Today's Papers

Promises, Promises

The New York Times leads with the news that Republicans in Congress are likely to dip into the Social Security surplus–despite repeated promises to the contrary–as they finalize budget bills this week. The top story at the Washington Post is a highly critical post-mortem on the U.N.’s East Timor diplomacy, while the Los Angeles Times reports abusive discipline meted out by guards at the California Youth Authority.

The Social Security surplus for fiscal 2000, which begins Friday, has soared to nearly $150 billion. That’s proved too large a pile of cash for Republican members of Congress to resist, even though party leaders vowed to any reporter who’d listen last week that Social Security was absolutely, thoroughly sacrosanct. The GOP-led Congress, already having earmarked all the country’s general fund surpluses for the next two fiscal years, will likely take anywhere from $8 billion to $30 billion from Social Security coffers. The NYT says Democratic leaders, on a constant lookout for mud to sling during next fall’s races, are observing the Republican flip-flop “in a state of barely restrained glee.”

The WP suggests that U.N. efforts to keep last month’s East Timor independence vote from turning violent may have been doomed from the start. In what it calls a “case study” of the problems that plague U.N. intervention, the paper gives a blow-by-blow account of how Indonesia wriggled out of Western demands that it agree in advance to shackle pro-Jarkata militias on East Timor and guarantee the safety of foreign election observers. With the U.S. preoccupied by Kosovo as the negotiations began in April, Indonesia requested that Portugal, its former colonial ruler, sit across the bargaining table. In the end, according to a diplomat quoted by the Post, Indonesian negotiators “took Portugal to the cleaners.” Even before the ink was dry on the May 5 election agreement, many at the U.N. were privately predicting exactly the kind of violence and chaos that followed the Aug. 30 pro-independence landslide.

Disciplinary excesses are commonplace at the California Youth Authority, according a report prepared for Gov. Gray Davis and obtained by the LAT. Guard abuses included cavalierly injecting disorderly inmates with anti-psychotic drugs and isolating prisoners from rival gangs together in small rooms. In the latter cases, known inside the prison as the “Friday night fights,” guards would sometimes put a member of the Crips in a holding cell with a hated Blood, lock the door, and stand back to watch. The staged confrontations ostensibly were used to test inmates’ ability to avoid fights and thus their readiness to enter the general prison population, but the report says they often escalated into predictably bloody violence.

A NYT front-pager explores how the Justice Department’s criminal investigation of the tobacco industry unraveled. Last Wednesday, Attorney General Janet Reno announced a large-scale civil lawsuit against cigarette makers. But the government’s ambitious criminal case wound up leading to only one charge: a misdemeanor count against a small California biotech firm that has admitted developing a high-nicotine tobacco seed for Brown & Williamson. Because Justice faces a lower burden of proof in civil court, the paper says, it decided to make the bulk of its anti-tobacco case there.

The LAT’s top non-local story is on the architectural wreckage that litters Taiwan in the wake of Tuesday’s massive earthquake. The paper reports that construction shortcuts were common in older high-rises, including cases where building crews used vegetable oil cans instead of bricks. Surprisingly, the Taiwan government has lowered the estimated death toll from the quake since Friday, to just over 2,000, apparently because some victims were counted twice.

Under a three-column photograph on its front page, the NYT reports that the federal government is considering the highly controversial step of dismantling four huge dams on Washington’s Snake River. The dams, which went up in the 1930s and provide about 4 percent of the Pacific Northwest’s electricity, have killed off nearly all the river’s varieties of salmon. But even environmentalists concede it’s far from clear if taking the dams out of service would revive the fish population.

The WP reports that as George W. Bush assembles his campaign team, he is freezing out most of the Washington GOP brain trust and hiring a steady stream of Texans instead. The paper says some of Bush’s reluctance to hire Beltway types stems from a longstanding distrust of the East Coast establishment, which goes back to his student days at Andover and Yale.

The NYT fronts a story on winemakers in the Champagne region, who are telling Americans not to worry–there’ll be plenty of authentic French bubbly to go around come Y2K eve. After breathless references in its opening paragraphs to Champagne rationing and skyrocketing demand, the story goes on to report rather quietly that 1999 sales are expected to rise just 15 percent from last year. Today’s Papers, who is pretty sure the world will survive, likes his front-page stories with a little more fizz.