Michael Isikoff

Stories by Michael Isikoff

  • Palin's Troopergate: Not Over Yet

    A new Alaska legislative report finding that Gov. Sarah Palin abused her power and violated state ethics laws spells new trouble for the McCain campaign. Special counsel Steve Branchflower's report could lead to fines or legislative action to censure Palin. It also directly challenges the vice presidential candidate's credibility on key points related to the "Troopergate" controversy. Palin has said she fired Walt Monegan, Alaska's public-safety commissioner, last summer solely because of budget disputes and "insubordination" by Monegan. But Branchflower found that a likely "contributing" factor was Palin's desire to fire state trooper Mike Wooten, her ex-brother-in-law. While Palin had the right to fire Monegan, Branchflower found that she allowed her husband and top aides to put "impermissible pressure" on subordinates to "advance a personal agenda." The report also questioned Palin's public contention that her family "feared" Wooten, noting that shortly after she took office she...
  • Controversy Over Obama's Small Donors

    The Obama campaign has shattered all fund-raising records, raking in $458 million so far, with about half the bounty coming from donors who contribute $200 or less. Aides say that's an illustration of a truly democratic campaign. To critics, though, it can be an invitation for fraud and illegal foreign cash because donors giving individual sums of $200 or less don't have to be publicly reported. Consider the cases of Obama donors "Doodad Pro" of Nunda, N.Y., who gave $17,130, and "Good Will" of Austin, Texas, who gave more than $11,000—both in excess of the $2,300-per-person federal limit. In two recent letters to the Obama campaign, Federal Election Commission auditors flagged those (and other) donors and informed the campaign that the sums had to be returned. Neither name had ever been publicly reported because both individuals made online donations in $10 and $25 increments. "Good Will" listed his employer as "Loving" and his occupation as "You," while supplying as his address...
  • Freddie Mac Money Trail Catches Up With McCain

    Few advisers in John McCain's inner circle inspire more loyalty from him than campaign manager Rick Davis. McCain and his wife, Cindy, credit the shrewd, and sometimes volatile, Republican insider with rescuing the campaign last year when it was out of money and on the verge of collapse. As a result, McCain has always defended him—even when faced with tough questions about the foreign lobbying clients of Davis's high-powered consulting firm. "Rick is a friend, and I trust him," McCain told NEWSWEEK last year.Last week, though, McCain's trust in Davis was tested again amid disclosures that Freddie Mac, the troubled mortgage giant that was recently placed under federal conservatorship, paid his campaign manager's firm $15,000 a month between 2006 and August 2008. As the mortgage crisis has escalated, almost any association with Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae has become politically toxic. But the payments to Davis's firm, Davis Manafort, are especially problematic because he requested the...
  • Palin: The 'Troopergate' You Haven't Heard Of

    Eleven years before the current investigation into her dismissal of Alaska's top cop, Sarah Palin was embroiled in a similar dispute over another personnel issue: her firing of the police chief in her hometown of Wasilla. Palin's decision to terminate Irl Stambaugh, months after she was elected mayor in 1996, created a ruckus. It also led to a bitter and protracted lawsuit charging that she fired Stambaugh out of pique—in part because he'd crossed the interests of influential backers, including bar owners and gun enthusiasts who'd contributed significantly to Palin's campaign, according to court and state records reviewed by NEWSWEEK. Palin denied these allegations under oath, and ultimately prevailed, after a federal judge concluded that the mayor had the right to fire any department head she wanted. Palin "made the decision ... because the people of Wasilla had elected her to reform Wasilla's government and he actively worked to frustrate those efforts," says Taylor Griffin, a...
  • Anthrax Case Against Ivins Wasn’t a Slam Dunk

    When the FBI publicly branded the late Dr. Bruce Ivins as the anthrax killer, it unsealed court affidavits suggesting a possible motive for the mailing to one target: NBC anchor Tom Brokaw. According to the affidavits, Ivins was angry about repeated Freedom of Information Act requests from Gary Matsumoto, identified as "an investigative journalist who worked for NBC News" who was looking into Ivins's work on an anthrax vaccine. "Tell Matsumoto to kiss my ass," the affidavit says Ivins wrote in an Aug. 28, 2001, e-mail, noting that was "weeks" before the Sept. 18, 2001, anthrax mailing addressed to Brokaw. But Matsumoto told NEWSWEEK the FBI never interviewed him as part of its investigation. If it had, he says, he could have told them he'd actually left NBC News five years earlier. At the time he was bombarding Ivins's lab with FOIA requests, he was employed by ABC. "They're trying to connect dots that don't connect," he said.Justice Department official Dean Boyd said "there was no...
  • A Final, Bizarre Twist in Capitol Anthrax Case

    When the FBI was scrambling to unravel the 2001 anthrax attacks, one of the first scientists they turned to for help was Bruce E. Ivins, a veteran researcher at the U.S. Army bioweapons lab in Fort Detrick, Md. But last week, the protracted anthrax probe took its most bizarre turn yet: Ivins was found unconscious in his bathroom and later died of an apparent self-inflicted drug overdose—just as agents were about to charge him with sending the tainted letters that killed five people. Ivins, a devout churchgoer who played the keyboard at Sunday services, recently had been committed to a psychiatric hospital, and had allegedly made death threats against a social worker. In her protective order, the social worker, Jean Duley, wrote that Ivins has a history of "homicidal threats, actions, plans." She added: "FBI involved, currently under investigation & will be charged w/ 5 capital murders."For years, the Department of Justice pursued another researcher, Steven Hatfill, but he was...
  • Campaign: Obama Considering Chet Edwards for Veep

