Feds drop ball on Medicare fraud cases

Sen. Chuck Grassley (AP)

They don’t seem that interested in hot pursuit. It took private sleuths hired by Medicare an average of six months last year to refer fraud cases to law enforcement.

According to congressional investigators, the exact average was 178 days. By that time, many cases go cold, making it difficult to catch perpetrators, much less recover money for taxpayers.

A recent inspector general report also raised questions about the contractors, who play an important role in Medicare’s overall effort to combat fraud.

Out of $835 million in questionable Medicare payments identified by private contractors in 2007, the government was only able to recover some $55 million, or about 7 percent, the report found.

Medicare overpayments — they can be anything from a billing error to a flagrant scam — totaled more than $36 billion in 2009, according to the Obama administration.

President Barack Obama has set a high priority on battling health care fraud and waste, hoping for savings to help pay for the new law covering millions now uninsured.

Medicare’s private eyes don’t seem to be helping much.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, questions whether taxpayers are getting good value from for-hire fraud busters. His office, which is investigating the contracting program, obtained Medicare data for the last four years on how long it took to refer cases to federal agents.

“Medicare is already a pay-and-chase system when it comes to fraud, waste and abuse,” said Grassley. “Providers are paid first, then questioned if there’s a problem. Add to that mix contractors who sit on cases of ongoing fraud when they should be referring them to law enforcement, and you have a recipe for disaster.”

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press

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Kagan sworn in as newest Supreme Court justice

Elena Kagan takes oath of office (AP)

Elena Kagan was sworn in Saturday as the 112th justice and fourth woman ever to serve on the Supreme Court.

Chief Justice John Roberts administered the oath to Kagan in a brief private ceremony at the court. Kagan, joined by family and friends, pledged to faithfully and impartially uphold the law.

Afterward, she smiled broadly as a crowd of onlookers stood and applauded. “We look forward to serving with you,” Roberts said.

Kagan, a former Harvard Law School dean who most recently was solicitor general, was President Barack Obama‘s choice to succeed retired Justice John Paul Stevens. Republicans criticized her as a political liberal, before the Senate confirmed her this past week on a vote of 63-37.

She was sworn in twice Saturday by Roberts — reciting one oath as prescribed by the Constitution during a ceremony in a conference room at the court with only her family present. Kagan then recited a second oath, taken by judges, with her family and friends and reporters present.

Kagan won’t be formally installed as a justice until Oct. 1 in a courtroom ceremony at the start of the court’s new term. But after the oaths taken on Saturday, she will be able to begin assuming her duties as a justice, which include reviewing cases and emergency appeals filed to the Supreme Court.

Kagan, 50, joins Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor on the nine-member court, which often divides 5-4 on high-profile cases such as gun rights, discrimination and campaign finance. The first woman in the court’s history, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, retired in 2005.

Kagan isn’t expected to alter the ideological balance of the court, where Stevens was considered a leader of the liberals.

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press

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Feds fudged on mortgage bailout failure numbers

The Obama administration on Friday acknowledged it had underestimated the number of homeowners who fell seriously behind on their mortgage payments even after getting government help.

Treasury officials blamed the error on mortgage finance giant Fannie Mae, which acts as the program administrator for President Barack Obama’s $50 billion Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP).

The program had been criticized for its overly optimistic estimates of the number of struggling borrowers helped by its subsidies of new mortgage terms.

The actual numbers of permanent modifications that have lasted at least nine months through the end of May is tiny: just 4,764 borrowers. And 53,041 borrowers had one for at least six months through May.

Treasury said about 14.9 percent of the 4,764 borrowers who have had a permanent modification for at least nine months by the end of May had re-defaulted on their loan. That’s more than six times the 2.4 percent rate they reported on July 20.

For loans that had been permanently modified for at least six months, about 6.1 percent had re-defaulted, up from just 1.7 originally estimated. Re-defaults are defined as 90 days or more late.

For loans 60 days late and not yet in re-default, the number of borrowers in trouble is even higher.

