Today's Papers

Canister of Worms

The top non-local story at the Los Angeles Times is a major development in the Waco controversy: the discovery by the DOJ that all this time, the FBI has harbored audiotapes suggesting that pyrotechnic gas grenades were indeed fired at a bunker within the Branch Davidian compound. This is also the top non-local story at the New York Times. The Washington Post doesn’t have this–its front Waco effort is Janet Reno’s decision to have somebody from outside the FBI and the DOJ head up a Waco investigation (the NYT folds this into its Waco piece), and the Post’s top non-local story, which makes everybody’s front, is the creation of significantly smarter mice through a minor genetic alteration. USA Today’s front is mum on Waco and its lead is an EPA audit revealing that the nation’s public water systems are stricken by tens of thousands of cases of previously undocumented unsafe drinking water. The story refers to an EPA Web site that lets consumers check up on their local water systems, but there’s a slip between cup and lip–the paper doesn’t tell the reader the URL.

According to the LAT, the FBI says it came across the audiotapes “in recent days.” The NYT and Wall Street Journal say they were discovered last Saturday at the Quantico, Va., offices of the Bureau’s Hostage Rescue Team, the unit that spearheaded the Waco assault. All the stories say the FBI then brought the tapes back to its Washington, D.C., headquarters. Then comes the most surprising step: Yesterday, Janet Reno sent U.S. marshals over to seize the tape. The NYT says she intended the move as a harsh rebuke of the FBI.

The NYT has the most on the tape’s contents, said by the paper to be a soundtrack of an infrared video made from an aircraft when the tear gas canisters were launched at the bunker. This suggests an orchestrated use of the gas, although the LAT quotes a law enforcement source saying that its deployment was “spur of the moment.” One issue relevant here, which the press hasn’t gotten to yet: Does the FBI/DOJ have written-down rules of engagement governing the use of incendiary devices? The NYT cites law enforcement officials saying that the tape supports their account that the canisters bounced harmlessly off the bunker’s roof and hence could not have started the subsequent lethal fire, and also points out that nobody in law enforcement, including Reno, has suggested that the tear-gas devices contributed to the fire. But the papers lay out the meta-issues now put in play by the tape: Did the FBI contravene a Reno ban on pyrotechnics? And did it wage a six-year coverup against her and Congress?

The smarter mouse stories are occasioned by a write-up of the research coming out in Nature today. In the experiment, extra copies of a gene associated with recognizing something or remembering where something is were inserted into mouse embryos. The result: The enhanced mice grew up better than control mice at remembering say, that a tone was associated with a shock or where a resting platform was in a tank of opaque water. The Post quotes the research’s lead scientist as saying that the experiment raises issues of equal access to perfecting technology and that it’s an example of biology outpacing the culture’s capacity to deal with ethics.

A story running inside the WP reports on a study of 15,000 civil cases that went to trial in the country’s 75 largest counties. The chief conclusions: Judges are more likely than juries to rule for the plaintiff, but juries generally award larger damage amounts.

Today’s Papers urges readers to always note the credit line accompanying an Op-Ed. Today’s NYT effort titled “China’s Subtle Spying” is a case in point. The piece claims that China has successfully devised a new espionage strategy that can “consistently defeat our ability to investigate or prosecute spying offenses.” The key elements are, says the author, that China doesn’t normally pay an agent for information, request the provision of classified documents, use intelligence officers to elicit information, or engage in clandestine activity in the United States. All this, he says, usually means no smoking guns of the sorts found in other espionage cases. Interesting, but the snap bio tells us that the author, Paul D. Moore, was, during the whole time of the Los Alamos troubles, the FBI’s man in charge of defeating Chinese spying. In other words, the reader needs to wonder, would Moore be making these arguments if he didn’t desperately need them to try to save face?

The NYT and WP, following up on a brief item in yesterday’s LAT, report that Monica Lewinsky’s father recently received a form letter from President Clinton’s legal defense fund asking for a contribution. Lewinsky wrote “Return to Sender” on the envelope, adding, “You must be morons to send me this letter!”

The WSJ reports that Cliffs Notes will soon come out with shorter versions of the guidebooks in the “…For Dummies” series. Today’s Papers deplores society’s vapid need for ever-briefer substitutes for actually reading something.