The Blair House Witch Hunt Project

The morning after a leading member of President Bush’s coalition of the willing was exposed as a member of Washington’s coalition of the homeless, former Australian prime minister John Howard defended his role in keeping President-elect Barack Obama and his family from checking in early at Blair House.

The Aussie press was abuzz yesterday after we revealed that Howard will be Bush’s only overnight visitor during the first two weeks in January, when the Obamas had hoped to occupy the presidential guest manse.

Howard will be there Monday, the day before Bush awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Howard, former British prime minister Tony Blair and Colombian President Álvaro Uribe — all close political allies of the current president. Blair and Uribe have made other accommodations and will not stay at the 119-room Blair House.

Howard, through a spokesman, told the newspaper the Australian that he would pick up his own tab to travel to the United States. The newspaper noted, however, that since Howard was “turfed from office” he has run up more than $186,164 (in U.S. dollars) in taxpayer-funded travel expenses.

“Mr. Howard will be staying for one night as per the invitation,” his spokesman told the Aussie paper. “There’s no entourage; it’s just Mr. and Mrs. Howard. None of it is at the expense of Australian taxpayers.”

Even so, Aussies appeared to be decidedly opposed. A Melbourne newspaper, the Age, in an online poll, found that, of 11,360 respondents, 82 percent said he didn’t deserve the medal. (Prior winners were Tommy Franks, George J. Tenet and J. Paul Bremer.)

And of 2,170 respondents, 76 percent said Howard should “give up his rooms” for the Obamas. Giving up the rooms might be a way for Howard to, as Bush might put it, “unthaw” his non-relationship with Obama after saying in 2007 that Osama bin Laden should be “praying as many times as possible” for an Obama victory.

(Meanwhile, dedicated Loop readers pointed out that we referred yesterday to Howard and Blair as former heads of state. They are merely heads of government, as Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state. We regret having bestowed such a lofty title on the former prime ministers.)

Adviser for Clinton?

Job announcements seem to be coming from everywhere these days. For example, yesterday the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the pro-9Israel think tank, put out a news release saying it was delighted that one of its senior officials, Dennis Ross, was going to be “ambassador-at-large and senior advisor to Secretary of State-9designate Hillary Rodham Clinton.”

The institute said that the job, “designed especially for him,” will make him Clinton’s top adviser on a “wide range of Middle East issues, from the Arab-Israeli peace process to Iran.”

But there’s more detail. Ross is not going to “reprise his previous role as special Arab-Israeli peace envoy,” a post he held in the Clinton administration. Someone else, of lesser note, will get that. Rather, “he will be working closely with both the special envoy and the secretary.”

The Obama transition team declined to comment.

From Justice to Security

David S. Kris, a Justice Department veteran and prominent legal scholar, is the leading candidate to oversee the department’s national security division in the Obama administration.

Kris has been wandering the halls at the department in recent weeks, overseeing the transition team’s national security work and meeting with career lawyers and political appointees. The division, created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, handles some of the department’s most sensitive issues, including electronic surveillance warrants.
Kris has criticized the Bush approach to certain counterterrorism strategies, and he and other Justice veterans have called for a sweeping overhaul of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to take into account new technological realities and legal sensitivities, a step that would require heavy lifting by Congress.

Kris, who has worked most recently at the Washington office of Time Warner, worked at the department from 2000 to 2003.

Moving to Treasury

Treasury Secretary-designate Timothy F. Geithner, working on his confirmation hearing next week, is also putting together his team of top aides. They’ll probably be announced by Stephanie Cutter, who’s the money guru’s pick for assistant secretary of public affairs at the agency, a front-burner post these days.

Cutter, now chief spokesperson for the Obama transition, had been a senior adviser on the campaign and Michelle Obama’s chief of staff. Before that, the highly regarded Cutter had worked as senior adviser to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Senate Democratic leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.), as deputy communications director in the Clinton White House, and as communications director for Sen. John F. Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign.

Tomorrow’s Phrase Today

Throughout the campaign, the buzzword was “change.” Then our absolute all-time favorite governor, Rod Blagojevich (D-Ill.), changed the term of the moment to “pay-to-play.”

A variant popped up Tuesday when Obama backers got an e-mail from the incoming first lady reminding them that midnight tonight is the deadline for their chance to get a “ticket to history.” The Obama inaugural committee is bringing 10 “grassroots” supporters here to attend the swearing-in at the Capitol, the inaugural parade and an inaugural ball.
The first winner is Cynthia Russell, a home builder from Newberry, Fla., who wrote about how the president-elect “gives me hope.”

But the Obama folks “need to select 9 more supporters like Cynthia,” the incoming first lady writes, “and I would love for you to be one of them,” Michelle Obama writes. “Make your donation of $5 or more before midnight on Thursday, January 8th.”

“You could be there to celebrate your amazing accomplishments and give a strong start to the change you fought so hard for. Please make a donation of $5 or more and help us celebrate everything you did to make this day possible,” the e-mail says, adding a handy online link.

Already tapped out? Not to worry. There’s a “P.S.” at the bottom saying that you can join in even if you don’t fork it over. You can “participate now by telling us what this Inauguration means to you.”

So this would be pay/write to play?

The Fix Is In?

A recent job posting for a top-level public affairs job at the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Customs and Border Protection shop raised a few eyebrows. It’s a fine job, deputy assistant commissioner, a career job, level GS-15, with a salary range extending to $153,200 a year.

But the “open period” seemed curiously brief: “Wednesday, December 31, 2008 to Monday, January 05, 2009.” Not much time, given the holiday and the weekend involved. And that led folks to thinking that it was wired for a political person to burrow in.
Maybe. We’re told, however, that a brief application period, especially when there are only one or two jobs to fill and a likely high number of qualified applicants, was probably okay. So we’ll just have to see who gets the job.

Another possibility, given what we’ve been hearing of late, is that the job may be wired for a career employee who just happens to have been supportive of the current administration’s policies. The idea would be that when the Obama teams walk in, they may find the top career people somewhat less than enthusiastic about changing things.
Just guessing.

Recycle, Reuse

The government apparently can find a place to use all its assets. These might be drug dealers’ cars or a money launderer’s file cabinets. The Department of Justice’s official tally of asset forfeiture items put into official service by various agencies (that is, not the stuff that was sold or liquidated, but items the agencies put to use themselves) had curious entries. Among the listed items, we find that the FBI apparently found official uses for about $120,000 in jewelry and $134 worth of pornography.

Sting operation?

With Philip Rucker

By Eric Pianin  |  January 8, 2009; 1:36 PM ET
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