For loans that had been permanently modified for at least nine months, 19.6 percent of the loans were at least two months behind on their payments, more than two and a half times the 7.7 percent rate first reported.

On loans permanently modified for at least half a year, 10.1 percent were 60 days or more behind on payments, compared to the 5.9 percent originally reported.

“We are confident that this data table correctly reflects the performance of the permanent modifications over time. Early program results indicate that the vast majority who receive permanent modifications through HAMP benefit from them and remain in the program,” said Treasury spokesman Mark Paustenbach.

The issue arose after several Wall Street analysts said the numbers Treasury first issued seemed suspiciously low.

Treasury then asked Fannie Mae to review the numbers.

Fannie Mae spokesman Brian Faith said his company found “an issue in its implementation of the delinquency statistic methodology.”

“Fannie Mae has now corrected the implementation and validated the revised table through review and verification by an independent third-party consultant contracted by Fannie Mae’s Internal Audit Group,” Faith said.

Treasury on July 20 said that the number of borrowers dropping out the program grew in June at almost twice the pace of those getting a permanent modification. Those figures were not revised.

The dropout rate could signal a rise in foreclosures in the second half of the year at a time when the housing market is still fragile and analysts fear another housing slump could threaten the nascent economic recovery.

About 91,000 borrowers dropped out of the program in June, putting the total number of dropouts at 530,000. At the same time, about 49,000 borrowers received a permanent modification in June, bringing that total to 389,000.

That means more than 40 percent of the roughly 1.3 million borrowers who have started in the program since its March 2009 inception have since dropped out, while just over 30 percent have received permanent new terms for their loan.

Copyright © 2010 Reuters

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Fired HP CEO walks away with $28 million

Ousted Hewlett Packard CEO Mark Hurd (Reuters)

Lauded for making Hewlett-Packard Co. the world’s biggest technology company, CEO Mark Hurd was in negotiations for a new contract worth about $100 million, according to a person familiar with the negotiations.

Instead, he’s getting about a third of that to just go away.

In a stunning announcement Friday, HP said it ousted Hurd after an investigation of a sexual harassment complaint found that he had falsified expense reports and other documents to conceal a relationship with a contractor. Hurd also allegedly helped the woman get paid for work she didn’t do.

In recent weeks, Hurd was in negotiations for a new three-year contract worth about $100 million when a woman who worked for HP as a host at high-profile events accused him of sexual harassment, a person with intimate knowledge of the case told The Associated Press. The person requested anonymity because this person wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about the details of the case.

News of Hurd’s abrupt departure sent HP’s stock tumbling nearly 10 percent. Shares of the world’s biggest maker of personal computers and printers have doubled in value during his five-year stewardship, and HP became the world’s No. 1 technology company by revenue in that time.

Hurd’s “systematic pattern” of submitting falsified financial reports to hide the relationship convinced the board that “it would be impossible for him to be an effective leader moving forward and that he had to step down,” HP general counsel Michael Holston said on a conference call Friday with analysts.

“The facts that drove the decision for the company had to with integrity, had to do with credibility, had to do with honesty,” Holston said, declining to elaborate.

Holston said the inaccurate financial reports related only to Hurd’s personal expenses.

Hurd, 53, acknowledged there were “instances in which I did not live up to the standards and principles of trust, respect and integrity that I have espoused at HP.”

High-profile Los Angeles attorney Gloria Allred said she is representing the woman and “there was no affair and no intimate sexual relationship” between her client and Hurd. Allred, reached by The Associated Press late Friday, declined to comment further.

The person close to the case told the AP that the woman worked as a host for more than a dozen events for CEOs that Hurd attended between 2007 and 2009. The person said the disputed expenses range from $1,000 to $20,000 each for travel, lodging and meals.

The person said many of the expenses were for meals after the events and that Hurd insists they were legitimate business expenses. The total amount of the expenses in dispute could not be learned.

