Today's Papers

Brave New Delhi

The Los Angeles Timesleads with Bush’s twin phone calls to Prime Minister Vajpayee of India and Gen. Musharraf of Pakistan. A message of solidarity for the former and instructions for the latter to get cracking (down) on terrorists. The other papers stuff the subcontinent showdown in favor of their own exclusives. The New York Timesrelates that the Transportation Department has reversed its pledge that members of the newly federalized airport security workforce will all have high-school diplomas—a pledge made “as recently as Dec 20.” The Washington Post reveals that the FBI has 150 open investigations into al-Qaida cells and/or suspects inside the country.

As the LAT tells it, Musharraf’s cooperation with Bush’s war on terrorism over the last few months—e.g., hosting U.S. service personnel, handing over captured al-Qaida fighters, keeping watch for OBL along the Afghan border—hasn’t earned him as many brownie points as one might expect. “Bush took a noticeably tougher line with Musharraf than with the Indian leader.” This despite the fact that the Pakistani leader has already arrested over 50 members of two terrorist organizations implicated by India in the Dec. 13 suicide attacks on India’s parliament and has requested a meeting with Vajpayee in order to bring the conflict under control. Vajpayee pointedly refused to consider such a meeting, despite international pressure, until Pakistan moves further against its terrorist groups. India has also reportedly amassed well over 100,000 troops along the 1,800-mile shared border. (For more on why the logic of the war on terrorism may guarantee India the upper hand in U.S. relations, click here.)

The NYT lead draws a parallel between the Transportation Department’s new revelation that a high-school diploma for airport security screeners isn’t so necessary after all with reports earlier this month that the department may be rethinking the citizenship requirement as well—or at least trying to fast-track current noncitizen screeners through the naturalization process. Both requirements were part of the package that sold Congress on federalizing the 28,000 member workforce last fall. (The department’s rethinking is officially classified as “flexibility in interpreting” the legislation’s requirements.) Both requirements, if followed strictly, would invalidate about 25 percent (perhaps overlapping) of the current experienced workforce. This, depending on how you look at it, is either patently unjust or exactly the point. “The idea is to allow current screeners who would otherwise qualify but may not have high school diplomas to be eligible, so they do not get left behind,” says a department spokesman. “But,” notes NYT, “critics say the point of the new federal law was to upgrade the work force, not to retain the current workers, who have drawn fire in recent months for slipshod performance.”

The screeners story neatly blossoms into an interesting profile of views on undereducated workers and menial labor in general. Security experts argue that since the job is really about observation and “making judgments,” high-school education is a must. Labor leaders, on the other hand, insist that “anyone who can go through the training and pass the new tests is clearly qualified for the job.” A lawyer for the private airline security companies argues that there is no “demonstrable nexus” between education and good screening skills; on the contrary, “the repetitive nature of the screening jobs is often not a good fit for people with higher educational backgrounds.” And besides, “the military service doesn’t require a high school diploma,” notes Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a supporter of dropping the requirement.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, so is a number. That seems to be the logic of the WP FBI  lead. The article is justly proud of its precise count of 150 FBI al-Qaida investigations, but the number’s significance is far from clear. “Many of the active investigations involve people with marginal or unclear ties to al-Qaida, and are unlikely to result in criminal charges,” the article notes. The article’s “senior law enforcement source” also hedges: “We don’t want to suggest that they are all al-Qaida terrorists running around loose. Some are very serious, but some are just suspected links or suspicious conduct.” Is 150 investigations a lot? Over 1,200 people have been detained, the article notes, and the bureau has received thousands of tips and leads. An ex-FBI source informs: “It is a good indicator of the depth of al Qaeda presence here. … Hopefully working these cases will lead to many more, and you’ll have a better sense of the infrastructure at work here.” OK, let’s hope.

The Times fronts an exhaustive review by some of its leading writers on the counterterrorism efforts of the Clinton administration and early Bush administration. The article mostly rounds up recently divulged reports, such as Sudan’s reported willingness in 1996 to turn Osama Bin Laden over to Egypt or Saudi Arabia—or possibly even the U.S. State Department. But the Arab nations balked and Clinton’s advisers didn’t trust the Sudanese regime to deliver. The article also confirms that from 1998 onward Clinton had two submarines stationed in the Indian Ocean and three times gave the go-ahead for cruise missile strikes on Bin Laden’s location. All three strikes were called off at the last minute due to concerns about the quality of the intelligence. The 6,000-word story ends with the Bush team’s comprehensive al-Qaida strike plan landing on Bush’s desk—the morning of Sept. 11.

The Times also features another report by Elisabeth Rosenthal on the AIDS crisis in China, her sixth lengthy article on the topic since the Chinese government semi-formally acknowledged the problem late last August. Reported AIDS cases—just the tip of the iceberg—are up 67 percent in the last year, the result of growing intravenous drug use, a booming sex industry, and unsanitary blood collection practices. But the real problem is ignorance of the problem: A recent government survey found that 20 percent of people “had never heard of the disease [and] only 50 percent knew that it could be transmitted by sex.” Given that the New York Times Web site was finally “unblocked” by Chinese authorities last summer (though LAT and WP reportedly remain blocked), perhaps Rosenthal’s reporting is beginning to make it through to the people who matter most.

The WP fronts an article  on a “strange and delightful” trend in pro basketball, exemplified by the Detroit Pistons recently “slashing some season tickets as much as 45 percent.” Well, not exactly a trend. Ticket prices have declined a whopping 2.3 percent. But the Post is quick to note that this is “a milestone: In the 11 years that Team Marketing Report has been keeping track, no major-league sport has ever cut its average price.” It seems the old methods of packing ‘em in just aren’t working. “Even the once-reliable stimulus of new stadiums didn’t help. The Houston Astros, in their second season in a new park, saw attendance dip even though the team won its division for the fourth time in five years. The Arizona Diamondbacks had the lowest attendance in their four-year history, despite fielding a team that went on to win the World Series.” The article also runs through the classic comedy of “fat stadium-naming deals” by stock-drunk companies like Enron and PSINet that have since gone bankrupt, leaving only a trail of trademarks and oversized signage. (For more fine mockery along these lines check out “Tuesday Morning Quarterback” and “Moneybox.”)