Michael Isikoff

Stories by Michael Isikoff

  • WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE...

    Jack Abramoff was somber, bitter and feeling betrayed. Once a Washington superlobbyist, Abramoff is now the target of a Justice Department criminal probe of allegations that he defrauded American Indian tribes of tens of millions of dollars in fees. As stories of his alleged excess dribble out--including the emergence of e-mails showing he derisively referred to his Native American clients as "monkeys" and "idiots"--some of Abramoff's old friends have abandoned him and treated him like a pariah. They claim they knew nothing of his questionable lobbying tactics. So last week, glumly sitting at his corner table at Signatures, the tony downtown restaurant he owns that remains his last redoubt, Abramoff lashed out in frustration."Everybody is lying," Abramoff told a former colleague. There are e-mails and records that will implicate others, he said. He was noticeably caustic about House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. For years, nobody on Washington's K Street corridor was closer to DeLay...
  • A WICKED CURVEBALL

    When a Senate panel released a report last year on the disastrously bad intelligence on Iraq, it included an intriguing e-mail that showed how intensely the administration was looking for damning evidence against Saddam. The e-mail, written by a senior CIA official, addressed a debate that the agency's analysts were having about Curveball, an erratic Iraqi emigre who claimed to have seen Saddam's supposed mobile biological-weapons labs. The CIA had evidence that Curveball was a shameless fabricator months before Secretary of State Colin Powell cited the Iraqi's reports before the United Nations. But in the Feb. 4, 2003, e-mail--written a day before Powell's U.N. appearance--the senior CIA official sharply rebuked one of those skeptical analysts. "Keep in mind the fact that this war's going to happen regardless of what Curve Ball said or didn't say and that the Powers That Be probably aren't terribly interested in whether Curve Ball knows what he's talking about," the CIA official...
  • Terror Watch: A Bureau Bungle?

    An apparent setback in an alleged Russian espionage case may raise more questions for a besieged FBI.
  • INTELLIGENCE: A WARNING TO CHENEY ABOUT TERROR--IN 1976

    A White House aide warns of growing terror threats and urges the president to act. "It is impossible," the aide writes in a memo, "to rule out the possibility of a major terrorist attack in the United States." It could have been written during the early Bush administration when counterterror adviser Richard Clarke was warning that Al Qaeda was poised to strike. In fact, it was 29 years ago, when Gerald Ford was president, though the memo's recipient is still around: Dick Cheney, then Ford's chief of staff. According to an internal study written last year for the 9/11 Commission, Cheney and other top White House aides paid little attention and never responded to the memo's recommendation to "strengthen Executive branch efforts to combat terrorism."The previously unknown memo to Cheney was cited in a lengthy review of U.S. counterterror policies prepared by historian Timothy Naftali. (Naftali will publish his findings this spring in "Blind Spot: The Secret History of American...
  • Terror Watch: Nixon and Dixon

    After his secretary conveyed psychic Jeane Dixon's prophecies about terrorism, president Nixon ordered Henry Kissinger and others to prepare for attacks.
  • MONEY: SO WHERE DID IT GO?

    The FBI is trying to trace what happened to $2.5 million in payments to a conservative Washington think tank that were routed to accounts controlled by two lobbyists with close ties to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, NEWSWEEK has learned. The payments to the National Center for Public Policy Research were meant for a PR campaign promoting Indian gaming, center officials said. But internal e-mails obtained by NEWSWEEK show the lobbyists, Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon, DeLay's former press secretary, never documented any work performed or explained what they did with the money despite repeated requests. "We're disappointed and frustrated," said Amy Ridenour, the center's president. The group's records have been subpoenaed by a federal grand jury. One focus of the FBI probe, legal sources say, is whether the payments, as well as tens of millions of dollars in other fees collected by the two lobbyists from Indian tribes, were used for political contributions or to pay for trips and...
  • TORTURE: BUSH'S NOMINEE MAY BE 'DOA'

    A Pentagon report last week absolved top Defense officials of any blame for abuse of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan and Iraq. But the inquiries--and the political fallout--are not over. NEWSWEEK has learned that an investigation by the U.S. Southern Command in Miami has confirmed some of the allegations in recently disclosed e-mails by FBI agents, reporting that military interrogators sexually humiliated prisoners at Gitmo. The inquiry largely concerns a small group of mostly female interrogators who say they were urged by superiors to be "creative" in late 2002 when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld expressed frustration about the lack of actionable intelligence being gleaned from prisoners at the base. That may have led some interrogators to take liberties, officials said. In one instance, investigators have found evidence that a male interrogator pinned down a Gitmo prisoner while female colleagues "rubbed up against the guy" and sexually taunted him, according to a...
  • Terror Watch: Terror Threat?