Hurd has offered to repay expenses that were incorrectly filed, this person said.

The married father of two will get a $12.2 million severance payment and nearly 350,000 shares of HP stock worth about $16 million at Friday’s closing price. The company also extended the deadline for exercising options to buy up to 775,000 HP shares.

The company’s chief financial officer, Cathie Lesjak, 51, was named interim CEO. She has been with the company 24 years but has taken herself out of the running to fill the position permanently. HP has set up a search committee to look for a permanent replacement.

HP’s shares, which closed Friday on the New York Stock Exchange at $46.30, tumbled 9.7 percent after hours to $41.85 as investors reacted to the news released after the close of markets.

Beloved by investors for his relentless cost-cutting — and scorned by thousands of laid-off employees for the same — Hurd was seen as rescuing the company from the mess left behind by his predecessor, Carly Fiorina.

Hurd has transformed the 71-year-old company from a computer and printer maker hooked on profits from printer cartridges into a company that looks a lot like its archrival IBM Corp., a major player in technology services and other fast-growing areas.

Though their underlying stories are very different, Hurd’s departure is like Fiorina’s in one key way: Both were forced out with the company about to reap the benefits of sweeping changes they made at the Silicon Valley institution.

Fiorina left in 2005 in the wake of her decision to acquire Compaq Computer and an ensuing upheaval over her personality and her business strategies, but the divisive deal proved instrumental in HP’s ascendance under Hurd.

By comparison, Hurd is departing after cutting tens of thousands of jobs and launching an expensive expansion, including the $13.9 billion acquisition of technology-services provider Electronic Data Systems, the $2.7 billion takeover of computer-networking equipment maker 3Com Corp. and the $1.4 billion deal for mobile phone maker Palm Inc.

To reassure investors, HP, based in Palo Alto, previewed its third-quarter results late Friday in advance of a detailed report Aug. 19.

The company said it expects to report earnings of 75 cents per share, compared with 67 cents a year earlier. Excluding one-time items, the company says results will be $1.08 per share, a penny ahead of analysts’ current expectations. Revenue is expected to rise 11 percent from last year to $30.7 billion, slightly higher than analysts’ expectations.

The company’s forecast for the current quarter, which ends in October, is roughly in line with analysts’ expectations.

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press

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Oil still contaminating Gulf coast

Cleanup continues in marsh (AFP)

Much of the crude still in the Gulf and coastal areas more than three months after BP‘s blowout has permeated deep into marshes and wetlands, complicating cleanup.

Crews are still finding plenty of crude in those interior areas, even as government officials say spotting oil from the air on the Gulf’s surface is taking longer on each trip.

“The good news is people are seeing less oil, but the bad news is the oil trapped in the marshes is moving out with the tides and sticking on the marsh cane,” said Maura Wood, an oceanographer with the National Wildlife Foundation, on a boat trip to the marshes of Pass-A-Loutre, La. “And that could kill it.”

The sometimes frustrating search for oil underscores the difficulties facing the small army of federal officials and cleanup crews tasked with purging what remains. Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft, the government’s on-scene coordinator, said he’s had to spend a growing amount of his time taking flights over the Gulf to search for the remaining crude.

“There is very little observable oil out there,” he said, saying that Coast Guard responders are not seeing much on the surface. But he added: “We can’t turn a blind eye … If we don’t see oil, I’m not assuming it doesn’t exist.”

Engineers, meanwhile, were working to make sure no new oil would seep from the busted well. They scored another victory Thursday by finishing the pumping of a steady stream of fresh cement down the throat of the well, and crews planned to wait at least a day for it to dry.

The cement was one of the last steps in the so-called “static kill.” The effort started Tuesday with engineers pumping enough mud down the top of the well to push the crude back to its underground source for the first time since an oil rig exploded 50 miles off the Louisiana coast on April 20, killing 11 workers and triggering the spill.

