Michael Isikoff

Stories by Michael Isikoff

  • 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...
  • 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...
  • 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...
  • 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...