    Unless the Blair government can win approval for new legislation, a little-noticed British court decision could soon lead to the release of Al Qaeda-linked suspects.
  • A TANGLED WEB

    The confession came quickly, and it sounded damning. After a few days of allegedly rough interrogation, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali--a soft-spoken high-school valedictorian from the Washington, D.C., suburbs--either cracked or simply told his questioners what they wanted to hear. While studying in the holy city of Medina, Saudi Arabia, Abu Ali said, he had met with a Qaeda operative and offered to set up a sleeper cell in the United States to organize terror attacks. He wanted to be like September 11 ringleader Muhammad Atta, Abu Ali added in his confession. The young Muslim American even talked about an assassination plot. The purported target: President George W. Bush. Abu Ali allegedly suggested that Bush could either be shot on the street or blown up in a car-bomb attack.An open-and-shut case, you might think. The problem with this Perry Mason moment, however, is that it occurred in a Saudi Arabian prison, where no U.S. officials were present and where, according to human-rights groups,...
  • Terror Watch: Will Torture Claims Sink Terror Case?

    The Justice Department's surprise decision to charge a young American accused of planning to assassinate President Bush could raise tough questions about U.S. treatment of terror suspects--and embarrass one of America's allies.
  • Terror Watch: Business As Usual?

    Only weeks before Halliburton made headlines by announcing it was pulling out of Iran--a nation George W. Bush has labeled part of the "axis of evil"--the Texas-based oil services firm quietly signed a major new business deal to help develop Tehran's natural gas fields. Halliburton's new Iran contract, moreover, appears to suggest a far closer connection with the country's hard-line government than the firm has ever acknowledged.The deal, diplomatic sources tell NEWSWEEK, was signed with an Iranian oil company whose principals include Sirus Naseri, Tehran's chief international negotiator on matters relating to the country's hotly-disputed nuclear enrichment program--a project the Bush administration has charged is intended to develop nuclear weapons.There are few matters more sensitive for Halliburton than its dealings with Iran. The company, formerly headed by Vice President Dick Cheney, last year disclosed that it had received a subpoena from a federal grand jury in Texas in...
  • Terror Watch: Virtual Jihad

    In recent months, an odd message has popped up on some radical Islamic Web sites. Readers are encouraged to use their computers to advance the cause of jihad. One preferred method touted on these sites: launch a cyberattack by jamming the Web sites and e-mail addresses of the "Zionist enemy." "Almost every [Islamic extremist] Web site has a section on how to do jihad over the Internet," says Rita Katz, the head of the SITE Institute, a group that closely monitors Islamic Web sites. The postings, say Katz, advise would-be holy warriors: "If you can't do jihad physically, do it on the Internet."Some of the recent messages have gotten alarmingly specific. They include detailed attack instructions and list as apparent potential targets e-mail addresses of Israeli political groups, police and government offices and politicians, including Natan Sharansky, the conservative cabinet member and former Soviet dissident who has become a favorite of President Bush.These postings are reminiscent...
  • LOG OFF, RESTART

    FBI Director Robert Mueller will have to tell frustrated senators next week what's gone wrong with the bureau's computer overhaul. The project--known as Virtual Case File--has been central to Mueller's plans to modernize the bureau's computer capabilities (at the time of 9/11, agents couldn't even do Google searches). But bureau officials recently acknowledged that, after they spent nearly $170 million and promised Congress it would be ready by the end of 2004, the VCF project has been a bust, and the bureau may have to start from scratch. VCF was supposed to give agents instant online "visibility" to interview reports written in other field offices. Even today, sources tell NEWSWEEK, it can take several days before such reports get scanned into the central bureau server--a potentially fatal time lag in a fast-breaking terrorism or bioweapons case. An FBI official says the chief problem is that the contractor, SAIC, delivered deficient software. (SAIC denies the charges.) But,...
  • Terror Watch: Homeland Security Nominee to 'Come Out Swinging'

    While U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Michael Chertoff skillfully sailed through his confirmation hearings today to be the new secretary of Homeland Security, he is almost certain to face much choppier waters very soon--when he takes over an unwieldy department starved for funds and riddled by bureaucratic turf battles that only seem to be escalating by the day.Homeland Security's internal battles have gotten so great, sources tell NEWSWEEK, that the department had to hire an outside accounting firm, Grant Thornton, to audit the operating funds of two of its major component agencies, which have been squabbling over money. One of the agencies, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), has accused the other, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), of horning in on its budget, forcing ICE--which plays a key law-enforcement role--to impose a hiring freeze and a ban on nonessential travel. ICE agents privately complain that the financial crunch is even worse than that. The agency's funding...
  • GONZALES: DID HE HELP BUSH KEEP HIS DUI QUIET?