Crews followed it up Thursday by sealing the well with a torrent of cement. After it dries, the last step begins: Finishing the drilling of the last 100 feet of the relief well, which government officials said will be used to seal the underground reservoir from the bottom with mud and cement.

“This is not the end, but it will virtually assure us that there will be no chance of oil leaking into the environment,” retired Adm. Thad Allen, who oversees the spill response for the government, said in Washington.

The progress was another bright spot as the tide appeared to be turning in the monthslong battle to contain the oil, with a federal report this week indicating that only about a quarter of the spilled crude remains in the Gulf and is degrading quickly.

Despite the progress on the static kill, BP executives and federal officials won’t declare the threat dashed until they use the relief well — though lately they haven’t been able to publicly agree on its role.

Federal officials including Allen have insisted that crews will shove mud and cement through the 18,000-foot relief well, which should be completed within weeks. Crews can’t be sure the area between the inner piping and outer casing has been plugged until the relief well is complete, he said.

But for reasons unclear, BP officials have in recent days refused to commit to pumping cement down the relief well, saying only that it will be used in some fashion. BP officials have not elaborated on other options, but those could include using the well simply to test whether the reservoir is plugged.

The vast oil reservoir beneath the well could still be worth billions of dollars even after it spewed crude into the Gulf of Mexico for more than three months, but BP isn’t saying whether it plans to cash in on this potential windfall.

BP insisted Thursday it had no plans to use it or its two relief wells to produce oil. But the company won’t comment on the possibility of drilling in the same block of sea floor someday or selling the rights to the entire tract to another oil company.

Whether the well is considered sealed yet or not, there’s still oil in the Gulf or on its shores — nearly 53 million gallons of it, according to the report released Wednesday by the Interior Department and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

That’s still nearly five times the size of the Exxon Valdez spill, which wreaked environmental havoc in Alaska in 1989.

But almost three-quarters of the nearly 207 million gallons of oil that leaked overall has been collected at the well by a temporary containment cap, been cleaned up or chemically dispersed, or naturally deteriorated, evaporated or dissolved, the report said.

Some residents are worried that now that the well has flatlined, the nation’s attention will shift from the coast.

“I’m losing trust in the whole system,” said Willie Davis, a 41-year-old harbormaster in Pass Christian, Miss. “If they don’t get up off their behinds and do something now, it’s gonna be years before we’re back whole again.”

In Pass-A-Loutre, where oil still clung stubbornly to marsh cane, each day’s high tide picks up the goo and leaks it back into the ocean. But Jeremy Ingram, the Coast Guard official who oversees cleanup crews here, said it’s cleaner than it was when he arrived 60 days ago. Back then, he said, he couldn’t even see water through the thick ooze.

“I’d say it’s a lot less than what was here, but if you see on the canes it’s still heavily saturated with oil. So the job’s not done yet, there’s still a lot more work to get done,” he said. “As the tide comes up and washes oil off that cane, somebody and some thing has to be here to catch it.”

___

Bluestein reported from New Orleans. Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Jennifer Kay in Pensacola Beach, Fla., Brian Skoloff in Pass Christian, Miss., Harry R. Weber and Jeff McMillan in New Orleans and Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Ala.

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press

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CIA moved prisoners to circumvent court

CIA prisoner plane (AP)

Four of the nation’s most highly valued terrorist prisoners were secretly moved to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2003, years earlier than has been disclosed, then whisked back into overseas prisons before the Supreme Court could give them access to lawyers, The Associated Press has learned.

The transfer allowed the U.S. to interrogate the detainees in CIA “black sites” for two more years without allowing them to speak with attorneys or human rights observers or challenge their detention in U.S. courts. Had they remained at the Guantanamo Bay prison for just three more months, they would have been afforded those rights.

“This was all just a shell game to hide detainees from the courts,” said Jonathan Hafetz, a Seton Hall University law professor who has represented several detainees.

Removing them from Guantanamo Bay underscores how worried President George W. Bush‘s administration was that the Supreme Court might lift the veil of secrecy on the detention program. It also shows how insistent the Bush administration was that terrorists must be held outside the U.S. court system.

