Michael Isikoff

Stories by Michael Isikoff

  • Justice Department Firings: A Cover-up?

    Bud Cummins never had any intention of making a fuss. A folksy Arkansas lawyer, Cummins had been abruptly fired last year as U.S. attorney in Little Rock to create a slot for a former top aide to Karl Rove. But Cummins is a loyal Republican; he knows how the game is played in Washington, so he kept quiet. Then last month, as the press picked up on the story of Cummins and seven other fired U.S. attorneys, he was quoted in a newspaper story defending his colleagues. Cummins got a phone call from the Justice Department that he found vaguely menacing.It came from Michael Elston, a top Justice official. Cummins says Elston expressed concern that he and the dismissed attorneys were talking to reporters about what had happened to them. Elston, Cummins says, suggested this might not be a good idea; Justice officials might feel compelled to "somehow pull their gloves off" and retaliate against the prosecutors by publicly trashing them. "I was tempted to challenge him," Cummins e-mailed...
  • Rove’s Role in the U.S. Attorneys’ Firings

    Karl Rove participated in a discussion about the firing of U.S. attorneys in 2005, asking White House lawyers “how we planned to proceed” on the issue and whether the prosecutors would be selectively dismissed or fired en masse, according to newly disclosed White House e-mails.The e-mails, obtained by NEWSWEEK, appear to show that Rove had a greater level of involvement in the dismissal of the prosecutors than the White House has previously acknowledged. The messages may also raise new questions for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. While the attorney general insisted to reporters this week that he had rejected “a request from the White House” to fire all U.S. attorneys two years ago, the new e-mails show the plan was conceived while Gonzales himself was the White House counsel.The controversy over the firing of the U.S. attorneys erupted in recent weeks, after some of the fired prosecutors testified that they believed they were improperly dismissed because of political pressures....
  • GOP Lawmakers Played a Role In U.S. Attorney Purge

    The firings of eight U.S. attorneys has put the heat on top Justice Department officials—and some GOP members of Congress. The unusual mass dismissals took place late last year, but the controversy escalated last week when David Iglesias, the former U.S. attorney in New Mexico, went public with a dramatic charge: that he had gotten phone calls from two unidentified GOP lawmakers in D.C. last October, pressing him to bring indictments in a high-profile corruption case involving a prominent local Democrat before the November election. Iglesias—a former Navy prosecutor who was the model for Tom Cruise's character in "A Few Good Men"—said he refused to answer. Six weeks later, a Justice official ordered him to resign. This week, Iglesias has been subpoenaed along with three other fired prosecutors to testify before Congress. He plans to name the lawmakers who called him as Rep. Heather Wilson (who was in a tight re-election battle at the time) and Sen. Pete Domenici (who originally...
  • Isikoff: Libby Jury Kept a Narrow Focus

    The jury in the I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby trial had a “tremendous amount of sympathy” for Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff—even wondering if he was being made the “fall guy” for others at the White House, one of the jurors told reporters today.“It was said a number of times, what are we doing with this guy?’ juror Denis Collins told reporters on the courthouse steps today. “Where is [Karl] Rove? Where are all the others?”In the end, the jurors stuck to the  issues directly in front of them and delivered a stunning verdict, finding Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff guilty on four of five felony counts involving obstruction of justice, perjury and making false statements to the FBI.But Collins’ revealing comments illustrate how difficult it was for the jurors—and perhaps members of the public—to distinguish the relatively narrow questions in the Libby trial from the much larger issues about Iraq war intelligence and White House conduct that have...
  • Terror Watch: The Missing Padilla Video

    The government made a secret video of its interrogations of 'enemy combatant' Jose Padilla. But now that he's on trial, the Feds claim they don't know where it went.
  • A Man Of Mystery

    Robert Novak, as usual, had a scoop to unload--only this time, it was from the witness stand. Testifying last week in the trial of Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, the conservative columnist gruffly described how he first learned from two top Bush administration officials that Valerie Plame, wife of Iraq war critic Joseph Wilson, was a CIA officer. But then Novak injected a new name into the drama--one that virtually nobody in the courtroom knew.Asked by one of Libby's lawyers if he had talked about Plame with anybody else before outing her in his column, Novak said he'd discussed her with a lobbyist named Richard Hohlt. Who, the lawyer pressed, is Hohlt? "He's a very good source of mine" whom I talk to "every day," Novak replied. Indeed, Hohlt is such a good source that after Novak finished his column naming Plame, he testified, he did something most journalists rarely do: he gave the lobbyist an advance copy of his column. What Novak...
  • A Damning Witness

