The Situation: Thursday, September 8
Editor's Note: The Situation Report is a running log of dispatches, quotes, links and behind-the-scenes notes filed by the correspondents and producers of CNN's Washington Bureau. Watch "The Situation Room" with Wolf Blitzer on CNN 3 p.m. ET to 6 p.m. ET weekdays.
Massive international operation nets 660 suspected gang members
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Posted 5:24 p.m. ET
A massive international sweep targeting suspected violent MS-13 gang members in the U.S. and Central America produced about 660 arrests in five countries, law enforcement authorities announced Thursday. The raids by government agents in the U.S., El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, involved more than six thousand officers whose actions were coordinated by top officials from the five countries working in a joint command post at FBI Headquarters.
Officials declared the operation is an important step in their common goal of eradicating the MS-13 gangs over the next 18 months. "I haven't seen anything like this in 23 years," said veteran FBI Asssistant Director Chris Swecker, who oversaw the operation. "There is no precedent in our law enforcement effort," added Alejandro Diaz de Leon, senior liaison officer to the Attorney General of Chiapas, Mexico.
The largest number of arrests (237) was in El Salvador, where the often brutal gang is entrenched. Douglas Omar Garcia Fumes, Assistant Director of Investigations in El Salvador, said taking the violent gang members off the street is only a first step in solving his nation's gang problem. "They continue to operate even after they're arrested. Orders to kill are coming out of our prisons. We have only one maximum security prison," Garcia Fumes said.
Other arrests in the two-day operation, which ended early Thursday, included 162 in Honduras, 98 in Guatemala, 90 in Mexico, and 73 in the United States. The U.S. arrests were made by agents from FBI, ATF, ICE, and local police as part of the FBI's MS-13 national task force, which carried out raids in 13 States. The largest numbers of U.S. arrests were in Los Angeles (20), San Francisco (12), Atlanta (6), and Charlotte (5).
MS-13 has an estimated 10,000 members in the U.S. and about 50,000 in Central America, officials said. Swecker said because the operations were "historic" and "unprecedented in scope" he believed the U.S. and its law enforcement partners "sent a message to MS-13 and other like gangs that their criminal enterprise and the violence they perpetrate will not be tolerated."
Posted 3:14 p.m. ET
The FBI has opened eight criminal investigations as federal agents try to battle fraudulent websites set up by scammers attempting to tap into funds intended for legitimate charities, the FBI said Thursday.
The problem has already surpassed the dimensions of scams associated with fraud following the Asian tsunami, officials said. The FBI says in the past week it has located 2,300 websites relating to aid for Hurricane Katrina victims, and suspects the vast majority may be bogus.
No arrests have been made, and none are imminent, but fraud charges are likely after further investigation, a senior FBI official said.
"After 9/11 there were some of these sites. It was much greater after the tsunami, and it's even greater after Katrina," said FBI Assistant Director Louis Reigel III, who heads heads the Cybercrime Division.
Reigel says he is shocked by the massive proliferation of such websites. "Last Friday at close of business we had identified 400 of these sites. By Tuesday it was up to 900, and today it's up to 2,300," he said.
9/11 anniversary terror advisory
Posted 12:52 p.m. ET
In light of Sunday's fourth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, government counterterrorism officials have sent an advisory to law enforcement and homeland security authorities across the country saying that although there is no credible information that al Qaeda is planning another strike, they still should be extra vigilant.
"The FBI and DHS (Department of Homeland Security) possess no specific and credible information regarding terrorist attacks in the U.S. timed to the anniversary," states a bulletin sent out Thursday. "However, recent events worldwide indicate terrorist interest to continue targeting U.S. interests and allies."
Officials also say terrorists possibly could use Hurricane Katrina and the vast recovery operation to their advantage, although they emphasize there is no intelligence to indicate that at this time. "In the light of potential economic impact of Hurricane Katrina and the U.S. government's continued focus on providing critical supplies and personnel to the gulf coast, al Qaeda or other terrorist groups may perceive an opportunity to conduct an attack timed to coincide with the 9/11 anniversary," the bulletin says.
The Morning Grind
Posted: 8:50 a.m. ET
Blame Game, Cont.
Lawmakers from both parties come together today to approve President Bush's $51.8 billion aid package for Katrina victims. Enjoy the moment. It won't last long.
After the vote, and probably before it, both parties will engage in the partisan back-and-forth that has officially come to define Washington in the days following one of America's worst natural disasters.
Sensing an opportunity, Democrats and their allies are leading the charge. MoveOn.org Political Action today holds a 1 p.m. EDT rally across from the White House, where evacuees will demand that Bush "acknowledge that budget cuts and indifference by his administration led to the disaster in New Orleans and along the Mississippi Gulf Coast." The group plans to hand-deliver a petition, signed by "thousands, that says Bush should "stop blaming the victims of Hurricane Katrina and get to work helping them."
In Miami yesterday, DNC Chairman Howard Dean charged that "lots of people perished" because the Bush administration lacked "vision" in dealing with Katrina. And in remarks to an African-American religious group, Dean said, "We have to come to terms with the ugly truth that skin color, age and economics played a significant role in who survived and who did not. And this question, 40 and 50 years after Dr. King and the civil rights movement, is, 'How could this still be happening in America?'"
A group called GOPUSA hit back, arguing in an email that Louisiana officials, who just happen to be Democrats, "could lose the Katrina blame game."
"Research into more than ten years of reporting on hurricane and flood damage mitigation efforts in and around New Orleans indicates that local and state officials did not use federal money that was available for levee improvements or coastal reinforcement and often did not secure local matching funds that would have generated even more federal funding.
One of this week's most high profile fights has been between the White House and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who charged that Bush was dismissive of her request to fire FEMA Director Michael Brown during his session with House leaders Tuesday.
