Michael Isikoff

Stories by Michael Isikoff

  • Doing His Civic Duty

    Don’t ever accuse Robert Mueller of shirking his civic duty. Smack in the middle of last week’s constitutional crisis over the FBI raid of Rep. William Jefferson’s Capitol Hill office, the conscientous FBI director didn’t show up at the office one morning. The reason: he was down at a Washington, D.C., courtroom patiently waiting with other citizens who had been called for jury duty.Much to the surprise of top bureau officials, Mueller didn’t immediately get struck for progovernment bias either. Even though he showed up late for his jury duty call on May 25 (he had a valid excuse: he needed to give President Bush his regular morning terrorism briefing), Mueller was processed into the jury pool and made it through the first round of dismissals, according to FBI spokesman John Miller. He was then assigned to a murder case. He even took his seat in the jury box to be questioned in the voir dire process by lawyers in the case. Mueller said he could be “fair and impartial as to the...
  • A Fresh Focus on Cheney

    The role of Vice President Dick Cheney in the criminal case stemming from the outing of White House critic Joseph Wilson's CIA wife is likely to get fresh attention as a result of newly disclosed notes showing that Cheney personally asked whether Wilson had been sent by his wife on a "junket" to Africa.Cheney's notes, written on the margins of a July 6, 2003, New York Times op-ed column by former ambassador Joseph Wilson, were included as part of a filing Friday night by prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald in the perjury and obstruction case against ex-Cheney chief of staff I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby.The notes, Fitzgerald said in his filing, show that Cheney and Libby were "acutely focused" on the Wilson column and on rebutting his criticisms of the White House's handling of pre-Iraq war intelligence. In the column, which created a firestorm after its publication, Wilson wrote that he had been dispatched by the CIA without pay to Niger in February 2002 to investigate an intelligence report...
  • What About a Stretch Limo?

    The disclosure by federal prosecutors of more than 200 e-mails from lobbyist Jack Abramoff sheds new light on how the disgraced Washington power broker worked tirelessly to provide perks and favors to a former Bush administration official in a quest for favorable treatment from the government.Abramoff, the e-mails show, bombarded then General Services Administration chief of staff David Safavian—who later worked in a senior position at the White House—with offers of sports tickets, golf outings, a lavish overseas trip and a lucrative job with his prestigious lobbying firm. At the same time, the e-mails show, Safavian offered to set up meetings and briefings for Abramoff and his associates and provide insider information that could have potentially benefitted his lobbying clients. Although there is no evidence that any of the deals actually came off, prosecutors say they illustrate how Safavian, who is due to stand trial next month on charges of lying to the FBI, “spent his energies...
  • The Leaker in Chief?

    George W. Bush likes to be seen as a man who dwells above the pettiness of political warfare. He has said he doesn't read the newspapers and shrugs off media criticism as carping of the chattering classes. Especially since 9/11, he has said that he looks to a higher power for guidance. He once threatened to stop sharing information with Capitol Hill if lawmakers didn't put a stop to leaking. "There are too many leaks of classified information," he told reporters in September 2003, "and if there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is."Last week a video clip of Bush making that statement became cable-TV wallpaper.Bush, it appeared, was not above the old leaking game after all. The president who, as a younger man, once played the role of loyalty enforcer in his father's White House had not forgotten how to play hardball. According to a filing from the prosecutor in the Valerie Plame leak investigation, Lewis (Scooter) Libby, who has been indicted for lying in the...
  • Supreme Court: Detainees' Rights--Scalia Speaks His Mind

    The Supreme Court this week will hear arguments in a big case: whether to allow the Bush administration to try Guantánamo detainees in special military tribunals with limited rights for the accused. But Justice Antonin Scalia has already spoken his mind about some of the issues in the matter. During an unpublicized March 8 talk at the University of Freiberg in Switzerland, Scalia dismissed the idea that the detainees have rights under the U.S. Constitution or international conventions, adding he was "astounded" at the "hypocritical" reaction in Europe to Gitmo. "War is war, and it has never been the case that when you captured a combatant you have to give them a jury trial in your civil courts," he says on a tape of the talk reviewed by NEWSWEEK. "Give me a break." Challenged by one audience member about whether the Gitmo detainees don't have protections under the Geneva or human-rights conventions, Scalia shot back: "If he was captured by my army on a battlefield, that is where he...
  • Terror Case: 'Bizarre' Testimony