    Ari Fleischer may turn out to be a stronger—and more credible—witness than he was a White House press secretary.During several hours on the witness stand in the I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby Jr. perjury and obstruction trial Monday, President Bush’s former chief spokesman was cool, unruffled, chatty and at times combative—especially when he underwent hostile cross-examination from one of Libby’s lawyers. But he stuck to his story and, in the process, delivered what may have been the most damaging testimony yet against Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff.Fleischer described with damning new details a lunch he had with Libby in the White House mess on July 7, 2003, just as the controversy over the president’s State of the Union claim that Iraq had sought to buy uranium in Africa was spreading into a major Washington firestorm.During that lunch, Fleischer said, Libby was anxious to rebut criticism by former ambassador Joseph Wilson. In a New York Times op-ed piece, Wilson had...
  • Deadly Triggers

    Why is the Bush administration escalating its accusations that Iran is backing Shiite extremists inside Iraq? One reason: mounting intelligence indicating Tehran has been supplying insurgents with electronic sensors that trigger roadside bombs used against U.S. troops.The devices in question—which cost as little as $1 a piece—are called "passive infrared" sensors or detectors. They are commonly used to turn on lights or burglar alarms when someone or something passes in front of them. Over the past year, U.S. forces in Iraq have repeatedly fallen victim to sophisticated homemade bombs—known as “IEDs”, or improvised explosive devices—which are often rigged with passive infrared sensors.Recent reports from U.S. intelligence agencies show that Iranian agents or brokers have ordered the devices in bulk from manufacturers in the Far East, said one U.S. counter-terrorism official, who asked not to be identified discussing sensitive matters. Bruce Riedel, a senior intelligence official who...
  • 'Scapegoat:' Scooter's Stunning Defense

    It was the last thing the White House needed at a time when President Bush is already on the defensive over Iraq: a circular firing squad in a federal courtroom in which the president’s men—and Vice President Dick Cheney’s—are all shooting at each other.But that’s how the perjury trial of I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, Cheney’s former chief of staff, began. Libby’s long-awaited defense was laid out for the first time Tuesday in opening statements and it turned out to be a stunner: a “scorched earth” strategy in which his main defense lawyer pointed accusatory fingers at White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove as well as other top current and former Bush aides.Almost no legal experts had expected this plan of attack in the trial, the outcome of a drawn-out investigation into who leaked the identity of Valerie Plame, a CIA operative, to the media. According to chief prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, the leak occured amid an effort by Bush administration officials to discredit Plame’s...
  • Terror: 'We're Going To Get Hit'

    Intel director John Negroponte gave Congress a sobering assessment last week of the continued threats from groups like Al Qaeda and Hizbullah. But even gloomier comments came from Henry Crumpton, the outgoing State Department terror coordinator. An ex-CIA operative, Crumpton told NEWSWEEK that a worldwide surge in Islamic radicalism has worsened recently, increasing the number of potential terrorists and setting back U.S. efforts in the terror war. "Certainly, we haven't made any progress," said Crumpton. "In fact, we've lost ground." He cites Iraq as a factor; the war has fueled resentment against the United States.Crumpton noted some successes, such as improved joint efforts with foreign governments and a weakening of Al Qaeda's leadership structure. But he warned of future attacks. "We don't want to acknowledge we're going to get hit again in the homeland, but we are," he said. "That's a hard, ugly fact. But it's going to happen." Crumpton cited no specific intel, but said the...
  • Here Comes the Judge

    The Bush administration announced Wednesday that a secret court has authorized intelligence agencies to monitor suspected Al Qaeda phone calls into and out of the United States. As a result, administration officials said that President Bush will now put his controversial warrantless surveillance program, which he authorized without court approval after 9/11, under judicial supervision. The officials say he will abide by secret rules set down by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.The news, made public in a letter sent by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to the leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee, certainly seemed politically convenient for the White House. Today, Gonzales is scheduled to make his first public Judiciary Committee appearance before the new Democrat-controlled Senate, where he was expected to face tough questioning about warrantless wiretapping.Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy and ranking minority member Arlen Specter have both criticized the Bush...
  • Intel: A Writer's Blocked

