just filed in the wrong digital drawer," Davis said. No other committee member followed up on that allegation during the hearing.
So what is Henry Waxman going to do?

It's not as if Congress wasn't forewarned about Bush's choice of archivists or Bush's assaults on the public's right to know and access to his administrations' documents, both in Washington and Texas.

According to News.com, recovery may be an issue of money and moving obstructionist Republicans on the committee (like Davis and Darrel Issa) out of the way.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Filed Under: What The Hell Were They Thinking?

Security Relaxed At Obama Rally

Democratic Presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) speaks to supporters during a campaign rally at Reunion Arena in Dallas on February 20, 2008. More than 17,000 people filled the building for a chance to see the Illinois senator on his first public appearance in Dallas since announcing his presidential candidacy. (UPI Photo/Robert Hughes)

The Star-Telegram reports:

The Secret Service told Dallas police to stop screening for weapons while people were still arriving at a campaign rally for Barack Obama, a report said.

Police stopped checking people for weapons at the front gates of Reunion Arena more than an hour before the Democratic presidential hopeful appeared on stage Wednesday, the Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram reported.

Police said the order to stop using metal detectors and checking purses and laptop bags constituted a security lapse, the newspaper reported.

Dallas Deputy Police Chief T.W. Lawrence -- who heads the department's homeland security and special operations divisions -- told the Star-Telegram the order had been intended to speed up seating of the more than 17,000 people who came to hear the candidate speak.

Lawrence said he was concerned about the large number of people being let in without being screened, but that the crowd seemed "friendly," the newspaper said.

Several Dallas police officers -- speaking on condition of anonymity because the order came from federal officers -- told the newspaper it was worrying to see so many people get it without even a cursory inspection.

The Star-Telegram said the Secret Service did not return a call seeking comment.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Senate Votes to Expand Spy Powers

Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Lindsay Graham skip the festivities

“Holding all the Democrats together on this,” Senator Harry Reid said of the FISA bill, “is not something that’s doable.”

In a stunning betrayal of their constituents, Democrats in the Senate aided Bush and Republicans in passing the Fisa Amendments Act of 2007 (S.2248), and provided cover for the absent Democratic presidential candidates. The New York Times reports:
After more than a year of wrangling, the Senate handed the White House a major victory on Tuesday by voting to broaden the government’s spy powers and to give legal protection to phone companies that cooperated in President Bush’s program of eavesdropping without warrants.

One by one, the Senate rejected amendments that would have imposed greater civil liberties checks on the government’s surveillance powers. Finally, the Senate voted 68 to 29 to approve legislation that the White House had been pushing for months. Mr. Bush hailed the vote and urged the House to move quickly in following the Senate’s lead.

The outcome in the Senate amounted, in effect, to a broader proxy vote in support of Mr. Bush’s wiretapping program. The wide-ranging debate before the final vote presaged discussion that will play out this year in the presidential and Congressional elections on other issues testing the president’s wartime authority, including secret detentions, torture and Iraq war financing.
Republicans hailed the reworking of the surveillance law as essential to protecting national security, but some Democrats and many liberal advocacy groups saw the outcome as another example of the Democrats’ fears of being branded weak on terrorism.

“Some people around here get cold feet when threatened by the administration,” said Senator Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who leads the Judiciary Committee and who had unsuccessfully pushed a much more restrictive set of surveillance measures.

Among the presidential contenders, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, voted in favor of the final measure, while the two Democrats, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, did not vote. Mr. Obama did oppose immunity on a key earlier motion to end debate. Mrs. Clinton, campaigning in Texas, issued a statement saying she would have voted to oppose the final measure.

The measure extends, for at least six years, many of the broad new surveillance powers that Congress hastily approved last August just before its summer recess. Intelligence officials said court rulings had left dangerous gaps in their ability to intercept terrorist communications.

The bill, which had the strong backing of the White House, allows the government to eavesdrop on large bundles of foreign-based communications on its own authority so long as Americans are not the targets. A secret intelligence court, which traditionally has issued individual warrants before wiretapping began, would review the procedures set up by the executive branch only after the fact to determine whether there were abuses involving Americans.

“This is a dramatic restructuring” of surveillance law, said Michael Sussmann, a former Justice Department intelligence lawyer who represents several telecommunication companies. “And the thing that’s so dramatic about this is that you’ve removed the court review. There may be some checks after the fact, but the administration is picking the targets.”

The Senate plan also adds one provision considered critical by the White House: shielding phone companies from any legal liability for their roles in the eavesdropping program approved by Mr. Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks. The program allowed the National Security Agency to eavesdrop without warrants on the international communications of Americans suspected of having ties to Al Qaeda.

AT&T and other major phone companies are facing some 40 lawsuits from customers who claim their actions were illegal. The Bush administration maintains that if the suits are allowed to continue in court, they could bankrupt the companies and discourage them from cooperating in future intelligence operations.

The House approved a surveillance bill in November that intentionally left out immunity for the phone companies, and leaders from the two chambers will now have to find a way to work out significant differences between their two bills.