    Senate Democrats put off a vote on White House counsel Alberto Gonzales's nomination to be attorney general, complaining he had provided evasive answers to questions about torture and the mistreatment of prisoners. But Gonzales's most surprising answer may have come on a different subject: his role in helping President Bush escape jury duty in a drunken-driving case involving a dancer at an Austin strip club in 1996. The judge and other lawyers in the case last week disputed a written account of the matter provided by Gonzales to the Senate Judiciary Committee. "It's a complete misrepresentation," said David Wahlberg, lawyer for the dancer, about Gonzales's account.Bush's summons to serve as a juror in the drunken-driving case was, in retrospect, a fateful moment in his political career: by getting excused from jury duty he was able to avoid questions that would have required him to disclose his own 1976 arrest and conviction for driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI) in...
  • Terror Watch: Unanswered Questions

    The White House would like to chalk it up to partisan politics. But the unexpectedly narrow, 10-8 party-line vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee to confirm Alberto Gonzales as attorney general was really the product of deep-seated frustration among moderate Democrats over the White House counsel's refusal to answer key questions about his role in shaping legal policies for combating terrorism. As the White House's top lawyer, Gonzales was a prime architect of some of the Bush White House's most controversial legal stands: to deny Geneva Convention protections to prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; to define "torture" in extremely narrow terms, and to declare U.S. citizens as "enemy combatants" who could be locked up indefinitely without access to lawyers.But more than the policies themselves, it was Gonzales's uninformative responses to senators' questions that seemed to infuriate the Democrats most, leading to their rock-solid opposition to him on Wednesday. In his confirmation...
  • Terror Watch: FBI Grills Jack Kemp About Iraqi Contact

    Former vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp has been questioned by the FBI about his dealings with an Iraqi-American businessman who this week became the target of the first Justice Department criminal indictment in the United Nations Oil-for-Food scandal, NEWSWEEK has learned. Kemp today confirmed that the FBI interviewed him last October about his contacts with Samir A. Vincent, a Northern Virginia oil trader who on Tuesday pled guilty to four criminal charges, including violating U.S. sanctions against Iraq and failing to register with the Justice Department as an agent of Saddam Hussein.Specifically, the indictment states that Vincent illegally lobbied U.S. officials on behalf of the Iraqi government and received in exchange, along with unidentified co-conspirators, "millions of dollars in cash" as well as allocations for more than 9 million barrels of Iraqi crude oil under the Oil-for-Food program.Sources familiar with the investigation say that Kemp, who was Bob Dole's...
  • UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

    Ibraham Al Qosi's stories seemed fairly outlandish when they first surfaced last fall. In a lawsuit, Al Qosi, a Sudanese accountant apprehended after 9/11 on suspicions of ties to Al Qaeda, charged that he and other detainees at Guantanamo Bay had been subjected to bizarre forms of humiliation and abuse by U.S. military inquisitors. Al Qosi claimed they were strapped to the floor in an interrogations center known as the Hell Room, wrapped in Israeli flags, taunted by female interrogators who rubbed their bodies against them in sexually suggestive ways, and left alone in refrigerated cells for hours with deafening music blaring in their ears. Back then, Pentagon officials dismissed Al Qosi's allegations as the fictional rantings of a hard-core terrorist.But in recent weeks a stack of declassified government documents has given new credence to many of the claims of abuse at Guantanamo. The documents are also raising fresh questions about the Bush administration's handling of detainees...
  • Terror Watch: The Paper Chase

    Investigators are struggling to find concrete evidence of fraud and corruption in the U.N.'s oil-for-food program in Iraq
  • IRAQ: GOVERNMENT DEAL WITH A 'MERCHANT OF DEATH'?

    In an effort to crack down on one of the world's most notorious international criminals, President George W. Bush last summer signed an order barring U.S. citizens from doing business with Russian arms trafficker Victor Bout. But not long afterward, U.S. officials discovered Bout's tentacles were wider than anticipated: for much of this year, NEWSWEEK has learned, a Texas charter firm allegedly controlled by Bout was making repeated flights to Iraq--courtesy of a Pentagon contract allowing it to refuel at U.S. military bases. One reason for the flights, sources say, was that the firm was flying on behalf of Kellogg Brown & Root, the division of Halliburton hired to rebuild Iraq's oilfields.U.S. officials say Bout--once dubbed a "merchant of death" by a British foreign minister--built an empire in the 1990s flying weapons to the Taliban and African dictators and rebel groups, in violation of international sanctions. Bush's order banning business with Bout, a former Soviet...
  • 2001 Memo Reveals Push for Broader Presidential Powers

