Sunday, May 14, 2006

Political news of the week, take 13

[See also: political news of the week takes 12, 11, 10, 9b, 9a, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1.]

NSA has created a massive database of Americans' phone calls: For more, see my recent post.

Cheney Pushed U.S. to Widen Eavesdropping: An article in the New York Times about the NSA wiretapping program (as opposed to the NSA phone-call database program, discussed in the links above):
In the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, Vice President Dick Cheney and his top legal adviser argued that the National Security Agency should intercept purely domestic telephone calls and e-mail messages without warrants in the hunt for terrorists, according to two senior intelligence officials.

But N.S.A. lawyers, trained in the agency's strict rules against domestic spying and reluctant to approve any eavesdropping without warrants, insisted that it should be limited to communications into and out of the country, said the officials, who were granted anonymity to discuss the debate inside the Bush administration late in 2001.

The N.S.A.'s position ultimately prevailed. But just how Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the director of the agency at the time, designed the program, persuaded wary N.S.A. officers to accept it and sold the White House on its limits is not yet fully clear.


The official said General Hayden appeared particularly concerned about ensuring that one end of each conversation was outside the United States. For his employees at the N.S.A., whose mission is foreign intelligence, avoiding purely domestic eavesdropping appears to have been crucial.


And one government official, who had access to intelligence from the intercepts that he said he would speak about only if granted anonymity, believes that some of the purely domestic eavesdropping in the program's early phase was intentional. No other officials have made that claim.

President Bush and other officials have denied that the program monitors any domestic calls. They have, however, generally stated their comments in the present tense, leaving open the question of whether domestic calls may have been captured before the program's rules were fully established.
GOP Reaches Accord on Tax Cut Package:
House and Senate Republican leaders reached agreement Tuesday on a $70-billion tax cut package that would extend some expiring tax breaks and authorize new ones, particularly for upper-income taxpayers.


The bill would extend lowered tax rates on investment income, now scheduled to expire after 2008, for an additional two years. For the current year, it would blunt the impact of the alternative minimum tax on about 15 million taxpayers.


The bill's chief negotiators — Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee — said they had reached agreement on provisions of a second tax measure, which would cost up to $36 billion over five years.

The decision to split tax legislation into two bills is a result of the congressional budget process. Under arcane budget rules, only $70 billion in tax cuts can be considered in the Senate using a "fast track" procedure that prevents a filibuster and allows passage by a simple majority.

Of the Senate's 100 members, 55 are Republicans — but some of them, fearing the effect on the deficit and the disproportionate benefit to the wealthiest taxpayers, are reluctant to extend the lowered rates on income from dividends and profits from the sale of investments, known as capital gains. For example, Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), a Finance Committee member, said she would oppose the bill as written by Grassley and Thomas.

The second bill will not benefit from the same fast-track procedures, and will need 60 votes in the Senate.

To encourage passage of the second bill, Grassley and Thomas loaded it with retroactive extensions of the most popular tax breaks that expired at the beginning of the year, including a research and development tax credit for businesses, a deduction for certain college tuition payments, and benefits for teachers who pay for classroom supplies themselves.
F.B.I.'s Focus on Public Corruption Includes 2,000 Investigations:
A post-9/11 effort by the F.B.I. to concentrate on public corruption now includes more than 2,000 investigations under way, highlighted by the Jack Abramoff lobbying inquiry, the racketeering and fraud conviction of former Gov. George Ryan of Illinois, and the multipronged corruption probes after the guilty plea by Randy Cunningham, a former Republican House member from San Diego, bureau officials said.

As one of the Bush administration's least known anticrime efforts, the F.B.I. initiative has yielded an unexpectedly rich array of cases. The results suggest that wrongdoing by public officials at all levels of government is deeply rooted and widespread. Several of the highest profile cases in which the F.B.I. played an active role involve Republicans.

Bureau officials believe that the investment in corruption cases is easily worth the cost. In 2004 and 2005, more than 1,060 government employees were convicted of corrupt activities, including 177 federal officials, 158 state officials, 360 local officials and 365 police officers, according to F.B.I. statistics. The number of convictions rose 27 percent from 2004 to 2005.
House Panel Challenges Smithsonian: A New York Times article on the a House committee's response to the Smithsonian deal that was in a prior political links post.
Bluntly rejecting the Smithsonian Institution's defense of its recent television deal with Showtime Networks, the House Appropriations Committee yesterday demanded further information on the contract, which members of the committee have said limits access and "may be incompatible with the trust placed in the Smithsonian."

The committee also cut $15 million from the Smithsonian's proposed budget and sought a cap on salaries.

The committee's actions came one day after the Smithsonian's governing board asserted, in a letter to the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees its finances, that the deal did not restrict access to its collections, as claimed by critics. The letter also rebuffed the subcommittee's suggestion that it conduct public hearings on business ventures that affect access to its collections.
Flu Preparedness Would Make [California] a Leader:
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed $400-million investment in pandemic flu and disaster preparedness — by far the largest amount any state has devoted to the cause — would vault California from a laggard to a national leader in one stroke, healthcare experts said Friday.


Provisions in the governor's plan, which is subject to two-thirds approval by the Legislature, include:

Buying nearly 7,200 ventilators, at a cost of nearly $100 million — almost double the number the federal government is to purchase for the entire nation.

Allocating $164 million to help hospitals open and supply equipment for tens of thousands of extra beds in an emergency.

Paying $53 million for nearly 3.7 million doses of anti-flu drugs, $50 million for protective respiratory masks and $12 million for two tent-like mobile hospitals — complete with operating rooms, intensive-care units and isolation wards — that each could handle 200 patients.


Shewry said health officials came up with the proposal after reviewing results from California's first comprehensive survey of hospital resources, and comparing the gaps to federal guidelines of what the state needs.

They found that California has 72,000 licensed and staffed hospital beds, and could find an additional 17,300 in an emergency. But a pandemic flu would require as many as 130,700 beds at its peak.

Officials also found that the number of ventilators the state had was woefully inadequate — only 7,183, yet the state would need about 34,000 in a pandemic. The additional purchase would not entirely cover the state's needs, but it would double the state's supply, Shewry said.

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