Mattis: Aerial photo request triggered firing of Gitmo tribunal overseer

Two officials overseeing the beleaguered military commission process were fired last month because of efforts they made to obtain an aerial photo of the area used to host the tribunals at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Pentagon officials said in a court filing released on Thursday.

Defense Secretary James Mattis said he dismissed a veteran national security lawyer who served as the “convening authority” of the military commissions, Harvey Rishikof, because he asked military personnel to capture fresh images of the complex and then took his request to the U.S. Coast Guard when military officials turned him down.

“I was made aware that Mr. Rishikof failed to ensure the most basic coordination was conducted for his USCG aerial imagery request and that the appropriate officials at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, including security officials, were not informed,” Mattis wrote in a sworn declaration dated March 16.

The Pentagon’s top lawyer, acting General Counsel William Castle, said in a separate declaration that he sacked the top legal adviser in Rishikof’s office, Gary Brown, in part because of the same aerial photo episode.

Castle said that the military command involved gave Rishikof and Brown a picture from 2014, but that they insisted that was not recent enough.

Castle, however, said his reasons for dismissing Brown went beyond that issue and included a failure to notify Castle’s office about a reorganization proposal that Brown and Rishikof presented to Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan last December.

Castle also said that lawyers in his office were of the view that Rishikof and Brown “alternated between not coordinating administrative aspects of their jobs and coordinating in a needlessly disruptive and divisive manner.”

Defense lawyers for one of the alleged Qaeda operatives held at Guantanamo and charged in the military commission asked the military judge to inquire into the firings, which were not explained by the Pentagon at the time. Various Guantanamo defense attorneys said they suspected that Rishikof and Brown were fired because of dissatisfaction with how they responded to complaints about microphones found in attorney-client meeting spaces at Guantanamo, by their efforts to defuse a dispute over the refusal of the defense team’s chief to testify in front of a military judge, or by the slow pace of litigation at the tribunals.

In a response ordered by the military judge, Mattis and Castle both said those issues did not affect their actions with regard to the firings. In addition, the defense secretary said he had nothing to do with Brown’s dismissal.

Rishikof and Brown did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Thursday evening.

Rishikof had no uniformed military experience before he was named by Mattis to the post overseeing the commissions last April. However, the attorney had practiced in the national security area for years, headed an American Bar Association committee on national security law and served in a top legal post at the FBI. His appointment was in the works before President Donald Trump took office, sources said.

Brown is a retired Air Force colonel who served as the top legal counsel for U.S. Cyber Command at Fort Meade, Maryland, before taking the military commission-related job last April.


Facebook employees fear ‘golden’ years are over

Facebook’s response to its controversy over data privacy looks nearly as chaotic to its employees as it does from the outside, people inside the embattled social network say.

The company’s rank-and-file are grumbling about the way CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg kept silent about the Cambridge Analytica furor for six days — a vacuum that allowed minor-celebrity Facebook executives to make matters worse by issuing hair-splitting explanations on Twitter.

Some Facebook staffers also see the company’s leadership as perpetually naive about how bad actors might misuse its platform, said company sources drawing from conversations with co-workers and discussions on the company’s internal communication forums. Others feel lingering guilt over the Russian election meddling that many employees believe helped propel Donald Trump into the presidency — and more prosaic worries that whatever changes Zuckerberg makes to address the crisis could upend months or even years of engineering work.

People inside Facebook say employees still see Zuckerberg as an inspirational figure who is growing into the role of CEO at the age of 33, and they broadly embrace his mission of connecting the world. At the same time, sources say, many feel that it had already been a very, very long year to a member of Facebook’s 25,000-person workforce even before the Cambridge Analytica news broke.

“There are some who are discouraged and some who think that the criticism is wildly exaggerated,” said one Facebook source, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation inside the company. “Facebook has always been the golden child,” said the source, adding that employees are reeling from realizing those days are over.