"Why would I do that?" Bush said, according to Pelosi, who responded, "Because of all that went wrong, with all that didn't go right last week."
"What didn't go right?" Bush said, according to Pelosi.
"Oblivious. In denial. Dangerous," she said.
CNN's Dana Bash reports that a senior administration official, who was in the meeting, denied Pelosi's account. The official said the president challenged her by asking rhetorically, "Oh you know? You've conducted an investigation?"
Pelosi then demurred, according to the official. "Thank you for your advice," Bush said.
Partisan bickering was the most notable product (so far) of yesterday's "bipartisan" announcement of a joint Congressional committee to investigate the Katrina recover effort. No Democrat joined Republicans at the 4 p.m. presser announcing the panel's formation. One GOP aide said Speaker Dennis Hastert did speak to Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi yesterday afternoon and "notified" her of the pending announcement. A Pelosi aide points out, however, that the two leaders spoke only after Pelosi called Hastert after hearing media reports about the formation of the committee.
Some committee tidbits from CNN's Ted Barrett:
- It will be made up of senior members of the House and Senate (no number of members announced yet).
- Sen. Susan Collins will be the Senate co-chair; the House co-chair hasn't been named yet. The previously announced Senate Homeland Security Committee investigation, that Collins was going to lead, now goes away.
- Republicans will hold a majority of seats on the committee, as is consistent with past special committees like the committee that investigated Iran-Contra in 1981.
- It will have subpoena power and will report its findings by February 15, 2006. Standing House and Senate committees will use those findings to craft and legislation that might be needed to institute reforms.
- It will have its own staff (made up of existing Senate staff) and its own budget.
* Meanwhile, Dick Cheney, joined by his wife Lynne and Attorney General Gonzales, visit the region today. They start in Gulfport this morning, meeting local officials at 10:10 a.m. EDT. Then they meet with relief coordinators at 10:35 a.m. They take a noon walking tour of a Gulfport neighborhood and then meet with Gov. Haley Barbour at 1:25 p.m.
The group then goes to New Orleans, visiting the USS Iwo Jima at 3:15 p.m. EDT, seeing the 17th Street Canal levee at 4:25 p.m., and holding a media availability at 5:40 p.m. They end the trip in Baton Rouge, visiting the Emergency Operations Center at 6:25 p.m. EDT.
* Also today, our daily check on gas prices ... The average price of a gallon of unleaded has dropped a little bit more. According to AAA, it's now $3.030 per gallon, one cent less than yesterday's $3.042/gallon. The average price has been dropping a little bit each day since reaching a new record of $3.057 on Monday.
Incidentally, one year ago today, gas cost $1.837 per gallon. Good times.
* And finally, we received word of a new Hillary web site, launched by New York Post political editor Gregg Birnbaum. Birnbaum described the site, http://www.justhillary.com/ as an "independent news site providing the most comprehensive and up-to-date reports about Hillary Clinton. In the Senate, on the campaign trail in New York, testing the waters across the country. JustHillary.com is 'All About Her.'"
Independent, perhaps. Objective? Hmmm, we'll see. The site features relatively flattering pictures of the senator. But the banner headline on its homepage today was very, well, Drudge-like. "Critics starting to ask if Katrina Clinton is going too far. GOP spokesman: 'It would have been interesting if she had shown some level of restraint.'" It also slaps "Hurricane Hillary" for "thinking like a president" for saying that she would "never have appointed someone like" FEMA Director Michael Brown.
Political Hot Topics
Posted: 8:50 a.m. ET
BRIDGING THE KATRINA-ROBERTS NEWS GAP: The televised images of poverty-stricken evacuees from Hurricane Katrina are part of a provocative, last-minute effort by a liberal interest group to divert federal Judge John Roberts' path to confirmation as chief justice. MoveOn.org Political Action plans to unveil a TV ad on Monday that questions whether Roberts is sensitive enough to civil rights concerns to lead the Supreme Court. USA Today: Group's TV ad uses storm's aftermath to target Roberts
COSTLIEST STORM IN HISTORY: President Bush sent Congress a request for $51.8 billion in additional hurricane relief yesterday, raising Katrina's cost to the federal government to $62.3 billion so far, easily a record for domestic disaster relief. The mounting cost of the hurricane and its aftermath comes at a time when federal budget deficits were finally in retreat after three successive years of rising red ink. Katrina's impact, coupled with the stubbornly high cost of the war in Iraq, will probably keep the deficit well above $300 billion and near record territory in 2006, budget analysts said. Washington Post: Bush Requests $51.8 Billion More for Relief
DEAN -- RACE DECIDED LIFE OR DEATH: Race was a factor in the death toll from Hurricane Katrina, Howard Dean told members of the National Baptist Convention of America on Wednesday at the group's annual meeting. Dean, chairman of the Democratic party, made the comments to the Baptists' Political and Social Justice Commission. The Baptist Convention, with an estimated 3.5 million members, is one of the largest black religious groups in the country. "We must... come to terms with the ugly truth that skin color, age and economics played a deadly role in who survived and who did not," Dean said. AP via Yahoo! News: Dean: Race Played a Role in Katrina Deaths
ARNOLD WILL VETO: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's announcement Wednesday that he will veto the Legislature's historic same-sex marriage bill caps a momentous year in gay and lesbian rights. Schwarzenegger had for days been signaling his ambivalence on the gay marriage bill. Earlier Wednesday, he also vetoed a bill that would have prohibited political candidates who agree to follow the state's Code of Fair Campaign Practices from using antigay messages in their campaigns. SF Chronicle: A day after Assembly's OK, Schwarzenegger pledges to kill same-sex marriage bill
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