Years later, the program’s legacy continues to complicate President Barack Obama‘s efforts to prosecute the terrorists behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The arrival and speedy departure from Guantanamo were pieced together by the AP using flight records and interviews with current and former U.S. officials and others familiar with the CIA’s detention program. All spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the program.

Top officials at the White House, Justice Department, Pentagon and CIA consulted on the prisoner transfer, which was so secretive that even many people close to the CIA detention program were kept in the dark.

CIA spokesman George Little said: “The so-called black sites and enhanced interrogation methods, which were administered on the basis of guidance from the Department of Justice, are a thing of the past.”

Before dawn on Sept. 24, 2003, a white, unmarked Boeing 737 landed at Guantanamo Bay. At least four al-Qaida operatives, some of the CIA’s biggest captures to date, were aboard: Abu Zubaydah, Abd al-Nashiri, Ramzi Binalshibh and Mustafa al-Hawsawi.

Binalshibh and al-Hawsawi helped plan the 9/11 attacks. Al-Nashiri was the mastermind of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. Zubaydah was an al-Qaida travel facilitator. The admitted terrorists had spent months overseas enduring some of the harshest interrogation tactics in U.S. history.

By late summer 2003, the CIA believed the men had revealed their best secrets. The agency needed somewhere to hold them, but no longer needed to conduct prolonged interrogations.

The U.S. naval facility at Guantanamo Bay seemed a good fit. Bush had selected the first six people to face military tribunals there, and a federal appeals court unanimously ruled that detainees could not use U.S. courts to challenge their imprisonment.

And the CIA had just constructed a new facility, which would become known as Strawberry Fields, separate from the main prison at Guantanamo Bay.

The agency’s overseas prison network, meanwhile, was in flux. A jail in Thailand known as Cat’s Eye closed in December 2002, and in the fall of 2003 the CIA was preparing to shutter its facility in Poland and open a new one in Romania. Human rights investigators and journalists were asking questions. The CIA needed to reshuffle its prisoners.

The prisoner transfer flight, outlined in documents and interviews, visited five CIA prisons in Afghanistan, Poland, Romania, Morocco and Guantanamo Bay. The flight plan was so poorly thought out, some in the CIA derisively compared it to a five-card straight revealing the program to outsiders: Five stops, five secret facilities, all documented.

The flight logs were compiled by European authorities investigating the CIA program.

The flight started in Kabul, where the CIA picked up al-Hawsawi at the secret prison known as the Salt Pit. The Boeing 737 then flew to Szymany, Poland, where a CIA team picked up 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and took him to Bucharest, Romania, to the new prison, code-named Britelite.

Next it was on to Rabat, Morocco, where the Moroccans ran an interrogation facility used by the CIA.

At 8:10 p.m. on Sept. 23, 2003, the Boeing 737 took off from a runway in Rabat. On board were al-Hawsawi, al-Nashiri, Zubaydah and Binalshibh. At 1 a.m. the following day, the plane touched down at Guantanamo.

Unlike the overseas black sites, there was no waterboarding or other harsh interrogation tactics at Strawberry Fields, officials said. It was a holding facility, a place for some of the key figures in the 9/11 attacks to await trial.

Not long after they arrived, things began unraveling. In November, over the administration’s objections, the Supreme Court agreed to consider whether Guantanamo Bay detainees could sue in U.S. courts.

The administration had worried for several years that this might happen. In 2001, Justice Department lawyers Patrick Philbin and John Yoo wrote a memo saying courts were unlikely to grant detainees such rights. But if it happened, they warned, prisoners could argue that the U.S. had mistreated them and that the military tribunal system was unlawful.

“There was obviously a fear that everything that had been done to them might come out,” said al-Nashiri’s lawyer, Nancy Hollander.