Now the company is facing burgeoning investigations from the Federal Trade Commission and at least two state attorneys general and regulators in Europe, as well as a possible appearance by Zuckerberg before Congress, with the House Energy and Commerce Committee saying Thursday it plans to take him up on his stated willingness to testify under the right circumstances. Zuckerberg has even opened the door to more government oversight of his company, telling CNN on Wednesday that "I actually am not sure we shouldn’t be regulated."

Facebook’s nine-member board, which includes both Zuckerberg and Sandberg as well as one-time Trump adviser Peter Thiel, acknowledged this week the dire stakes involved in the crisis — sparked by revelations that Cambridge Analytica, a data firm that worked on Trump’s election campaign, improperly obtained information on about 50 million Facebook users via an academic researcher.

The situation didn’t come to light until last weekend, when The New York Times and The Observer of London reported the details and raised questions about whether Cambridge still possessed reams of the data.

“Mark and Sheryl know how serious this situation is and are working with the rest of Facebook leadership to build stronger user protections,” Facebook director Susan Desmond-Hellmann said in a statement issued on behalf of the board late Wednesday.

Part of the confusion at the company lately has come from mid-level executives jumping into the public debate via Twitter. Facebook officials have gotten into heated, tweet-fueled discussions on everything from whether the social network charged the Trump campaign less for ads than it did Hillary Clinton, to whether Cambridge Analytica’s data access counts as a "breach."

Alex Stamos, the company’s chief security officer who participated in the "breach" debate, later tried to pull back in some of what he wrote. "I have deleted my Tweets on Cambridge Analytica, not because they were factually incorrect but because I should have done a better job weighing in," he tweeted. (It has since been reported that Stamos is leaving the company.)

Those executives are prominent figures in the tech industry circles in which they work — online advertising, say, or computer security — and are given a great deal of deference inside Facebook because of it. But their remarks, which have sometimes run counter to what’s coming out of the company’s public relations shop, have only muddied the waters.

Facebook employees’ disappointments and complaints matter, technology industry experts say. Silicon Valley worries more about worker sentiment than other industries do, partly because of the competitiveness of recruiting and keeping good engineers.

That’s one reason that the company in June launched a blog called “Hard Questions.” The point was to have a forum to “talk more openly about some complex subjects” facing the company, vice president of public policy and communications Elliot Schrage wrote in an inaugural post. While the blog is public, a key audience is Facebook employees themselves, sources said.

But the blog was dormant for the first six days of the Cambridge Analytica controversy. It was updated only late Wednesday with a post that simply linked to Zuckerberg’s statement that day calling the Cambridge situation a "breach of trust" with users and promising steps to prevent abuse of people’s data, and to his subsequent media interviews.

Sandberg spoke publicly for the first time Thursday about the controversy, expressing regret about leadership’s halting response.

"If I could live this past week again, I would definitely have had Mark and myself out speaking earlier," Sandberg said in a CNBC interview Thursday. "But we were trying to get to the bottom of this and make sure we could take strong action.

"We know this is an issue of trust," she said. "We know this is a critical moment for our company."

GOP Congress rebuffs Trump and goes on a spending spree

A Republican-led Congress is on the verge of passing a mammoth spending bill that broadly rejects the Trump administration’s attempts to downsize the federal government and even surpasses former President Barack Obama’s requests.

The $1.3 trillion bill, H.R. 1625 (115), is stuffed with new cash for programs that President Donald Trump and his Cabinet have protested — national parks, renewable energy programs, the Army Corps of Engineers — while delighting Democratic leaders.

“This spending agreement brings that era of austerity to an unceremonious end and represents one of the most significant investments in the middle class in decades,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer declared on the floor.

Among the winners in the congressional spending spree in the so-called omnibus package:


USDA and the FDA would get $23.3 billion in discretionary funding, despite the White House’s calls for billions in cuts.

And Food for Peace, a food aid program that Trump wanted to eliminate, would get extra money, totaling $1.7 billion.


Funding for the National Endowment for the Arts — which Trump’s budget would have cut — increases to $152.8 million. The National Gallery of Art gets $165.9 million, while the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts receives $40.5 million, both far above Trump’s request.


