Michael Isikoff

Stories by Michael Isikoff

  • 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...
  • Politics: Obama’s Lobbyist Connection

    When Illinois utility Commonwealth Edison wanted state lawmakers to back a hefty rate hike two years ago, it took a creative lobbying approach, concocting a new outfit that seemed devoted to the public interest: Consumers Organized for Reliable Electricity, or CORE. CORE ran TV ads warning of a "California-style energy crisis" if the rate increase wasn't approved—but without disclosing the commercials were funded by Commonwealth Edison. The ad campaign provoked a brief uproar when its ties to the utility, which is owned by Exelon Corp., became known. "It's corporate money trying to hoodwink the public," the state's Democratic Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn said. What got scant notice then—but may soon get more scrutiny—is that CORE was the brainchild of ASK Public Strategies, a consulting firm whose senior partner is David Axelrod, now chief strategist for Barack Obama.Last week, Obama hit John McCain for hiring "some of the biggest lobbyists in Washington" to run his campaign; Obama's aides...
  • Terrorism: A Tense Impasse In Yemen

    During a Mideast trip earlier this month, FBI Director Robert Mueller made an unpublicized detour to Yemen in order to press an issue of serious concern to Washington: why has the Yemeni government refused to turn over an accused Qaeda terrorist charged in the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, which killed 17 U.S. sailors? The meeting between Mueller and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh did not go well, according to two sources who were briefed on the session but asked not to be identified discussing it. Saleh gave no clear answers about the suspect, Jamal al-Badawi, leaving Mueller "angry and very frustrated," said one source, who added that he's rarely seen the normally taciturn FBI director so upset.The fate of Badawi is one of a number of terror-related cases that has generated tension with Yemen. U.S. officials only recently learned that another indicted Cole bomber, Fahed al-Quso, broke out of a Yemeni jail along with Badawi two years ago and remains a free man. Yet...
  • In Rezko Trial, a New Name Surfaces: Karl Rove

    The trial of Chicago developer and political fixer Antoin "Tony" Rezko has been closely watched for any mention of the defendant's onetime friend, Barack Obama. But last week, prosecutors threw a curveball, telling the judge that one of their witnesses is prepared to raise the name of another prominent Washington hand: Karl Rove. Former Illinois state official Ali Ata is expected to testify about a conversation he had with Rezko in which the developer alleged Rove was "working with" a top Illinois Republican to remove the Chicago U.S. attorney, Patrick Fitzgerald.The allegation, which Rove denies, quickly reverberated in Washington. Democrats in Congress now want to question Ata. They believe he can help buttress their theory that Rove played a key role in discussions that led to the firings of U.S. attorneys at the Justice Department in 2006. The House Judiciary Committee "intends to investigate the facts and circumstances alleged in this testimony," panel chairman Rep. John...
  • It’s So Nice to Be Here

    How Bill's big-dollar foreign buckraking is causing headaches for Hillary's campaign.
  • Justice: Torture Memo Fallout

    With little advance notice, Pentagon general counsel William Haynes quietly resigned at the end of February to take a top legal job at Chevron. But Haynes, a close ally of Vice President Dick Cheney, remains a key figure in a sweeping Senate probe into allegations of abuses to detainees in Defense Department custody.Haynes was thrust back into the spotlight last week after the disclosure of a March 2003 Justice Department memo concluding that federal laws against torture, assault and maiming would not apply to the overseas interrogation of terror suspects. Haynes requested the memo (which was written by the then Justice Department lawyer John Yoo) and he and his boss, the then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, later used it to justify harsh interrogation practices on terror suspects at Guantánamo Bay. The memo's disclosure raises new questions about the role that Haynes and other Bush-administration lawyers played in crafting legal policies that critics say led to abuses at Abu...
  • Saddam’s Files

    They show terror plots, but raise new questions about some U.S. claims.