    A CIA panel has told former officer Valerie Plame she can't write about her undercover work for the agency, a position that may threaten a lucrative book project with her publisher. Plame's outing as a CIA officer in July 2003 triggered a criminal probe that culminates next week when Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby goes on trial for perjury and obstruction.But in what could be a pre-cursor to a separate legal battle, Plame recently hired a lawyer to challenge the CIA Publications Review Board, which must clear writings by former employees. The panel refused Plame permission to even mention that she worked for the CIA because she served as a "nonofficial cover" officer (or NOC) posing as a private business-woman, according to an adviser to Plame, who asked not to be identified discussing a sensitive issue. "She believes this will effectively gut the book," said the adviser. Larry Johnson, a former colleague, said the agency's action seems...
  • Bush’s Best Democratic Buddy

    Sen. Joe Lieberman,  the only Democrat to endorse President Bush’s new plan for Iraq, has quietly backed away from his pre-election demands that the White House turn over potentially embarrassing documents relating to its handling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans.Lieberman’s reversal underscores the new role that he is seeking to play in the Senate as the leading apostle of bipartisanship, especially on national-security issues. On Wednesday night, Bush conspicuously cited Lieberman’s advice as being the inspiration for creating a new “bipartisan working group” on Capitol Hill that he said will “help us come together across party lines to win the war on terror.”But the decision by Lieberman, the new chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, to back away from the committee's Katrina probe is already dismaying public-interest groups and others who hoped the Democratic victory in November would lead to more aggressive investigations of...
  • Silvestre Reyes

    As a young helicopter-crew chief in Vietnam, Silvestre Reyes learned the costs of war firsthand. Holed up in a camp that came under attack one night in March 1968, Reyes was knocked unconscious by a mortar. He survived, but permanently lost hearing in his left ear. Combat is "something you never forget," says Reyes, who was named last month to be the new chairman of the House intelligence committee. Now 62, the soft-spoken son of Mexican-American cotton farmers will be a prominent voice in the Iraq debate. Reyes opposed the war from the outset. He authored a prescient memo in 2003 accusing Bush administration officials of manipulating intelligence about Saddam Hussein. But in his first interview after his selection as intelligence chairman, Reyes told NEWSWEEK that he isn't in favor of a quick pullout. Instead he favors increasing troops by 30,000 to disarm the militias and prevent Iraq from becoming a staging ground for terror-ism. The comment raised eyebrows, but Reyes--a member...
  • On Tape: An 'Enemy' Interrogation

    Lawyers for "enemy combatant" Jose Padilla claim he is so disoriented from three years of isolation and aggressive interrogations that he is now mentally ill. In new court filings, Padilla's lawyers also assert for the first time that Padilla's interrogations were taped, thereby providing a potentially extensive video record of how the government treated a man once considered a dangerous Qaeda operative.U.S. officials have denied Padilla's claims that he was mistreated after he was thrown into a U.S. naval brig on orders from President Bush in June 2002. "It is our policy to treat all detainees humanely," said Pentagon spokesman J. D. Gordon. (A Justice spokesman declined to comment on the new claims about Padilla's mental state or the existence of tapes.) But the disputes about Padilla's treatment have raised issues that are likely to come up in future prosecutions, whether in regular criminal courts--where Padilla is due to be tried early next year--or in military commissions...
  • Documents: To Saddam, From Mars

    National intelligence Director John Negroponte shut down a government Web site after the disclosure that it had posted nuclear-research documents from Iraq's pre-Gulf War I weapons program. Set up in March at the insistence of congressional GOPers, the site was designed to post documents seized by the U.S. military in Iraq. But many were trivial memos and oddball letters: a telephone-repair request from an Iraqi military agency, copies of the 1987 Baghdad phone book, an Islamic Web-site article claiming the United States was developing weapons designed to sexually arouse soldiers, a 2001 letter to Saddam Hussein from a woman seeking money to preserve the planet "Iquestra" (she described herself as a commander of the Martians).Why were taxpayer dollars spent on such a project? Late last year House intel-committee chair Pete Hoekstra and Senate intel chair Pat Roberts pressed Negroponte's office to make the Iraqi docs available. They and others, including The Weekly Standard magazine,...
  • Central America: Ortega and Ollie--Again

