They've got muck; we've got rakes. TPM Muckraker

It's not much of a mystery which candidate the nonprofit group Common Sense Issues supports. After all, they run a website called Trust Huckabee. And they've made millions of calls in key primary states on Mike Huckabee's behalf.

From the various reports, the automated calls are transparent examples of push polls -- i.e. calls posing as polls, but really intended to give negative information about a particular candidate.

Common Sense has some considerable experience with this. In the 2006 elections, the group paid for calls attacking Democrats in at least five states. The robo calls followed their favored formula -- extremely leading questions followed by a barrage of "facts." In Maryland, voters were asked whether they supported medical research experiments on unborn babies. In Tennessee, voters were asked "Would you prefer to have your taxes not raised, and if possible, cut?" and then "Do you believe that foreign terrorists should have the same legal rights and privileges as American citizens?" You can listen to one of the Tennessee calls here. Always, the "facts" based on the voter's response.

When I talked to one of the leaders of the group, he told me that the questions used "accurate characterizations," and added: "There are a fair number of things that are unpleasant to talk about, but that doesn't make [our questions] any less accurate."

The group doesn't mind pushing the envelope. Since December, they've paid for calls supporting Huckabee in Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan, and South Carolina; because they are robo calls, they've been able to reach hundreds of thousands of households (1 million in South Carolina and Michigan each, and approximately 850,000 in Iowa). Florida is apparently next. The group also ran a TV ad in Iowa which you can see on their website called "Who Can You Trust?" Just in case voters didn't get the message, they were directed to, which includes a series of old TV clips of Romney proclaiming his pro-choice stance.*

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Well, Rep. John Doolittle (R-CA) finally made his much-anticipated announcement, and curiously enough, the ongoing federal investigation and his near-certain defeat in the Republican primary apparently didn't figure into his decision to retire. From the AP:

Republican Rep. John Doolittle of California, who is under investigation in a congressional lobbying scandal, said Thursday that he'll retire from Congress at the end of his current term.

"My wife, Julie, and I have made this decision after much prayer and deliberation. It was not my initial intent to retire, and I fully expected and planned to run again right up until very recently," Doolittle said after addressing supporters in his Northern California district.

"But it distilled upon us that we were ready for a change after spending almost our entire married lives with me in public service. We are at peace with this choice and look forward to starting a new chapter in our lives."

The criminal case is tied up in litigation right now, as he's contested a Justice Department subpoena for congressional records. But that should be wrapped up eventually, so that Doolittle really can get started with that "new chapter" in his life.

Update: The complete statement is below.

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As far as Blackwater's many sins go, this one's pretty minor. But it's got that special Blackwater touch.

Back in 2005, The New York Times reports, a Blackwater helicopter dropped tear gas (CS gas) on a checkpoint in Baghdad's Green Zone. "An armored vehicle on the ground also released the gas, temporarily blinding drivers, passers-by and at least 10 American soldiers operating the checkpoint.... A number of Iraqi civilians, both on foot and in cars waiting to go through the checkpoint, were also exposed. " The gas, which the American military itself "can use only under the strictest conditions and with the approval of top military commanders," causes burning eyes, skin irritation, coughing, difficulty breathing and sometimes even vomiting.

Blackwater's explanation, by way of spokeswoman Anne Tyrell, was that "a CS gas canister was mistaken for a smoke canister and released near an intersection and checkpoint." If there was some mistake, both the helicopter and the vehicle on the ground seem to have been mistaken. Oops.

Oddly enough, Army officers told the Times that "the Blackwater convoy appeared to be stuck in traffic and may have been trying to use the riot-control agent as a way to clear a path." Now, how blinding everyone in the area would help traffic to clear isn't immediately clear to me. Nor is it clear to Capt. Kincy Clark who was hit by the gas and wrote, "Why someone would think a substance that makes your eyes water, nose burn and face hurt would make a driver do anything other than stop is beyond me.”

Note: Blackwater hired its third lobbyist recently.

I'd hoped they were just wild rumors, but alas! From the AP:

Republican Rep. John Doolittle, who is under investigation in a congressional lobbying scandal, plans to announce his retirement from Congress on Thursday, according to a Republican official who spoke with Doolittle.

With a full-blown criminal investigation in the works, Jose Rodriguez, the CIA official who ordered the destruction of the torture tapes, says, via his lawyer Bob Bennett, that he's not testifying about it to Congress without immunity. He'd been scheduled to speak to the House intelligence committee next week as part of their investigation.

If the committee did give him immunity, it could potentially compromise the criminal investigation. If they didn't, he'd probably spend most of his time pleading the Fifth. Bennett first signaled this course last month, when he warned that Rodriguez wouldn't cooperate with a "witch hunt."

The Washington Post adds that criminal investigators haven't given him access to records about the destruction and that "most defense attorneys would advise a client against testifying or cooperating with a congressional investigation without access to such documents."