    The "shortlist" of options to be Barack Obama's running mate is longer than most media accounts have suggested. In addition to the familiar front runners—Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine—there are at least two other veepstakes contenders: New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who enraged Hillary Clinton supporters by endorsing Obama during the primaries, and a genuine dark horse, Texas Rep. Chet Edwards, whose district includes President George W. Bush's ranch in Crawford. Obama's campaign had hoped to announce his pick this week to grab the spotlight before the Beijing Olympics. But now a decision is unlikely to come until the week before the party convention, which begins in Denver on Aug. 25. According to party sources close to the selection process, who asked not to be identified discussing an internal matter, progress was slowed by Obama's overseas trip—and because his list is more fluid than generally thought. Edwards, 56, has been pushed...
  • Politics: Karl Rove Skips Judiciary Hearing

    House Democrats were fuming recently when Karl Rove defied a congressional subpoena and refused to show up at a House Judiciary Committee hearing into whether he meddled in Justice Department prosecutions. Instead of grilling the former White House political chief under oath, the members found themselves talking to an empty chair. What they didn't know is where Rove was that day: on a jet flying to a speaking engagement at Yalta, the historic Black Sea resort in Ukraine. Rove, who generally charges a reported $40,000 per talk, appeared on a premier panel (along with Democratic strategist Bob Shrum) on the upcoming U.S. election at the fifth annual conference of the YES Foundation, a confab of world luminaries bankrolled by billionaire Victor Pinchuk, the Ukrainian steel magnate and son-in-law of the country's former autocratic president, Leonid Kuchma.Democrats on the judiciary panel were outraged when they heard about Rove's overseas jaunt on the day he'd been ordered to testify. ...
  • The Politics of Gitmo

    A federal judge's ruling last week threw a potential new curveball into the campaign debate over the War on Terror. Democratic appointed Judge James Robertson gave the Pentagon a green light to start the first-ever military-commission trial of a Gitmo detainee this week—that of Salim Hamdan, an alleged Qaeda member who served as Osama bin Laden's driver. (Robertson said that if defense lawyers see the trial as unfair, they can challenge the results later in federal court.) But the ramifications of the ruling go beyond that one case. Pentagon officials say it allows them to proceed with a series of military-commission trials, hearings and new charges that (coincidentally or not) will play out in the middle of the election campaign. Among them are hearings, if not the actual trial, in the conspiracy case involving 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. "We are moving forward," said J. D. Gordon, a spokesman for the Pentagon, noting that the next round of KSM hearings are slated for...
  • Surveillance Law Leaves Data-Mining Program Intact

    The domestic spying measure approved by Congress last week will impose new rules on government wiretapping. But it will leave largely untouched what some experts say is the most sweeping part of the secret surveillance activities ordered by President Bush after 9/11: the National Security Agency's collection of phone records and other personal data on millions of U.S. citizens. The NSA's massive "data mining" program—in which the agency's computers look for call patterns that might point to suspicious behavior—has never been publicly confirmed by the Bush administration. But industry and government officials, who asked not to be identified talking about classified matters, say the practice is a big part of what the telecoms did for the spy agency, and a key reason the companies fought so hard for the immunity from lawsuits granted by the new bill.After 9/11, the White House asked MCI (now Verizon), AT&T, Sprint and Qwest for help obtaining call records on U.S. numbers found in...
  • Military: McCain’s Boeing Battle Boomerangs

    One of John McCain's most celebrated achievements in recent years was his crusade to block a Pentagon contract with Boeing for a new fleet of midair refueling tankers. Incensed over what he denounced as a taxpayer "rip-off," McCain launched a Senate probe that uncovered cozy relations between top Air Force officials and Boeing execs. A top Air Force officer and Boeing's CFO ended up in prison. Most significantly, the Air Force was forced to cancel the contract—saving taxpayers more than $6 billion, McCain asserted.But last week, McCain's subsequent effort to redo the tanker deal was dealt a setback. Government auditors ruled that the Air Force made "significant errors" when it rebid the contract and awarded the $35 billion project to Boeing's chief rival, partners European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co. (or EADS) and Northrop Grumman. It's likely the Air Force will have to redo the bid yet again, which analysts say will delay the replacement of the fleet's 1950s-era refueling...
  • Guantánamo Detainees: No Country for 270 Men

    White House and Justice Department lawyers are bracing for a flood of new court battles as a result of last week's historic Supreme Court ruling, which granted Guantánamo Bay detainees the right to seek their freedom in federal court. But a more daunting problem lurks down the road: what happens if the courts actually do set them free? The largest block of Gitmo prisoners—nearly 100 of the remaining 270—hail from Yemen, a country that so far has resisted taking back detainees because of U.S. demands that they be put on trial back home (or, at least, that the Yemenis pledge to keep a close eye on them). "Of course, we want our citizens back," says Abdulwahab al-Hajjri, Yemen's ambassador to the United States. "But [the United States] has these conditions, so this is taking time." Other prisoners come from countries that allegedly engage in torture, such as Syria, Libya and China. Attempts to find countries in Europe willing to take them have hit a brick wall. "The most vexing problem...