    The Bush Administration is increasingly worried that ex-Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega--once the scourge of the Reagan White House--may prevail in the first round of Nicaragua's presidential election Nov. 5. But it wasn't happy when another Reagan-era figure flew to Managua to rally opposition to Ortega. In a speech to a group of old anti-Sandinista rebels, Iran-contra figure Oliver North compared an Ortega victory to the seizure of power by Mussolini and Hitler--and charged that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was behind Ortega. The visit blindsided officials in the U.S. Embassy, who demanded to know why North was stoking old passions. North said he was simply responding to an invitation from his old contra pals, who wanted to give him an award. "I only go where I'm invited," he said.Bush officials are worried that Chávez is backing Ortega financially. The Venezuelan president has signed a deal to provide low-cost oil to Sandinista mayors as a way of boosting Ortega's campaign....
  • The Altar Boy and the Priest

    In the fall of 2003, Mark Foley huddled in his Capitol Hill office with his sister for a soul-searching talk. The Florida congressman had just exited a Senate race amid hints that he was gay--but that wasn't all that was troubling him. As he broke down sobbing, Foley revealed that he'd been "repeatedly" abused by a priest, says Kirk Fordham, his chief of staff, who was present and described the meeting to NEWSWEEK. "I always suspected that was the case," replied Foley's sister, Donna Winterson, according to Fordham. (Winterson could not be reached for comment.)Last week Foley made good on his threat to unmask the man he says molested him when he was an altar boy in Lake Worth, Fla. Father Antonio Mercieca, now 72 and living on a tiny island near Malta, acknowledged to reporters that he and the teenage Foley skinny-dipped and were naked together in saunas--but said he never had sex with the boy. As church authorities barred Mercieca from practicing as a priest, Mercieca told NEWSWEEK...
  • The Wrong Message

    Mark Foley, a six-term Republican congressman from Florida, championed the protection of children from sexual predators. Chairman of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children, he often spoke out about the need to catch pedophiles. In July, he attended a signing ceremony at the White House for the Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006. "We track library books better than we do sexual predators," he had argued in support of the bill.It took some time, but last week Foley himself was tracked down. Confronted by ABC News with sexually explicit messages he had exchanged with 16- and 17-year-old congressional pages, Foley abruptly resigned his seat. (He did not protest his innocence; whether he committed a crime is unclear.) Politicians and preachers crusading against sin while sinning themselves is an old morality play. But the politics of Foley's downfall are messy and intriguing, coming just weeks before hotly contested congressional elections. The Democrats accused the...
  • ‘What Americans Stand For’

    South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham has played a key role in opposing President Bush’s plan to authorize military tribunals for terror suspects and reinterpret the Geneva Conventions to permit some aggressive interrogation techniques. As a member of the Senate’s Armed Services’ Committee, Graham and two other Republicans—John McCain and committee chairman John Warner—broke ranks with their party to reject the White House’s detainee bill last week. NEWSWEEK’s Michael Isikoff spoke to Graham, a former military lawyer, about the legislative battle—and why he feels so strongly about the issue. Excerpts:NEWSWEEK: How do you see the military commission and torture issues playing out? Is the president going to get the legislation he wants?Lindsey Graham: This idea of trying somebody where they don’t get [to see] the evidence against them, but the jury does—that’s dead. That’s going nowhere ...Why are you so against it?Let me give you the best example. What if a CIA paramilitary guy is...
  • The Man Who Said Too Much

    In the early morning of Oct. 1, 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell received an urgent phone call from his No. 2 at the State Department. Richard Armitage was clearly agitated. As recounted in a new book, "Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War," Armitage had been at home reading the newspaper and had come across a column by journalist Robert Novak. Months earlier, Novak had caused a huge stir when he revealed that Valerie Plame, wife of Iraq-war critic Joseph Wilson, was a CIA officer. Ever since, Washington had been trying to find out who leaked the information to Novak. The columnist himself had kept quiet. But now, in a second column, Novak provided a tantalizing clue: his primary source, he wrote, was a "senior administration official" who was "not a partisan gunslinger." Armitage was shaken. After reading the column, he knew immediately who the leaker was. On the phone with Powell that morning, Armitage was "in deep distress," says a...
  • Nasrallah's Men Inside America