Only one officer, Lt. Col. Steven L. Jordan, was charged with a crime as result of the mistreatment and torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Jordan was convicted last year on a single charge of disobeying orders not to discuss the Abu Ghraib investigation, but he has now been cleared of all responsibility for that crime. Jordan was never involved in any of the abusive practices carried carried out in the prison. (Washington Post)

A new survey by the World Health Organization concludes that 151,000 Iraqis have died from violence following the U.S. invasion and that 9 out of 10 of those deaths resulted from U.S. military operations, insurgent attacks, and sectarian warfare. The study also found a 60% increase in nonviolent deaths. The good news is that the death toll is one-quarter of the number given by Johns Hopkins University’s study in 2006. (Washington Post)

Given Democrats’ objections to the NSA’s warrantless eavesdropping and the White House’s insistence on immunity for telecoms that executed the NSA program, the Bush administration is seeking a temporary fix to keep the program alive beyond its February 1 expiration date. A permanent settlement seems unlikely because while the Senate could push through a bill with immunity, the House is moving in the opposite direction. (Newsweek)

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Remember all that stuff about benchmarks? You know, measurements of progress by the Iraqi government? Well, that was last year.

There's a new catchphrase in town: "Iraqi solutions." And it means that while the Iraqis might have failed to accomplish just about all the goals the U.S. set, that's OK, and you gotta just roll with it and let the Iraqis do their thing.

Here's how it goes, from The Washington Post:

From Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker to Army privates and aid workers, officials are expressing their willingness to stand back and help Iraqis develop their own answers. "We try to come up with Iraqi solutions for Iraqi problems," said Stephen Fakan, the leader of a provincial reconstruction team with U.S. troops in Fallujah.

In many cases -- particularly on the political front -- Iraqi solutions bear little resemblance to the ambitious goals for 2007 that Bush laid out in his speech to the nation last Jan. 10. "To give every Iraqi citizen a stake in the country's economy, Iraq will pass legislation to share oil revenues among all Iraqis," he pledged. "Iraqis plan to hold provincial elections later this year . . . the government will reform de-Baathification laws, and establish a fair process for considering amendments to Iraq's constitution."...

To Crocker, the meaning of "Iraqi solutions to Iraqi problems" is "blindingly obvious. Iraq has got a government. It's got a system. It's got provincial governments. It's got a military and a police. And it has leaders of all of these things who increasingly take themselves seriously as leaders."

The New York Times noted this reduction in expectations last year, but it didn't have the requisite branding. Now it does. Some, however, are unimpressed with the rollout. The Post quotes a retired British general as saying that this supposed "dawning of reality" is a "cynical use of language" used "to camouflage past errors."

Whether it's realism or cynicism you can decide. An Army official favorably quotes Lawrence of Arabia as proof that this is an old, tried solution: "Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly."

Unfortunately, it's that "tolerable" part that's the sticking point.

Yesterday, the D.C. watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a criminal complaint against Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), calling for an investigation of whether she'd been bribed to deliver a $2 million earmark. The basic facts, as laid out in a December 20th Washington Post piece, I said, "weren't pretty."

Well, late yesterday, Landrieu's office finally, after having remained silent for nearly three weeks, responded, providing a number of facts that substantially changed the story.

The story had been that Randy Best, the longtime Bush supporter who founded Voyager, had struggled to find a senator willing to give his company, the Voyager literacy program, funding for the Washington, D.C schools. In the fall of 2001, he finally landed an interview with Landrieu. Shortly after that, someone from Landrieu's office contacted him to see if he might host a fundraiser. He said yes, ultimately delivering $30,000 to Landrieu's campaign (despite his Republican ties) through Voyager executives; four days after that, he landed his earmark, which provided $2 million to the D.C. schools for use on Voyager... even though the schools hadn't asked for it. As far as things on the Hill go, it seemed like a pretty tidy quid pro quo.

But yesterday Landrieu's office provided a letter showing that, in April of 2001, Paul Vance, the superintendent of the D.C. public schools, had written Landrieu, then the ranking member on the D.C appropriations subcommittee, and Sen. Mike DeWine (R-OH), then the chair, to ask for funds for Voyager. And they produced another showing that three weeks later, on May 15, 2001, Landrieu wrote to DeWine to request $3.5 million for the program's use in D.C.

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One less thing for the administration to worry about. From the AP:

A federal judge refused on Wednesday to delve into the destruction of CIA interrogation videos, saying there was no evidence the Bush administration violated a court order and the Justice Department deserved time to conduct its own investigation.

Update: It looks like the long-held secrecy of the black sites and the existence of the video tapes may have saved the administration here. From Judge Henry Kennedy's decision (read it here):

The 2005 Order prohibits [the administration] from destroying evidence regarding any torture, mistreatment, or abuse of detainees that occurred at Guantánamo Bay. Petitioners do not assert that the destroyed tapes depict interrogations that occurred at Guantánamo Bay and respondents have represented to the court that the interrogations depicted on the tapes did not occur there. To the contrary, the videotapes were recorded in their entirety in 2002 before either of the suspected Al Quaeda operatives shown on the tapes had been at Guantánamo Bay.... Therefore, petitioners’ motion will be denied.

From The Hill:

According to three well-placed Republican sources, former Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) — who lost his seat amid ethics allegations — has called on longtime friend Doolittle to not seek reelection in the interest of keeping the district a GOP stronghold. In the last Congress, Pombo was a panel chairman while Doolittle was a member of GOP leadership.

Pombo could not be reached for comment.