The measure doesn’t include a single dollar for the private school vouchers that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has made a key part of her tenure.

DeVos’ budget also proposed eliminating a $1.1 billion program for after-school programs. The omnibus not only rejected zeroing out the programs, but boosted them by $20 million to $1.2 billion.

The Trump budget also called for cutting the Federal Work-Study program in half — the omnibus instead gave it a $140 million boost.

The bill would block key parts of the Education Department’s effort to overhaul how it collects federal student loans.

It also boosts the funding for the Office of Civil Rights, which is in charge of investigating discrimination in schools. Appropriators said the money should be used for additional staff. The Trump administration has worked to shrink the office, which advocates complained was already understaffed.


The budget for the Environmental Protection Agency — which the White House sought to slash by one-third — escapes unscathed.


The National Institutes of Health, instead of seeing its budget shrink by $5.8 billion, will get a $3 billion increase — which lawmakers say is the largest ever.

Funding for the health department’s Title X grants program — called “America’s family planning program” — remains stable despite Trump’s proposal to eliminate it. (The administration is shifting the program’s to emphasize so-called natural family planning rather than traditional contraception.)

The Trump administration’s proposed a 95 percent cut to the Office of National Drug Control Policy was rejected in the omnibus.

Congress keeps funding flat for the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT office. Trump had proposed to slice its budget from $60 million to $38 million.

The White House in February proposed to cut the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health — CDC’s office dedicated to workplace health — by 41 percent and fold it into the National Institutes of Health. Congressional appropriators, meanwhile, trimmed the office’s $338 million budget by $3 million, or a less than 1 percent cut.


Community Development Block Grants would get a 10 increase funding increase in the omnibus. The Trump administration proposed to completely zero out its budget.


The spending bill contains no major investment for a border wall with Mexico. There’s also no crackdown on so-called sanctuary cities that harbor undocumented immigrants.


Instead of eliminating a key grant program for transportation projects, the omnibus triples the funding to $1.5 billion.

The bill appropriates $2.6 billion for Capital Investment Grants for transit, which Trump’s budget wanted to wind down.

Trump wanted to cut the law enforcement reimbursement program for airports. The omnibus includes funding for that, too.

Kaitlyn Burton, Dan Diamond, Tanya Snyder, Alex Guillen, Benjamin Wermund, Andrew Hanna, Michael Stratford, Catherine Boudreau and Liz Crampton contributed to this report.

HHS official who approved Tom Price’s flights resigns

John Bardis, a top HHS official who signed off on ex-Secretary Tom Price’s charter jet flights, is resigning effective April 6, the agency confirmed Thursday.

The health care entrepreneur and longtime friend of Price’s from Georgia served as HHS assistant secretary of administration since March 2017 and was responsible for departmental operations. He also helped oversee the ReImagine HHS project, an initiative to overhaul the agency and cut costs.

Bardis’ office has been the focus of a probe about whether Price’s use of charter-jet flights for routine domestic travel — which cost more than $400,000 — complied with federal regulations. The HHS inspector general’s office, which is conducting the probe, told POLITICO that the final report is expected later this spring.

Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan, in a statement, said Bardis was "a truly transformative leader, and HHS has benefited greatly from his dedicated work over the past year."

“I am deeply grateful to President Trump, Secretary Azar, Secretary Price, and Deputy Secretary Hargan for the opportunity to work on the American people’s behalf at HHS," Bardis said in a statement in which he praised agency staff for "their real passion for advancing the quality of American health care and human services.”

Bardis’ deputy, Jon Cordova, was recently allowed to return to HHS after being investigated for spreading conspiracy theories on social media. It is unclear how Bardis’ resignation will affect Cordova, who is in line to serve as acting assistant secretary of administration, overseeing human resources, IT and other divisions.

Ethics panel reproves two Illinois Democrats for House rules violations

The House Ethics Committee found that two Illinois Democrats violated chamber rules and must personally repay thousands of dollars for their actions.