    Just two weeks after the September 11 attacks, a secret memo to White House counsel Alberto Gonzales' office concluded that President Bush had the power to deploy military force "preemptively" against any terrorist groups or countries that supported them--regardless of whether they had any connection to the attacks on the World Trade Towers or the Pentagon.The memo, written by Justice Department lawyer John Yoo, argues that there are effectively "no limits" on the president's authority to wage war--a sweeping assertion of executive power that some constitutional scholars say goes considerably beyond any that had previously been articulated by the department.Although it makes no reference to Saddam Hussein's government, the 15-page memo also seems to lay a legal groundwork for the president to invade Iraq--without approval of Congress--long before the White House had publicly expressed any intent to do so. "The President may deploy military force preemptively against terrorist...
  • INTEL REFORM: DID BUSH PUSH HARD?

    The White House publicly bemoaned Congress's failure to pass a sweeping measure to overhaul the U.S. intelligence community--a top 9/11 Commission recommendation--and said it would press to revive the bill soon. But behind the scenes, the White House's support has been less than vigorous, reflecting ambivalence on the part of many in the administration, especially the Pentagon, about the idea of creating an all-powerful new intelligence czar. Aides said President George W. Bush, while on Air Force One on his way to Chile, called one of the two principal congressional holdouts--House judiciary committee chairman Jim Sensenbrenner--in an effort to break the legislative logjam. But Sensenbrenner tells NEWSWEEK that Bush was "extremely low-key" during their conversation and never pressured him. ("He knows that arm-twisting with me... is not the way to go," he adds.) After their phone chat, Bush authorized a White House aide to push for one of Sensenbrenner's pet proposals to make it...
  • Terror Watch: Whistle-Blower Crackdown Spreads

    A judge is ordering government workers to waive their confidentiality agreements with journalists. What impact will the controversial tactic have on the media's ability to report news?
  • Terror Watch: The End of the Muslim Brotherhood?

    On the face of it, a little-noticed report in a London-based Arabic-language newspaper last week seemed to signal a major victory in the Bush administration's international campaign to crack down on alleged financiers of Islamic terrorism. According to the Nov. 11 edition of Al-Sharq-al-Awsat, the Muslim Brotherhood Organization, an international fundamentalist movement that spawned many of the world's key Islamic extremist and terrorist groups--including Al Qaeda--recently held a secret conference at which its leaders discussed whether to dissolve their organization in the wake of Washington's moves to crack down on some of its leading members and corporate organizations.But like other developments in what the administration calls the global war on terror, the alleged move by the Brotherhood to abolish itself may have less substance than meets the eye. Indeed, it may even mean that efforts by the U.S. and its allies to move against financiers of Islamic terror groups will become...
  • Terror Watch: The Real Target?

    New intelligence suggests that Al Qaeda was planning to attack London, not U.S. financial centers, in the run-up to the presidential election. A Kerry adviser blames politics for the timing of the government's summer alert
  • ACCOUNTABILITY: THE CIA'S SECRET

    The CIA is keeping the lid on a hard-hitting report about agency officials who might be held accountable for 9/11 intel failures. The report identifies a host of current and former officials who could be candidates for possible disciplinary procedures imposed by a special CIA Accountability Board, sources familiar with the document tell NEWSWEEK. The report by the agency's inspector general's office was completed last June. But it has not been made public or sent to the two congressional oversight committees, which first asked for the review more than two years ago. Officially, the agency's position is that more work needs to be done. In a recent private letter to CIA Director Porter Goss, House intelligence committee chairman Peter Hoekstra and ranking Democrat Jane Harman contrasted the CIA's failure to turn over the report with the Pentagon's ability to provide an exhaustive investigative report on the far more recent Abu Ghraib scandal. But Goss shows no inclination to release...
  • LIBYA: THE STRONGMAN IS STILL MAKING TROUBLE

    President George W. Bush counts Libya's decision to give up its nuclear-weapons program--a move that helped thaw relations with the longtime pariah regime of Col. Muammar Kaddafi--as one of his foreign-policy successes. To reward the Libyan strongman, Bush last month lifted most U.S. sanctions against Libya, prompting a rush of U.S. energy executives to Tripoli in search of drilling-rights concessions and other deals. (Among the beneficiaries: Halliburton, whose chief financial officer recently told investors that the Libyan market presented "a great opportunity for us.") Another sign of the thaw: the Libyans have just hired their own D.C. lobbyist, signing a $1.4 million contract with Randa Fahmy Hudome, until last year a top Bush-administration energy official.But U.S. counterterrorism officials are deeply uneasy. Libya is still on the State Department list of state "sponsors" of terrorism, and sources tell NEWSWEEK the country is likely to remain there for some time. One reason:...