Democratic opponents, led by Senators Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, argued that the plan effectively rewarded phone companies by providing them with legal insulation for actions that violated longstanding law and their own privacy obligations to their customers. But immunity supporters said the phone carriers acted out of patriotism after the Sept. 11 attacks in complying with what they believed in good faith was a legally binding order from the president.

“This, I believe, is the right way to go for the security of the nation,” said Senator John D. Rockefeller, the West Virginia Democrat who leads the intelligence committee. His support for the plan, after intense negotiations with the White House and his Republican colleagues, was considered critical to its passage but drew criticism from civil liberties groups because of $42,000 in contributions that Mr. Rockefeller received last year from AT&T and Verizon executives.

Senator Olympia J. Snowe, a Maine Republican on the intelligence panel, said the bill struck the right balance between protecting the rights of Americans and protecting the country “from terrorism and other foreign threats.”

Democratic opponents, who six months ago vowed to undo the results of the August surveillance vote, said they were deeply disappointed by the defection of 19 Democrats who backed the bill.

Mr. Dodd, who spoke on the floor for more than 20 hours in recent weeks in an effort to stall the bill, said future generations would view the vote as a test of whether the country heeds “the rule of law or the rule of men.”

But with Democrats splintered, Mr. Dodd acknowledged that the national security argument had won the day. “Unfortunately, those who are advocating this notion that you have to give up liberties to be more secure are apparently prevailing,” he said. “They’re convincing people that we’re at risk either politically, or at risk as a nation.”

There was a measure of frustration in the voice of Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, as he told reporters during a break in the daylong debate, “Holding all the Democrats together on this, we’ve learned a long time ago, is not something that’s doable.”

Senate Republicans predict that they will be able to persuade the House to include immunity in the final bill, especially now that the White House has agreed to give House lawmakers access to internal documents on the wiretapping program. But House Democrats vowed Tuesday to continue opposing immunity.

Congress faces a Saturday deadline for extending the current law, but Democrats want to extend the deadline for two weeks to allow more time for talks. The White House has said it opposes a further extension.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats hope to put some pressure on Republicans on Wednesday over another security-related issue by bringing up an intelligence measure that would apply Army field manual prohibitions against torture to civilian agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency.

Republicans plan to try to eliminate that provision, a vote that Democrats say will force Republicans to declare whether they condone torture. Democrats also say it could show the gap between Mr. McCain, who has opposed torture, and the administration on the issue.

“We know how we would feel if a member of the armed services captured by the enemy were, for example, waterboarded,” Mr. Reid said. “So I think that we’re headed in the right direction, and I hope that we’ll get Republican support on this.”
Senate roll call vote here.

Dancin' Cheek-to-Cheek

First Time Ever: Gorillas Photographed Mating Face-To-Face

Western gorillas 'Leah' and unidentified male in Mbeli Bai in the Republic of Congo.
(Credit: Copyright Thomas Breuer – WCS/MPI-EVA)

From Science Daily:
Scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society and Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology have released the first known photographs of gorillas performing face-to-face copulation in the wild. This is the first time that western gorillas have been observed and photographed mating in such a manner.

The photographs were part of a study conducted in a forest clearing in Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park in the Republic of Congo that appeared in a recent issue of The Gorilla Gazette.

"Understanding the behavior of our cousins the great apes sheds light on the evolution of behavioral traits in our own species and our ancestors," said Thomas Breuer, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and WCS and lead author of the study. "It is also interesting that this same adult female has been noted for innovative behaviors before."

The western lowland gorilla is listed as Critically Endangered as a result of hunting by humans, habitat destruction, and health threats such as the Ebola virus.

The female gorilla in the photograph, nicknamed "Leah" by researchers, made history in 2005 when she was observed using tools -- another never-before-seen behavior for her kind in the wild. Breuer and others witnessed Leah using a stick to test the depth of a pool of water before wading into it in Mbeli Bai, where researchers have been monitoring the gorilla population since 1995.

Researchers say that few primates mate in a face-to-face position, known technically as ventro-ventral copulation; most primate species copulate in what's known as the dorso-ventral position, with both animals facing in the same direction. Besides humans, only bonobos have been known to frequently employ ventro-ventral mating positions. On a few occasions, mountain gorillas have been observed in ventro-ventral positions, but never photographed. Western gorillas in captivity have been known to mate face-to-face, but not in the wild, which makes this observation a noteworthy first.

"Our current knowledge of wild western gorillas is very limited, and this report provides information on various aspects of their sexual behavior," added Breuer, whose study is funded by the Brevard Zoo, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, Max Planck Society, Sea World & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund, Toronto Zoo, Wildlife Conservation Society and Woodland Park Zoo. "We can't say how common this manner of mating is, but it has never been observed with western gorillas in the forest. It is fascinating to see similarities between gorilla and human sexual behavior demonstrated by our observation."

Scientists estimate that western gorillas have declined 60 percent in recent years due to habitat loss, illegal hunting, and Ebola hemorrhagic fever. The Wildlife Conservation Society, which is the only organization working to protect all four gorilla sub-species (also including the Cross River Gorilla, the mountain gorilla, and the Grauer's gorilla), has been studying gorillas and other wildlife in the Republic of Congo since the 1980s. In 1993, the Congolese Government, working in tandem with technical assistance from WCS, established Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park.