Yet in the case of Rep. Bobby Rush, the Ethics Committee will allow him to be repaid by his campaign committee for any personal cost, so the end result is that Rush won’t be out of pocket at all.

Rush and Rep. Luis Gutierrez were formally reproved by the Ethics panel for the violations, findings that were announced on Thursday by Reps. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.) and Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), the chairwoman and ranking member of the committee.

Both cases were initially investigated by the Office of Congressional Ethics, the independent ethics watchdog, which found "substantial reason to believe" that Rush and Gutierrez had violated House rules.

Rush’s violation was tied to Chicago office space he has occupied for more than two decades without paying rent. Rush started renting the space when he was a Chicago alderman, but he failed to pay rent on it for more than 24 years, according to the Ethics Committee.

The panel ruled that Rush’s action — accepting the use of free office space — was a violation of House gift rules. The Ethics Committee ruled that Rush must repay the rental company more than $14,600 out of his own pocket.

"In this case, Representative Rush should have known that he could not accept the use of office space, over a 24 year period, without making any effort to determine whether the Gift Rule allowed it," the Ethics Committee declared in its report on the case. "The resulting violations were both foreseeable and entirely avoidable. Thus, consistent with its precedent, the Committee has decided to publicly reprove Representative Rush."

Yet because the space was only used for political purposes, Rush’s campaign can repay him for the cost off the rent and the Illinois Democrat won’t suffer a financial hit.

The Ethics Committee also found no violation by Rush tied to two donations by his campaign committee made to a church that employed Rush’s son.

Rush — who cooperated with the Ethics Committee’s probe — said he was satisfied with the panel’s findings.

“I agree with the central analysis of the House Ethics Committee in that, when all is said and done, this was a relatively minor matter," Rush said in a statement. "The rare use of the essentially abandoned office space was related to my role as a party official, but I accept the Ethics Committee’s recommendation that I take personal responsibility for paying the U.S. Treasury."

In the Gutierrez matter, the Illinois Democrat paid a former staffer-turned-consultant, Doug Scofield, for a decade out of his official congressional account. Gutierrez will now have to personally repay the Treasury Dept. for $9,700 in improper payments to the ex-aide.

After questions about the issue were raised in an article by USA Today, an OCE probe found "substantial reason to believe" that Scofield was providing "services to [Gutierrez’s] congressional office that more closely resembled those provided by an employee or consultant, rather than a contractor — in violation of federal law and House rules."

Gutierrez apparently sought guidance from the Committee on House Administration for the Scofield contract before it was signed in 2003, according to the Ethics Committee’s report, although there is no record on what, if any, instructions the Illinois Democrat received from that panel.

According to Thursday’s report, "the [Ethics] Committee found that although an overwhelming majority of the work Mr. Scofield performed from 2003 to 2013 clearly accorded with the contract’s terms, Mr. Scofield occasionally performed work for Representative Gutiérrez’s office that was either ‘legislative’ in nature or otherwise exceeded the scope of work outlined in the contract. Representative Gutiérrez thus impermissibly used MRA funds to pay Mr. Scofield for some work that exceeded the scope of the Scofield Communications contract, and the limits of what a contractor retained to provide services to a Member’s congressional office may do, as defined by the Committee on House Administration (CHA). The Committee also concluded that the resulting violations, though unintentional, were significant enough to warrant a reproval by the Committee."

The member representational allowance, or MRA, is the official money the House provides to lawmakers to run their congressional offices. There are extensive rules on how these funds can be used.

Gutierrez noted that he had sought guidance from the House Administration Committee before initiating the contract with Scofield.

"The Ethics Committee concluded, as I did, that any misuse of funds was ‘inadvertent’ and done with the approval of Committee on House Administration and the Office of House Finance," Gutierrez added. "I am glad this review is resolved and that the Ethics Committee exonerated me of any willful or intentional wrongdoing. After five years the Ethics Committee came to the same conclusion I reached in 2013 when this was first brought to my attention."

