Today's Papers

I Sing the Straw Poll Electric

USA Today leads with a preliminary, non-public congressional study concluding that nine out of 10 background checks conducted by the Pentagon on employees with access to classified information fail to meet federal standards. The Los Angeles Times goes with a Justice Department report that prison growth slowed last year–finally responding to a 5-year-old drop in the crime rate. For the second time in three days, the New York Times leads with Dagestan. Russian generals are claiming victory against the Chechen Islamic commandos in the province, but independent military analysts are skeptical. (The Wall Street Journal also puts this story high in its “Worldwide” box.) The Washington Post leads with an Iowa straw poll roundup. (For more on the Iowa straw poll, read this week’s ” Pundit Central.”)

Conducted by the congressional General Accounting Office, a preliminary investigation of 531 Pentagon security checks claims that 92 percent are incomplete, and that in 12 percent of cases the Defense Department failed to follow leads pointing to financial problems, criminal histories, and alcohol and drug abuse. The USAT article says that the Pentagon grants 130,000 top-secret clearances a year and has a backlog of 600,000 cleared employees whose files need review. The leaked report–which will be finalized in October–says the Pentagon has “created risks to national security.”

The LAT reports that despite the slowdown in prison growth, mandatory sentencing rules, “three-strikes” laws, and a growing number of parole violators have kept the growth rate from dropping as much as it might have. (This growth in parole violations is the focus of USAT’s story, which gets a front-page reefer.) Last year’s growth rate, 4.8 percent, was considerably less than the decade average of 6.7 percent. But the prison population has now swelled to a record 1.3 million, and the nation’s dropping crime rates mask trends such as the increased average prison stay (22 months in 1990 to 27 months in 1997, the most recent figure available).

The Post runs a fascinating feature on the informational firewalls placed between FBI teams investigating U.S. terrorism plots–similar to those used in the CIA during its Cold War espionage investigations. The bureau divides its men into “clean” and “dirty” teams; the former collects criminal evidence, the latter, intelligence. The dirty team has an attorney filter what is illegal or too classified for the “clean” prosecutors to know. For example, in its investigation of Osama Bin Laden, the FBI received information from the Pakistani government about a confession by one of Bin Laden’s associates. In the course of obtaining their confession, however, Pakistani authorities allegedly starved this co-conspirator and threatened his pregnant wife. Knowledge of this confession was relayed from the dirty to the clean team, which then used the tip to help it extract its own, legal confession.

Obviously taking her lead from Slate–see “Culturebox,” “I Want My Electronic Baby Sitter!“–a NYT op-ed writer uses the recent anti-TV report by the American Academy of Pediatrics as a springboard to sing her praises to that ultimate babysitter–the one with the blue glow: “I fondly imagined my kids glazed-eyed, slack-jawed–and quiet. I was even willing to throw in a bag of potato chips–anything to buy myself some uninterrupted hours to unpack, go through mail, do laundry, maybe finish that book I’d started on what we now could only euphemistically call vacation.”

Did They Cover to the Same Event?The Post editors dismiss the Iowa straw poll a “test of how many people a candidate could persuade to take an all-expenses-paid day off to be bused to a kind of carnival.” The Journal, however, waxes Whitmanesque about the fund-raiser: “Nearly 25,000 Iowans turned out to vote. … We’ll take this exhibition in grass-roots democracy over most of our other modern, much more synthetic political rituals.”