Today's Papers

Crouching Rumsfeld, Hidden Bush

The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times all lead with stories about the EP-3E surveillance plane. The NYT leads with reports that the crew destroyed sensitive intelligence equipment immediately after landing. The Times also runs front-page pictures of video images that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld trotted out to show how Chinese pilots have been recklessly harassing U.S. planes. The WP treats this all as one story and focuses more on the hardening of the U.S. position now that the Navy crew is safe at home and what this means for Sino-American relations. In a similar vein, the LAT reports that the U.S. will resume its reconnaissance flights in the South China Sea.

According to the NYT, the crew of the EP-3E surveillance plane took 15 minutes before opening the plane’s door on the runway in order to destroy sensitive material as Chinese troops surrounded the damaged plane and waved their guns. The story quotes an unnamed U.S. diplomat in Beijing that “the crew completed all of its checklist.” Back at the Pentagon, Rumsfeld offered a slightly less certain view but noted that the crew did an “excellent job” in completing a “major portion of their checklist.”

On the condition of anonymity, two diplomats in Beijing tell the NYT that the damaged plane made 15 to 25 warnings that it was about to land at the Chinese air base at Hainan Island. The WP puts these numbers at 25 to 30 and attributes them to Rumsfeld. These diplomats contend that the fact that the Chinese cleared the runway for the Navy EP-3E undermines Beijing’s claim that it did not hear any of the plane’s “Maydays!” or requests to enter China’s airspace and land on Hainan. The thorny questions of blame, when the plane will be returned, the future of U.S. surveillance flights in the South China Sea, as well as the pending sale of advanced defense systems to Taiwan promise to make the proposed April 18 meeting a contentious one.

While the NYT’s unnamed sources tiptoe around some of these questions, the WP airs both Rumsfeld’s and Secretary of State Colin Powel’s blunt and forceful claims that the U.S. is not to blame. “For 12 days, one side of the story has been presented,” Rumsfeld noted. “[I]t seemed to me that, with the crew safely back in the United States, that it was time to set out factually what actually took place.” And the DOD’s facts, if Rumsfeld’s presentation of a January intelligence video of a Chinese jet engaging in “aggressive behavior” is any indication, may not be to China’s liking. “The reality is that the People’s Republic of China for 12 days has been characterizing the collision in a way that is different from what our crew has reported to me,” Rumsfeld said. Not to be outdone on the anti-China rhetoric, Powell dismissed the PRC’s claim that it had exacted an apology as “propaganda”: “If that was an apology, why were they demanding an apology for four days?”

Perhaps an aside in the NYT article can clarify some of the confusion. Since all negotiations were conducted in English, the Chinese were given “a little more elbow room,” with the translation. As Confucius said, “Silence is the true friend that never betrays.”

The LAT’s coverage is similar to the Post’s, but in addition the LAT quotes a senior State Department official that the administration will inform China of its determination to resume reconnaissance flights in talks scheduled for Wednesday. According to the official, “We will make sure that the Chinese know there will be continued flights.”

The WP carries a front-page piece on the changing attitudes and ambitions of the rebels in Sierra Leone after 10 years of a brutal and savage civil war. While many rebels have recognized the futility of their cause and are ready to lay down their arms, many have known only war, and there is a concern about how these young rebels will cope if and when a peace deal is brokered. While the government wonders if it should take the rebels’ peace overtures seriously, the rebel leaders themselves wonder if their rank and file will follow suit.

For some Cincinnati residents, the current wave of rioting is reminiscent of the city’s earlier resort to violence in response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, according to a story fronted by the NYT. As the city approaches Easter Sunday under curfew, many residents are wondering what sort of progress has been made since the riots in 1968. Even the conservative Ohio Secretary of State and former Cincinnati Mayor J. Kenneth Blackwell acknowledges that there is a “real pathology in police community and race relations.” But the police balk at suggestions that they need to improve community relations. “If we give one inch to these terrorists in the form of negotiations, then we’ve got no one to blame but ourselves when we turn into another Detroit or Washington, D.C.,” says one cop.

In its front page “White House Journal,” the WP declares that the past week’s events have proved that “the Emphatic Presidency is Over.” Gone are the emotive outpourings and all too frequent photo-ops of Clinton yore. Public reservation and reticence are the virtues of the day. There will be no Bush bathos. And you get the sense that the media sort of misses it all.