Michael Isikoff

Stories by Michael Isikoff

  • Rahm, Rove, Rezko and the Blagojevich Trial

    Rod Blagojevich's run as Illinois governor may be over, but the political fallout from his 16-count corruption indictment last week is just beginning. Blago's trial is likely to feature a number of high-profile figures, including White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and convicted political fixer Antoin (Tony) Rezko. Emanuel is not accused of any wrongdoing. Rather, he's identified as the target of an attempted Blagojevich extortion scheme. According to the indictment, while Emanuel was a U.S. congressman in 2006, he inquired about state funding for a charter school. Blagojevich then instructed an official to set up a quid pro quo: a fundraiser for him, hosted by Emanuel's brother, Hollywood superagent Ari. The scheme went nowhere. "There was no way [Ari] was going to have a fundraiser," said one lawyer familiar with the matter, who asked for anonymity because of legal sensitivities. Still, the allegation could put Emanuel on the witness stand—much to the White House's dismay....
  • Obama Team Divided Over Release of Torture Memos

    Attorney General Eric Holder wants to release classified Bush-era interrogation memos. But U.S. intel officials are fiercely lobbying the White House to block him from moving forward.
  • Team Obama Halts Talk of Assault Weapons Ban

    Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is now the second member of President Obama's cabinet to get shot down by the White House over the politically sensitive issue of assault weapons. After meeting with Mexican President Felipe Calderón, Clinton said that reinstating the U.S. ban on assault weapons—which was passed in 1994 and expired in 2004—is one step this country could take to curb the flow of guns to Mexico's drug cartels. "These military-style weapons don't belong on anybody's street," Clinton told NBC. Within hours, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters that he was unaware of "any plans" to push for such a ban—even though Obama had backed one during last year's campaign.Attorney General Eric Holder had a similar experience a few weeks earlier. After he endorsed a ban at a Feb. 25 press conference, Justice officials were instructed by White House aides to drop the issue, according to administration and congressional aides who asked not to be named due to...
  • TARP Funds Get Recycled as Political Contributions

    There was plenty of outrage on Capitol Hill last week over the executive bonuses paid out by AIG after getting federal bailout money. But another money trail could make voters just as angry: the campaign dollars to members of Congress from banks and firms that have received billions via the Troubled Asset Relief Program.A NEWSWEEK review of recent filings with the Federal  Election Commission found that the political action committees of five big TARP recipients doled out $85,300 to members in the first two months of this year—with most of the cash going to those who serves on committees who oversee the TARP program. Among them: Bank of America (which got $15 billion in bailout money) sent out $24,500 in the first two months of 2009, including $1,500 to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and another $15,000 to members of the House and Senate banking panels. Citigroup ($25 billion) dished out $29,620, including $2,500 to House GOP Whip Eric Cantor, who also got $10,000 from UBS which,...
  • Torture Report Could Be Trouble For Bush Lawyers

    An internal Justice Department report on the conduct of senior lawyers who approved waterboarding and other harsh interrogation tactics is causing anxiety among former Bush administration officials. H. Marshall Jarrett, chief of the department's ethics watchdog unit, the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), confirmed last year he was investigating whether the legal advice in crucial interrogation memos "was consistent with the professional standards that apply to Department of Justice attorneys." According to two knowledgeable sources who asked not to be identified discussing sensitive matters, a draft of the report was submitted in the final weeks of the Bush administration. It sharply criticized the legal work of two former top officials—Jay Bybee and John Yoo—as well as that of Steven Bradbury, who was chief of the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) at the time the report was submitted, the sources said. (Bybee, Yoo and Bradbury did not respond to multiple requests for comment...
  • New Attorney General Eric Holder Gets Tested

    Despite his clear declaration during his confirmation hearing that "waterboarding" is torture, new Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. has seemed reluctant to order criminal probes into alleged rough treatment of detainees during the Bush presidency. His rationale: CIA interrogators who used the simulated drowning technique believed the Justice Department had given them the green light.But one particular case could leave Holder with little choice: that of Mohammad al-Qatani, a Guantánamo detainee and alleged 9/11 conspirator who was in U.S. military—not CIA—custody. Last month, Susan Crawford, the convening authority for the U.S. military commissions, told The Washington Post that she refused to bring charges against Qatani because his interrogations "met the legal definition of torture." (Crawford, who last week also withdrew charges against accused USS Cole bomber Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, did not respond to requests for comment. A Pentagon official said her comments about Qatani were...
  • An Opening Move in Iran Diplomacy: Prisoner Swap?