Worse for the CIA, if the Supreme Court granted detainees rights, the entire covert program was at risk. Zubaydah and al-Nashiri could tell their lawyers about being waterboarded in Thailand. Al-Nashiri might discuss having a drill and an unloaded gun put to his head at a CIA prison in Poland.

“Anything that could expose these detainees to individuals outside the government was a nonstarter,” one U.S. official familiar with the program said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the government’s legal analysis.

In early March 2004, as the legal documents piled up at the Supreme Court, the high court announced that oral arguments would be held in June. After that, a ruling could come at any time, and everyone at the island prison — secretly or not — would be covered.

On March 27, just as the sun was setting on Guantanamo, a Gulfstream IV jet left Cuba. The plane landed in Rabat the next morning. By the time the Supreme Court ruled June 28 that detainees should have access to U.S. courts, the CIA had once again scattered Zubaydah, al-Nashiri and the others throughout the black sites.

Two years later, after The Washington Post revealed the existence of the program, Bush emptied the prison network. Fourteen men, including the four who had been at Guantanamo Bay years earlier, were moved to the island prison. They have remained there ever since.

The four men who were making their second journey to Guantanamo Bay received what they nearly obtained years earlier, before they were spirited away.

“The International Committee of the Red Cross is being advised of their detention and will have the opportunity to meet with them,” Bush said in a White House speech Sept. 6, 2006. “Those charged with crimes will be given access to attorneys who will help them prepare their defense, and they will be presumed innocent.”

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press

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Pentagon wants leaked documents back

(AFP)

The Pentagon demanded Thursday that a website that solicits leaked government secrets cancel any plan to publish more classified military documents and pull back tens of thousands of secret Afghan war logs already posted on the Internet.

The demand, which the Pentagon has no independent power to enforce, is primarily aimed at preventing release of approximately 15,000 secret documents that the website WikiLeaks has said it is holding. The Pentagon also hopes to stop WikiLeaks from making public the contents of a mammoth encrypted file recently added to the site. Contents of that file remain a mystery.

“We are asking them to do the right thing,” Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said. “I don’t know that we’re very confident they’ll have a change of heart.”

WikiLeaks did not immediately reply to calls and e-mails seeking comment on the Pentagon’s demand, although on its Twitter feed the group seemed dismissive, calling Morrell “obnoxious” and saying his demand was tantamount to a “formal threat.”

WikiLeaks posted more than 76,900 classified military and other documents, mostly raw intelligence reports from Afghanistan, on its website July 25. The 15,000 additional documents are apparently related to that material.

The documents leaked so far illustrate the frustration of U.S. forces in fighting the protracted Afghan conflict and revived debate over the war’s uncertain progress. The White House angrily denounced the leaks, saying they put the lives of Afghan informants and U.S. troops at risk.

“The Defense Department demands that WikiLeaks return immediately to the U.S. government all versions of documents obtained directly or indirectly from the Department of Defense databases or records,” Morrell said.

He called the material stolen property, but would not address whether the demand is a prelude to legal action against the website or others. Morrell spoke at a Pentagon press conference that amounted to a televised public appeal to the secretive site and its editor in chief, Julian Assange.

Generally speaking, WikiLeaks has so far struck an uncompromising tone, with Assange telling journalists in London last week that he had no obligation to the U.S. military and found the very notion of “national security” ridiculous.

An Army private, Bradley Manning, is jailed on suspicion of leaking classified material to WikiLeaks in a previous case. He is a “person of interest” in the latest release, Morrell said.

As a practical matter, the Pentagon has little if any hope that it can recapture all electronic forms of the documents already placed online and since downloaded and examined by countless people.

“The genie is out of the bottle,” Morrell acknowledged later, but he said WikiLeaks would make matters worse by releasing more information.

The Pentagon has had no direct contact with WikiLeaks about possible efforts to redact those documents to make them less of a security threat, Morrell said, and he ruled out such an exercise.

“We’re not looking to have a conversation about harm minimization,” Morrell said. “We’re looking to have a conversation about how to get these perilous documents off the website as soon as possible, return them to their rightful owners and expunge them from their records.”