    The justice department's case against accused 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui is in trouble. The Feds also have a problem in another case. The credibility of the FBI's star witness against a Pakistani-American accused of Qaeda ties is under fire after he testified he saw Ayman al-Zawahiri at a mosque attended by the de-fendant in Lodi, Calif., in 1999. The testimony by informant Naseem Khan, who has been paid $250,000 by the bureau, startled counterterrorism experts: Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's chief deputy, was in Afghanistan at the time, under indictment for the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa. Jack Cloonan, a former FBI agent who had tracked Zawahiri for years, told news-week the testimony was "bizarre" and "seriously wrong." While conceding "there may have been some puffery" by the informant, a Justice official who asked not to be ID'd because of legal sensitivities said prosecutors are still confident about the case against Hamid Hayat, 23, accused of attending a...
  • At Issue: Classified Leaks

    The upcoming trial of two pro-Israeli lobbyists accused of sharing classified U.S. government information with Israeli diplomats is causing anxiety within the State Department in the wake of a subpoena to a top U.S. diplomat who now serves as Washington’s deputy ambassador to Iraq.The diplomat, David Satterfield, was one of a number of high level U.S. government officials—including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, national security advisor Stephen Hadley and national security advisor for near east affairs Elliot Abrams—who were recently subpoenaed by lawyers representing the accused lobbyists, Steven J. Rosen and Keith Weissman, both of whom worked for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC.) Both have pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiring to communicate national defense information.The subpoenas underscore the high stakes for the Justice Department in prosecuting the lobbyists under the World War I-era Espionage Act—a rarely used and vaguely-worded law that...
  • The Cia Leak: Plame Was Still Covert

    Newly released court papers could put holes in the defense of Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, in the Valerie Plame leak case. Lawyers for Libby, and White House allies, have repeatedly questioned whether Plame, the wife of White House critic Joe Wilson, really had covert status when she was outed to the media in July 2003. But special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald found that Plame had indeed done "covert work overseas" on counterproliferation matters in the past five years, and the CIA "was making specific efforts to conceal" her identity, according to newly released portions of a judge's opinion. (A CIA spokesman at the time is quoted as saying Plame was "unlikely" to take further trips overseas, though.) Fitzgerald concluded he could not charge Libby for violating a 1982 law banning the outing of a covert CIA agent; apparently he lacked proof Libby was aware of her covert status when he talked about her three times with New York Times reporter Judith...
  • The Other Big Brother

    The demonstration seemed harmless enough. Late on a June afternoon in 2004, a motley group of about 10 peace activists showed up outside the Houston headquarters of Halliburton, the giant military contractor once headed by Vice President Dick Cheney. They were there to protest the corporation's supposed "war profiteering." The demonstrators wore papier-mache masks and handed out free peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches to Halliburton employees as they left work. The idea, according to organizer Scott Parkin, was to call attention to allegations that the company was overcharging on a food contract for troops in Iraq. "It was tongue-in-street political theater," Parkin says.But that's not how the Pentagon saw it. To U.S. Army analysts at the top-secret Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA), the peanut-butter protest was regarded as a potential threat to national security. Created three years ago by the Defense Department, CIFA's role is "force protection"--tracking threats and...
  • Terror Watch: Did it Work?

    The Bush administration says its phone spying program yielded information that helped to foil at least two terror attacks. Some critics aren't convinced.
  • Sources of Confusion

    Who was Bob Novak's source? It's a parlor game any Washington insider or media junkie can play--and most do. Novak, a conservative columnist sometimes called "the Prince of Darkness," was the journalist who kicked off the whole Valerie Plame imbroglio that has obsessed Washington and so far resulted in the indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney's former top aide, Scooter Libby, for perjury. It was Novak who identified Plame as the CIA operative who helped send her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, to Africa to check on reports that Iraq was trying to buy uranium from the country of Niger. Depending on whom you believe, the leak was (1) an insidious smear by the White House to retaliate against a critic of the Iraq war or (2) mildly interesting gossip.The game became more intriguing last week when the legendary Washington Post investigative reporter Bob Woodward was dragged in. Woodward revealed that he had been told about Plame and her role before Novak had, but that in...
  • Profiling: How the FBI Tracks Eco-Terror Suspects