    It began, as the Feds tell the tale, with a run-of-the-mill tax-fraud scheme. Imad Hammoud and his ring of Lebanese Americans from the Detroit area would buy boxes of cigarettes in North Carolina, where the state tax on smokes is among the lowest in the country, allegedly truck the goods back to Michigan and sell them at a profit of more than $10 a carton. Hammoud, an immigrant with ties to Hizbullah, according to an indictment filed with a U.S. district court in Michigan earlier this year, would then wire a portion of the earnings to a member of the group in Lebanon. By 2002, Hammoud and some of his colleagues were believed to be running $500,000 worth of cigarettes a week across state lines and expanding into stolen contraband and counterfeit goods, including Viagra tablets. During a three-month period that year, authorities allege, more than 90,000 Viagra knockoffs were purchased, with a plan to sell them as the real thing. "They're small, they're high in demand and they're...
  • Alaska: Cheney Weighs In

    An effort by Dick Cheney to prod Alaska lawmakers to approve a controversial $20 billion natural-gas pipeline project has misfired amid charges from some legislators that the veep was seeking to benefit major energy-company interests. In a highly unusual intervention in a state dispute, Cheney recently wrote Alaskan legislative leaders urging them to "promptly" enact a bill that would allow three giant oil companies--British Petroleum (BP), ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil--to build a massive pipeline from Prudhoe Bay on the state's North Slope through Canada to the upper Midwest. Under a proposed contract negotiated by Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski, the firms would get major tax breaks--an unpopular move at a time when all three are reporting soaring profits. "It's a giveaway on oil taxes--they're demanding concessions from the state that are worth billions," says Ethan Berkowitz, the Democratic leader of the Alaska House. Cheney contended the "needs of the nation" dictate that the...
  • The Gitmo Fallout

    David Bowker vividly remembers the first time he heard the phrase. A lawyer in the State Department, Bow-ker was part of a Bush administration "working group" assembled in the panicked aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Its task: figuring out what rights captured foreign fighters and terror suspects were entitled to while in U.S. custody. White House hard-liners, led by Vice President Dick Cheney and his uncompromising lawyer, David Addington, made it clear that there was only one acceptable answer. One day, Bowker recalls, a colleague explained the goal: to "find the legal equivalent of outer space"--a "lawless" universe.As Bowker understood it, the idea was to create a system where detainees would have no legal rights and U.S courts would have no power to intervene.The "outer space" line became something of a joke around the office, but Bowker and a handful of his colleagues didn't find it all that funny. The White House was already planning to fly terror suspects to...
  • What the Government Knows

    Over the last four years, U.S. law enforcement agencies have gained access to over 28,000 financial records inside the United States under a little known provision of the USA Patriot Act that parallels the secret international bank data program disclosed by news organizations last week, Treasury Department records show.The disclosure of the overseas program—under which Treasury Department officials have tapped into the records of a vast Belgian-based international financial database called Swift (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications)—has kicked up a storm of controversy. Some critics have decried the program as another example of the administration's invasion of privacy in the name of the war on terror.  At the same time, President Bush today condemned as "disgraceful" the disclosure of the operation, which intended to help the government track overseas money movements of suspected terrorists. "For people to leak that program, and for a newspaper to publish...
  • Gitmo: Pressure to Close the Facility

    The suicides of three Guantánamo detainees are likely to add momentum to calls--both inside the administration and in Congress--to close the U.S. facility in Cuba. A plan to shut down the Gitmo prison had quietly picked up support last year from Pentagon officials, including Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, but was blocked by Dick Cheney's office. Cheney and others in the White House feared closing Gitmo would be seen as a capitulation to critics. But even before the suicide hangings of the two Saudis and one Yemeni last week, there were signs that Bush himself was having second thoughts. He twice in recent weeks expressed his desire to close Gitmo, including last week after meeting with the prime minister of Denmark. ("I assured him that we would like to end the Guantánamo," Bush said.) One proposal would accelerate the return of Gitmo detainees to their host countries; the remainder (considered too dangerous) would go to supermax prisons and holding facilities inside the...