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The Bush administration has lodged what is being described as an unprecedented assertion of White House authority in its effort to fight scrutiny of the firing of U.S. attorneys. The Washington Post reports the White House is insisting the Justice Department will never be allowed to pursue congressional contempt charges once the president invokes executive privilege. Democrats are preparing contempt proceedings against current and former administration officials over the White House’s refusal to release documents and allow testimony. Federal law requires contempt citations to go through the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. But the White House says Congress has no authority to force a U.S. attorney to pursue the charges if the president decides executive privilege covers testimony or documents. A senior administration official said the White House stance would make any congressional contempt citations “a futile and purely political act.” In response, House Oversight Chair Henry Waxman said, “[This] makes a mockery of the ideal that no one is above the law. … I suppose the next step would be just disbanding the Justice Department.”
Top military and administration officials have announced a new date for when they want Congress to assess the war in Iraq: November. On Thursday, the commander of daily operations in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, said a Pentagon report set for September would be too soon to assess the actual conditions on the ground. President Bush and Republican leaders repeatedly cited the September date in their pleas that Congress reject legislation setting a timetable for a partial withdrawal. The measure collapsed this week after Democrats failed to overcome a Republican filibuster.
Meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker urged lawmakers to downplay judging the war by the benchmarks they have set. Speaking from Baghdad, Crocker said that in many cases the benchmarks “do not serve as reliable measures of everything that is important.” Crocker also gave his assessment of the situation on the ground.
U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker: “And if there is one word I would use to sum up the atmosphere in Iraq — on the streets, in the countryside, in the neighborhoods and at the national level — that word would be fear.”
Meanwhile, in the House the antiwar Out of Iraq caucus has announced it will no longer vote for any war funding unless the money is spent exclusively on withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. In a letter delivered to President Bush on Thursday, 70 congressmembers write: “We agree with a clear and growing majority of the American people who are opposed to continued, open-ended U.S. military operations in Iraq, and believe it is unwise and unacceptable for you to continue to unilaterally impose these staggering costs and the soaring debt on Americans currently and for generations to come.” Texas Congressmember Ron Paul was the lone Republican to sign on.
A federal judge has dismissed the lawsuit brought by Valerie Plame Wilson and Joseph Wilson against Vice President Dick Cheney and other top administration officials. On Thursday, U.S. District Judge John Bates ruled Cheney, senior White House adviser Karl Rove and then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage can’t be held liable for the administration’s disclosure of Plame’s identity. The suit accused the White House of deliberately outing Plame in retaliation for her husband’s public criticism of the motives for invading Iraq. In a statement, Joseph Wilson said: “We brought this suit because we strongly believe that politicizing intelligence ultimately serves only to undermine the security of our nation. Today’s decision is just the first step in what we have always known would be a long legal battle.”
Less than a month after stepping down as British prime minister, Tony Blair has begun his new job as top envoy for the Middle East quartet of the U.S., Russia, European Union and U.N. Blair’s role will be limited to imposing reforms on the Palestinian government. He spoke Thursday at a meeting in Portugal.
Tony Blair: “It is imperative that we succeed, and I am prepared to try to help in whatever way I can. And I think that in the end that is the most important attitude for me to carry into this job, and I also think that there is a real will and desire if people can find the right way forward to get to that two-state solution that people want, and just imagine for a moment, if this process were moving forward again, just think how much hope there will be.”
The Bush administration has already announced Blair will make no effort to end Israel’s attacks on the Gaza Strip or curb its settlement growth in the West Bank, nor try to push through an agreement on a final-status peace deal. Blair’s first announcement was to reiterate the Quartet would have no involvement with Hamas, the winners of last year’s Palestinian elections.
Blair’s first day came as newly released documents showed media magnate Rupert Murdoch had previously unknown extensive access to Blair during his time in office. According to the British Cabinet office, Blair and Murdoch had six telephone discussions over a 20-month period, all at pivotal moments of Blair’s time as prime minister. Three of those conversations were held in the week leading up to the U.S. and British invasion of Iraq in March of 2003 — including one call on the day before the attack. Blair phoned Murdoch in each of the conversations. Murdoch’s media holdings, including several newspapers and the Fox News network, have strongly backed the Iraq War. In his diaries, Blair’s then-communications director Alastair Campbell said Blair was afraid the media would find out about Murdoch’s influence. Campbell wrote: “It was faintly obscene that we even had to worry what [Murdoch] thought.” A deputy to Campbell called Murdoch “the 24th member of the [Blair] Cabinet.” The British government had long resisted releasing the documents but finally relented the day after Blair stepped down last month.
Murdoch is currently involved in a controversial bid to buy The Wall Street Journal. The board of parent company Dow Jones has backed the deal, which now awaits final approval from controlling shareholders. On Thursday, Dow board of directors member Dieter von Holtzbrinck announced his resignation over the board’s endorsement of the sale. In a statement, von Holtzbrinck said: “I’m very worried that Dow Jones unique journalistic values will long-term strongly suffer after the proposed sale.”
Newly released documents show top Federal Emergency Management Agency officials have suppressed internal warnings about dangerous levels of toxic chemicals in trailers inhabited by Hurricane Katrina evacuees. Several emails show FEMA field workers warned the evacuees were living amidst levels of potentially cancerous formaldehyde gas that was 75 times the recommended maximum for U.S. workers. As many as 120,000 families lived in the suspected trailers. Hundreds have complained of health effects. But the emails show FEMA officials were only concerned with avoiding any legal liability for the evacuees’ potential health problems. Three months after the complaints surfaced publicly, a FEMA official wrote agency lawyers had advised against carrying out tests because doing so “would imply FEMA’s ownership of this issue.” On June 15, 2006, FEMA lawyer Patrick Preston wrote: “Do not initiate any testing until we give the OK. … Once you get results and should they indicate some problem, the clock is running on our duty to respond to them.” Eleven days later, an evacuee who had complained about the chemicals was found dead in his trailer. In a subsequent conference call, FEMA attorneys rejected calls for an independent investigation into his death and wider trailer tests.
In Darfur, a team of international geologists say they’ve discovered the imprint of a vast underground lake that could help put an end to the mass killings there. Researchers say the so-called “mega lake” is three times the size of Lebanon. Farouk El-Baz of Boston University’s Center for Remote Sensing said the potential water source could be the key to peace.
Farouk El-Baz: “What most people don’t really know is that the fight, the war, the instability in Darfur, is all based on the lack of water, simply put, nothing else. So now, if you find water for the farmers, if you find water, in addition to that to the nomads, if you find water in addition to these two for agricultural production, to feed them, to give them grain, then you resolve the problem completely.”
Up to 400,000 people have been killed in the conflict between Sudanese-backed militias and rebel groups. In a report last month the U.N. Development Program said widespread environmental problems are the root of the violence.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has announced the government is set to begin building of a controversial Texas border wall later this year. In an interview with the Houston Chronicle, Chertoff said he won’t rule out using powers of eminent domain to seize land for the wall along Mexico’s border. The wall plans have drawn heavy local opposition. Officials say they hope to have at least 150 miles of wall in place by the end of next year.
And the House has voted to reject President Bush’s plan to cut more than $400 million in funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The final vote was 357 to 72.