    The FBI collected detailed data on political activities and Web postings of suspected members of a tiny environmentalist commune in southern California two years ago as part of a high-profile counterterrorism probe, bureau records show. Facing further new disclosures about the matter, the bureau last week agreed to settle a lawsuit and to pay $100,000 to Josh Connole, a 27-year-old ex-commune member who had been arrested--and later released--on suspicions he was one of the eco-terrorists who had firebombed SUV dealerships in the summer of 2003. But the bureau's rare concession of error, expected to be publicly announced soon, could bring new attention to what civil-liberties groups say is a disturbing trend: the stepped-up monitoring of domestic political activity by FBI counter-terror agents.Connole, an anti-Iraq-war protester, had been living in a Pomona, Calif., vegan commune when a Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) targeted him after arson attacks on four nearby Hummer dealers-...
  • Karl Rove: Last-Minute Evidence

    Special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald's decision not to indict deputy White House chief of staff Karl Rove in the CIA leak case followed a flurry of last-minute negotiations between the prosecutor and Rove's defense lawyer, Robert Luskin. On Tuesday afternoon, Fitzgerald and the chief FBI agent on the case, Jack Eckenrode, visited the offices of the D.C. law firm where Luskin works to meet with the defense lawyer. Two sources close to Rove who asked not to be identified because the probe is ongoing said Luskin presented evidence that gave the prosecutor "pause." One small item was a July 11, 2003, e-mail Rove sent to former press aide Adam Levine saying Levine could come up to his office to discuss a personnel issue. The e-mail was at 11:17 a.m., minutes after Rove had gotten off the phone with Matt Cooper--the same conversation (in which White House critic Joe Wilson's wife's work for the CIA was discussed) that Rove originally failed to disclose to the grand jury. Levine, with whom...
  • Karl Rove's Consigliere

    When Karl Rove emerged after four grueling hours before a federal grand jury in Washington last Friday, his lawyer Robert Luskin made one more attempt to figure out just where his client stood. He approached special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald outside the hearing room and asked if Rove's fortunes had changed in the two-year-old inquiry of who leaked the name of CIA agent Valerie Plame. But Fitzgerald, ever tight-lipped, wasn't giving anything up. He curtly told the lawyer that "no decisions" had been made, Luskin says.That left Luskin, the brainy battle-tested Washington litigator hired to represent the most powerful of the president's men, in a bind. All over Washington, impatient reporters were waiting to be fed. So Luskin--whose shaved head, gold earring and Ducati Monster motorcycle make him something of an odd duck among Washington's A-list attorneys--did what any savvy trial lawyer would do: he tried to spin Fitzgerald's nonanswer to Rove's advantage. In a carefully worded...
  • CIA Leak: Karl Rove and the Case of the Missing E-mail

    The White House's handling of a potentially crucial e-mail sent by senior aide Karl Rove two years ago set off a chain of events that has led special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald to summon Rove for a fourth grand jury appearance this week. His return has created heightened concern among White House officials and their allies that Fitzgerald may be preparing to bring indictments when a federal grand jury that has been investigating the leak of a CIA agent's identity expires at the end of October. Robert Luskin, Rove's lawyer, tells NEWSWEEK that, in his last conversations with Fitzgerald, the prosecutor assured Luskin "he has not made any decisions."But lawyers close to the case, who asked not to be identified because it's ongoing, say Fitzgerald appears to be focusing in part on discrepancies in testimony between Rove and Time reporter Matt Cooper about their conversation of July 11, 2003. In Cooper's account, Rove told him the wife of White House critic Joseph Wilson worked at the...
  • The Right: With Friends Like These