The Pentagon has some idea what the 15,000 unpublished documents contain, he said. U.S. intelligence and security officials appear worried that the unpublished material contains more damaging secrets than were contained in the low-level military intelligence reports first released.

WikiLeaks claimed Wednesday that the group had always sought — and was still seeking — to open a line of communication with the Defense Department.

“WikiLeaks have wanted that for some time,” WikiLeaks told The Associated Press. But it added that the Pentagon had so far made no attempt to contact the whistleblower website directly.

Also hanging fire are secret State Department documents that Manning is suspected of obtaining.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters Thursday that the government thinks WikiLeaks has classified State Department material that it has not released.

“Certainly as a government, we would like to see all documents returned, whether they’re military cables, whether they’re State Department cables. This is classified information that WikiLeaks does not have a right to possess,” Crowley said.

WikiLeaks has posted a huge encrypted file named “Insurance” to its website, raising the possibility that the organization may be prepared to release another wave of secret material if the government attempts to block the site or target its operators.

Bloggers have noted that the file is 20 times the size of the batch already released.

WikiLeaks wouldn’t comment Thursday on the 1.4 gigabyte file beyond a vague reference to “security procedures.”

Assange said little more in his response to the same line of questioning in a television interview with independent U.S. news network Democracy Now!

“I think it’s better that we don’t comment on that,” Assange said, according to the network’s transcript of the interview. “But, you know, one could imagine in a similar situation that it might be worth ensuring that important parts of history do not disappear.”

Assange has expressed concern over his safety in the past, complaining of surveillance and telling interviewers that he’s been warned away from visiting the United States.

The Pentagon has a team of about 80 intelligence experts combing the documents already released for information that Taliban insurgents or others could use to hone their tactics against U.S. force or target informants. That team, which includes military intelligence analysts and others culled from the nation’s vast constellation of intelligence agencies, could soon grow to as many as 125 people, Morrell said.

• Associated Press writers Pauline Jelinek and Matthew Lee in Washington and Raphael G. Satter in London contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press

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Kagan sails through confirmation

Elena Kagan (AP)

It’s all over but the celebrating and oath-taking for soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.

Kagan is joining President Barack Obama at the White House on Friday for a ceremony to mark her confirmation as the nation’s 112th justice. On Saturday, she’s to be sworn in at the Supreme Court as the successor to retired Justice John Paul Stevens.

The 50-year-old U.S. solicitor general, who won confirmation Thursday over Republican opposition, will be sworn in twice by Chief Justice John Roberts.

She will recite one oath as prescribed by the Constitution in a private ceremony in the high court’s Justices’ Conference Room, with only her family present. Then, Roberts will administer a second oath, taken by judges, with the Kagan’s family and friends and reporters present.

She won’t be formally installed as a justice until Oct. 1 in a courtroom ceremony at the start of the court’s new term.

Kagan isn’t expected to alter the ideological balance of the court, where Stevens was considered a leader of the liberal wing. But the two parties clashed over her nomination and the court itself. Republicans argued that Kagan was a politically motivated activist who would be unable to put aside her personal opinions and rule impartially. Democrats defended her as a highly qualified trailblazer for women who could bring a note of moderation and real-world experience to a polarized court they said was dominated by just the kind of activists the GOP denounced.

Kagan is the first Supreme Court nominee in nearly 40 years with no experience as a judge, and her addition will mark the first time that three women will serve on the nine-member court together.

Obama hailed the addition of another woman to the court — just a year after his first nominee, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, was confirmed — as a sign of progress for the country. And he called the 63-37 confirmation vote “an affirmation of (Kagan’s) character and her temperament, her open-mindedness and evenhandedness, her determination to hear all sides of every story and consider all possible arguments.”

In the final tally, five Republicans joined all but one Democrat to support Kagan, giving her a slightly narrower margin of support than Sotomayor received.