    Speaking to reporters, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week invited Iran to show its willingness "to engage meaningfully" with the international community—language that seemed to signal the Obama administration was open to a dialogue with Tehran's leaders. But what's the first step?One possibility, according to U.S. intelligence officials who asked not to be identified discussing sensitive matters: the case of Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who disappeared nearly two years ago after flying to Kish Island, an Iranian free-trade zone in the Persian Gulf, to investigate cigarette smuggling for his private consulting firm. Ever since, the Iranians have denied any knowledge of his whereabouts. But officials have received sketchy reports that Levinson is languishing in an Iranian prison. "I believe he is alive and he's being held by the Iranians," Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told NEWSWEEK. Nelson, who represents Levinson...
  • Obama Feeling Pressure to Investigate Torture

    Tension is building behind the scenes among Barack Obama's advisers over whether the new administration should investigate allegations of torture and other Bush administration misdeeds. Obama has said he wants to "move forward," but pressure on his team has increased thanks to recent comments in The Washington Post by a top Pentagon official that the treatment of one Guantánamo detainee "met the legal definition of torture." One transition source, who asked not to be identified discussing sensitive matters, said that Attorney General-designate Eric Holder may be more inclined than other Obama aides to press the matter. Last week Holder told a Senate panel that he considers waterboarding, which was used on three Qaeda suspects held by the CIA, to be torture. "We will follow the evidence, the facts, the law, and let that take us where it should," he said, adding that he did not believe waterboarding yielded reliable intelligence.Fearing a witch hunt, intel officials are pushing back...
  • Isikoff's 5 Questions for Obama About Blagojevich

    Invoking his wartime commander-in-chief authority, NEWSWEEK Editor Jon Meacham has granted yours truly, a lowly investigative correspondent, sweeping subpoena power to demand that President-elect Barack Obama and his transition team answer all my questions about their dealings with Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who stands accused of putting Obama's vacant U.S. Senate up for sale to the highest bidder. (He vowed on Dec. 19 to fight the charges "until I take my last breath.") It remains unclear whether Obama's assorted spinmeisters and lawyers will honor these subpoenas—or even return my phone calls. But in the meantime, the public at least deserves to know the most crucial questions. Exercising my newly acquired powers, here are the first five: ...
  • Obama Considers Commission on Bush Admin Torture

    Despite the hopes of many human-rights advocates, the new Obama Justice Department is not likely to launch major new criminal probes of harsh interrogations and other alleged abuses by the Bush administration. But one idea that has currency among some top Obama advisers is setting up a 9/11-style commission that would investigate counterterrorism policies and make public as many details as possible. "At a minimum, the American people have to be able to see and judge what happened," said one senior adviser, who asked not to be identified talking about policy matters. The commission would be empowered to order the U.S. intelligence agencies to open their files for review and question senior officials who approved "waterboarding" and other controversial practices.Obama aides are wary of taking any steps that would smack of political retribution. That's one reason they are reluctant to see high-profile investigations by the Democratic-controlled Congress or to greenlight a broad Justice...
  • Requests Come in for Last-Minute Pardons from Bush

    The Justice department is getting flooded with a new wave of requests for pardons and commutations from convicted felons hoping for clemency from President Bush before he leaves office. A number of politically connected Washington lawyers have been retained to push the cases, but there are few signs that Bush will be open to anything resembling the last minute "pardon party" that marked President Clinton's final days in office.Bush has taken a stingy stand on pardons, granting fewer of them—just 157, and none of them high profile—than any president in modern history. He has directed all hopefuls to submit applications to the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney, which evaluates all requests using strict, longstanding guidelines, including a requirement that applicants have finished serving their sentences and expressed remorse. The office received a record 555 pardon requests during the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 and an additional 103 in the past month.Washington...
  • GOP Donors Respond to Palin's $150,000 Makeover

    The disclosure that the Republican National Committee spent more than $150,000 on clothing and accessories for vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and her family set off recriminations among GOP officials—and, more important, party donors. It wasn't just the volume of the purchases—which included new dresses for Palin, suits for husband Todd and outfits for her children—it was the use of swanky stores like Neiman Marcus. One top party fundraiser told NEWSWEEK that, ever since the story broke on Politico.com, he was bombarded with calls from Republican donors who were "furious" that their contributions were used for such purposes. "This has damaged everybody's credibility," griped the fundraiser (who asked not to be identified talking about party business). Among those upset was Saul Anuzis, the Michigan Republican Party chairman, still smarting over McCain's decision to pull out of his state. "I have no idea how you spend $150,000 on clothes," he says. Lobbyist Andrea McWilliams...