    After Sandra Day O'Connor resigned from the Supreme Court in July, the White House reached out to an informal network of conservative lawyers and academics to help build support for the next nominee. The group of about three dozen worked smoothly during the confirmation battle over John Roberts, plotting strategy in conference calls with administration officials and penning newspaper op-eds. But last week members of the "brain trust," as one called it, rebelled. In a string of sometimes testy e-mail exchanges among themselves, the lawyers agonized over the selection of White House counsel Harriet Miers. They also debated vigorously whether they should go public with their dismay, or simply say nothing."We are keeping quiet. And hiding from the media," wrote Abigail Thernstrom, the Bush-designated vice chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and a prominent critic of affirmative-action policies, in an e-mail copied to other members of the network. "As for undermining trust in the...
  • CIA LEAK: 'AWKWARD' TALK HELPS FREE MILLER FROM J

    New York Times reporter Judy Miller broke her silence and agreed to testify before a federal grand jury last week. This followed tense, often acrimonious negotiations that began after special Justice Department prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald signaled he intended to reimpanel a new grand jury--a move that could have kept Miller in jail for another year and a half, say two lawyers close to the case who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the talks. A federal judge sent Miller to jail on July 8 for refusing to talk about her conversations with her source, who, it was disclosed last week, was Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis (Scooter) Libby. Fitzgerald indicated he would not let the matter drop when the grand jury, investigating the leak of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity, expires in late October. Instead, he would keep his long-running probe open with a new grand jury. The sobering prospect spurred fevered negotiations among lawyers to...
  • Delay: Is He Home Free?

    Has Tom DeLay dodged a bullet? Texans for a Republican Majority--a group he organized and raised money for--was indicted last week for soliciting $120,000 in corporate donations to influence state elections. But the indictment makes no mention of DeLay, and Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle's two-year campaign-fund-raising probe is expected to wind down soon without bringing charges against the House majority leader, according to lawyers close to the case who declined to be identified because of legal sensitivities. Earle doesn't plan to refer evidence to the prosecutor in DeLay's home district either, an Earle spokesman says. DeLay's office released a statement saying he "voluntarily talked" to Earle's office. But one of the lawyers close to the case says DeLay this summer put off attempts by Earle's office to question him, citing scheduling conflicts. Then Earle's office prepared a subpoena--after which DeLay agreed to a secret 90-minute interview in Austin in mid...
  • ABRAMOFF: MORE TROUBLE AHEAD?

    The justice department played hardball last week with former superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, in part because of concerns he might flee to Israel. Hours before Abramoff was indicted on fraud charges in Miami last Thursday, FBI agents tried to arrest him at his Maryland home. But he'd already left for Los Angeles. Agents tracked him down on his cell phone and ordered him to surrender to the local FBI office. When Abramoff did, later that day, he was handcuffed, thrown into jail, then released last Friday on a $2.2 million bond.Abramoff's treatment contrasted with that given his co-defendant, Adam Kidan, who was allowed to show up in court on his own. A senior Justice official says one reason was that some of Abramoff's friends and former colleagues have moved to Israel. "There was concern he could relocate to another country," says the official, who asked not to be identified because the matter involves a pending case. Neal Sonnett, Abramoff's lawyer, called the Feds' tactics "mean...
  • EXCLUSIVE: SECRET MEMO--SEND TO BE TORTURED

    An FBI agent warned superiors in a memo three years ago that U.S. officials who discussed plans to ship terror suspects to foreign nations that practice torture could be prosecuted for conspiring to violate U.S. law, according to a copy of the memo obtained by NEWSWEEK. The strongly worded memo, written by an FBI supervisor then assigned to Guantanamo, is the latest in a series of documents that have recently surfaced reflecting unease among some government lawyers and FBI agents over tactics being used in the war on terror. This memo appears to be the first that directly questions the legal premises of the Bush administration policy of "extraordinary rendition"--a secret program under which terror suspects are transferred to foreign countries that have been widely criticized for practicing torture.In a memo forwarded to a senior FBI lawyer on Nov. 27, 2002, a supervisory special agent from the bureau's behavioral analysis unit offered a legal analysis of interrogation techniques...
  • Terror Watch: Void at Justice

    Does a Senate Democrat's desire for answers about alleged Gitmo abuse trump the Justice Department's need to fill an important post?
  • LEAK INVESTIGATION: THE RUSSERT DEAL--WHAT IT REV