GOP senators and conservative groups, including the National Rifle Association, argued that Democrats from conservative states should oppose Kagan because of her stances on social issues, including support for gun control measures and abortion rights.

But only one, Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, voted “no.”

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press

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Ex-lobbyist indicted for illegal contributions

Paul Magliocchetti

The head of a now-defunct lobbying firm was arrested on Thursday on charges he made illegal campaign contributions in an effort to build his clout and win more clients in the defense industry, the Justice Department said.

Paul Magliocchetti, 64, was indicted on 11 counts of violating federal election laws that regulate and limit contributions to political candidates and parties for more than five years, stretching from January 2003 to November 2008.

The indictment, in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, said Magliocchetti used personal and corporate money to finance campaign contributions made at his direction by relatives, friends, employees and others.

As a result, he caused campaign committees to file false statements with the Federal Election Commission, according to the indictment. The indictment did not name the campaigns that were involved.

Before starting his own firm PMA Group Inc, Magliocchetti was a staff member on the defense subcommittee of the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee, which was led by Democratic Representative John Murtha, who died in February.

A House ethics committee investigated whether lawmakers improperly or illegally considered campaign contributions when they steered hundreds of millions of dollars in mostly no-bid contracts to some 40 companies, including PMA.

The panel cleared Magliocchetti’s former boss, Murtha, and six other House lawmakers of wrongdoing but the committee cited “troubling aspects” involving PMA’s conduct.

The ethics report noted some “strong-arm tactics” in which the lobbying firm threatened to withdraw financial support or encourage businesses to relocate out of a member’s district.

Magliocchetti, who is being treated at a psychiatric facility in Baltimore, was released by the court on a $2 million bond on condition that he continue receiving mental health treatment and remain in the Washington, D.C., area or at his home in Florida.

A lawyer for Magliocchetti was not immediately available for comment.

In a related case, his son, Mark Magliocchetti, pleaded guilty in federal court in Virginia on Thursday to charges he made illegal corporate campaign contributions.

Copyright © 2010 Reuters

Black tea party members: Racism? What racism?

Black members of the tea party movement on Wednesday rejected charges that the group’s activists are racist, saying they oppose President Barack Obama because of his policies not his skin color.

The members gathered at a Washington news conference in the wake of allegations about its rank and file, heightened by the recent split with a Tea Party Express leader who had posted a letter on his blog written from “Colored People” to Abraham Lincoln. The post suggested that black people would choose slavery over having to do real work.

The black members said the racism that has been attributed to the tea party movement came from outsiders who infiltrated the groups to discredit their work and it should be rejected.

“These people do not oppose Barack Obama because of his skin color. They oppose him because of his policies,” said Lloyd Marcus, a spokesman for the group.

The NAACP last month approved a resolution condemning racism within the tea party movement and called on activists to “repudiate the racist element and activities” within the political movement.

At the news conference, several members assailed Obama and the Democrats, often in harsh terms.

“Democrats have re-enslaved America,” said Kevin Jackson, president of the Black Conservative Coalition. He said tea party activists, if successful, would reduce the size of government and set in motion another Emancipation Proclamation, the document that President Abraham Lincoln signed that effectively ended slavery.

“This time, even the white folks get freed,” said Jackson, who accused Obama of viewing fellow blacks as “mongrels.”

Democratic National Committee spokesman Hari Sevugan declined to respond to the tea party leaders’ criticism. The White House also declined to comment.

Other tea party speakers called Democrats white supremacists and elitists. Conservative Moms for America leader Mary Baker said Democrats were pushing “anti-God politics.”

“Destroy America. That’s what the D in Democrat Party means,” she said.

Alan Keyes, who unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate against Obama in 2004, said the president “got elected on a virulent form of racism” by exploiting his race during the 2008 campaign.

The Tea Party Express, one of dozens of libertarian-leaning and anti-tax groups, organized the meeting with reporters to denounce racism and then accused its opponents of using allegations of racism to censor dissent.

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press

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