Democrats gang up on ex-Clinton Foundation head Shalala

What might have been a smooth ride to Congress for Donna Shalala is instead turning into a demolition derby.

In an open Florida congressional seat that represents one of the party’s best pickup chances in the nation, fellow Democrats are bashing the former Clinton administration Cabinet secretary, accusing her of collaborating with the enemy by contributing to Republican candidates.

Two of Shalala’s seven primary opponents joined together Thursday to criticize her for personally contributing $21,500 to Florida Republicans running for state, local and federal offices over the past decade — including the GOP congresswoman, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who held the seat before announcing her retirement this year.

“It was so jarring and so disappointing to see the newest candidate in the Democratic primary, Donna Shalala, has donated to the Republican incumbent last cycle, has donated in the past to the current Republican running for congress in this very congressional seat, has donated over $20,000 to anti-choice, anti-LGBT, pro-NRA, Republican politicians, and has donated $20,000 to a corporate PAC that has given $125,000 to the NRCC — an organizations whose sole goal is to keep a Republican majority, and Paul Ryan as speaker,” retired Circuit Judge Mary Barzee Flores and state Rep. David Richardson said in a joint statement from which each read consecutive passages during a conference call with reporters.

Richardson and Barzee Flores pointed out that the PAC for the Shalala-affiliated company MEDNAX gave $4,875 to Sen. Marco Rubio in 2016. Also, Shalala had personally contributed $500 in 2009 to Rubio’s friend, scandal-plagued former Congressman David Rivera, when he was in the state House, as well as another $500 in 2011 to former state Sen. Frank Artiles, who in 2017 resigned his seat after using racially charged language.

The two Democrats demanded that Shalala explain the Republican contributions, apologize to the Democrats who faced the Republican challengers to whom Shalala contributed and said she needed to contribute the equivalent amount — about $41,000, including the PAC money — to the Miami-Dade Democratic Party.

Shalala’s campaign couldn’t be reached for comment. But when asked Wednesday about her campaign contributions to Republicans, her adviser Fernand Amandi pointed out that the longtime party stalwart had contributed far more money, $278,000, to Democrats and liberal groups during her decades in politics.

Separately, another Democratic candidate, Miami Beach City Commissioner Kristen Rosen-Gonzalez, took a shot at Shalala by releasing a jokey video on Twitter last week that criticized her as “Donna Walmarta” for selling a parcel of environmentally sensitive UM land to developers who plan to build a WalMart.

The multi-directional incoming fire underscores Shalala’s frontrunner status in Florida’s 27th Congressional District. Independently wealthy, Shalala has earned decades worth of name ID and Democratic chits as the former Clinton Foundation executive director, a former University of Miami president and as President Clinton’s former health and human services secretary.

No other Republican-held congressional seat in the nation voted for Hillary Clinton by such a wide margin over President Trump, 19.6 percentage points.

Richardson and Barzee Flores aren’t the only Democrats aggrieved over Shalala’s past contributions. After Shalala’s campaign reached out to Scott Fuhrman — who ran unsuccessfully against Ros-Lehtinen — for a contribution, he impolitely declined with the expletive acronym, “GFY.” His issue: Shalala failed to contribute to him after donating to Ros-Lehtinen in 2016.

Fuhrman then contacted two of his former consultants, Ben Pollara and Eric Johnson, who respectively now work for Barzee Flores and Richardson. They got to work ganging up on Shalala.

Shalala’s campaign said she’s staying positive and began an earlier-than-usual ad buy this week to emphasize her experience.

When asked by a reporter if they ever contributed to a Republican, Richardson — the first openly gay state House member — said he recalled giving $250 to an LGBT Massachusetts Republican whose name he couldn’t remember. Barzee Flores said she couldn’t remember any, but state records show she gave $100 to Republican attorney general candidate Lock Burte in 2001.

“I can tell you one thing for sure,” Barzee Flores said, “I’m not going to be making campaign contributions to the likes of David Rivera and Frank Artiles.”