    A deal that special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald cut last year for NBC "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert's testimony may shed light on the emerging White House defense in the Valerie Plame leak case. The agreement between Fitzgerald and NBC avoided a court fight over a subpoena for Russert's testimony about his July 2003 talk with Dick Cheney's top aide, Lewis (Scooter) Libby. The deal was not, as many assumed, for Russert's testimony about what Libby told him: it focused on what Russert told Libby. An NBC statement last year said Russert did not know of Plame, wife of ex-ambassador Joseph Wilson, or that she worked at the CIA, and "he did not provide that information to Libby." This now appears significant: in pursuing Russert's testimony, Fitzgerald was testing statements by White House aides--reportedly including Libby--that they learned about Wilson's wife from reporters, not classified documents. Libby's lawyer did not respond to requests for comment. A source close to Karl Rove,...
  • Terror Watch: Bomb Probe

    As British police uncover new leads, the Blair government is trying to avoid a U.S.-style probe into whether the London attacks could have been prevented.
  • Terror Watch: Worldwide Conspiracy?

    Investigators probing the London bombings are searching for a British suspect who may have ties to other terror plots in the U.K. and America.
  • Terror Watch: Global Plot?

    Investigators are examining whether the explosives used in the London blasts came from foreign military stockpiles. Plus, more on Gitmo interrogations.
  • THE ROVE FACTOR?

    Its legal appeals exhausted, Time magazine agreed last week to turn over reporter Matthew Cooper's e-mails and computer notes to a special prosecutor investigating the leak of an undercover CIA agent's identity. The case has been the subject of press controversy for two years. Saying "we are not above the law," Time Inc. Editor in Chief Norman Pearlstine decided to comply with a grand-jury subpoena to turn over documents related to the leak. But Cooper (and a New York Times reporter, Judith Miller) is still refusing to testify and faces jail this week.At issue is the story of a CIA-sponsored trip taken by former ambassador (and White House critic) Joseph Wilson to investigate reports that Iraq was seeking to buy uranium from the African country of Niger. "Some government officials have noted to Time in interviews... that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, is a CIA official who monitors the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction," said Cooper's July 2003 Time online article.Now the...
  • Terror Watch: Turning Up the Heat

    Judith Miller's jailing and Matthew Cooper's testimony could solve the mystery of the Plame case--and embarrass the Bush administration
  • EXCLUSIVE: A SHARP NEW LOOK AT 'MATERIAL WITNESS'

    Since 9/11, the Justice Department has used a little-known legal tactic to secretly lock up at least 70 terror suspects--almost all of them Muslim men--and hold them without charges as "material witnesses" to crimes, in some cases for months. A report to be released this week by two civil-liberties groups finds nearly 90 percent of these suspects were never linked to any terrorism acts, resulting in prosecutors and FBI agents issuing at least 13 apologies for wrongful arrest.The post-9/11 decision to aggressively use "material witness" warrants to detain suspects has been defended by Justice officials as a legitimate tool to root out possible terror cells. (A federal law, though used sparingly in the past, permits detention of witnesses who might have "material" info about a crime--even with no evidence they committed any crimes themselves.) The practice has been shrouded. Citing national security, Justice has refused to disclose virtually any info about these cases, not even...
  • DOCUMENTS: ANTI-GAMBLING FUNDS--FROM GAMBLING?

    The Senate Indian affairs committee is planning to release new e-mails and documents that could cause discomfort in GOP circles. The panel obtained the papers as part of its probe into onetime Washington superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, who is accused of defrauding his Indian tribal clients. Some documents to be aired at a hearing this week involve GOP activists Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed, two longtime Abramoff pals with close ties to the White House. Norquist's nonprofit Americans for Tax Reform got $1.1 million in 1999 from one of Abramoff's top clients, the Choctaw Indians, who run casinos in Mississippi. Norquist, at the urging of Abramoff and Reed, then sent the money to religious conservative groups fighting pro-gaming efforts in Alabama. (The Choctaws saw the Alabama proposals as a competitive threat.) The deal helped both Abramoff's gambling client and Reed, a public opponent of gambling whose consulting firm was hired by the conservative groups to run the Alabama anti...
  • Terror Watch: Antiterror Victory?

    Swiss prosecutors have decided to pursue a criminal case against a Saudi businessman accused by the United States of financially supporting Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.