Today's Papers

J. Edgar’s Ghost

The New York Timesleads with John Ashcroft’s latest civil rights meltdown: He wants to ease FBI restrictions on spying on political and religious organizations. Many in the FBI oppose the attorney general’s proposal. The Los Angeles Timesleads with more from Kandahar, where Pashtun tribes reportedly captured a strategic hill near the airport. They are still gearing up for the attack on the city itself. The Washington Postgoes with the U.S. request for custody of all Taliban and al-Qaida leaders captured by the Northern Alliance, so that they can be interrogated and perhaps tried in military tribunals. 

The NYT has been vigilant in its Ashcroft watch since Sept. 11, and the paper is alone in fronting his latest assault on civil liberties. Up for grabs this time are the surveillance guidelines established after the death of J. Edgar Hoover in the 1970’s, when it was discovered that the bureau has “run a widespread domestic surveillance program, called Cointelpro,” targeting Martin Luther King Jr, the Black Panthers and the Ku Klux Klan, among others. Skip to 2001, when Islamic fundamentalists may have met in mosques, Ashcroft believes, because they knew that religious institutions are usually off-limits to FBI surveillance. Under current guidelines the FBI cannot send undercover agents into churches or mosques without first establishing probable cause. The Times goes to great pains to distinguish the Justice Department from the FBI, reporting that many in the bureau are bitterly opposed to Ashcroft’s tactics. “There are tons of things coming out of the White House and the Justice Department these days where there is absolutely no consultation with the bureau,” an official says.

It was a relatively uneventful day in Afghanistan, judging by the papers. The LAT’s lead story is mostly about that “strategic hill” captured by the Pashtuns, but it runs under the headline “Anti-Taliban Forces Close In on Kandahar”—anticipating the next big chapter, which will be the fight for the city itself. The battle for the Taliban’s “spiritual center,” as it is often called, may be a significant bump in what has so far been a remarkably smooth Afghan road.

It’s unclear when that battle will begin, but the Post stuffs a story suggesting that maybe it should have happened already. The United States continued on Friday to conduct “withering” air strikes on targets in and around Kandahar, but “U.S.-backed Pashtun tribesmen failed to move forward against Taliban fighters.” The paper floats the theory that the Pashtuns are hoping to take the city without a fight—that maybe if they wait around long enough, the U.S. bombing will wear down Taliban forces to the point of surrender. Of course, many of the Taliban troops are themselves Pashtun, further complicating the matter. The United States has been trying to create a coalition among Pashtun leaders—something akin to the Northern Alliance group in the north—but that effort has not been successful. “If they are backing these guys, they are backing the wrong horse,” says a Pakistani official. So who, exactly, will conduct the ground war in Kandahar when it finally gets underway?

The Post goes on, in this page A15 story, to cast doubt on the events the LAT reported in its lead, about that “strategic hill.” It calls the hill report unconfirmed and goes on to observe that “for several days tribal leaders operating between the Pakistani border and Kandahar have issued reports of gains that were later contradicted by witnesses.”

The LAT fronts the “silent peril” awaiting Afghans when they return to their homes. Since the war began, the U.S. has dropped about 600 cluster bombs—each disperse 202 soda-can size “bomblets,” about 5 percent of which land unexploded. That leaves about 6,000 “potential deathtraps” that can be easily set off by unsuspecting civilians. 

Bush’s tough talk on Iraq makes for a NYT fronter. The president wants to use the “momentum” U.S. troops have built in Afghanistan as leverage against Iraq, forcing them to allow U.N. inspectors in to look for weapons of mass destruction. “The fact is that we have Iraq on the radar screen,” Condoleezza Rice says. But she stressed that al-Quaida comes first and that Iraq is on the back burner—though definitely on the stove. Arab and European leaders have expressed concern that an attack on Iraq might“incite the imagery of a Western assault on Muslim countries,” in the words of the Times.

Friday’sToday’s Papersjumped the gun on George Harrison’s death, which didn’t actually make newspapers until today. The phrase “Quiet Beatle” figures prominently in the coverage, as do the words “serious” and “spiritual.” The NYT details Harrison’s work on the guitar solo for John Lennon’s “I’m Only Sleeping”: “To mirror the dream world quality of the lyrics, Mr. Harrison devised a solo guitar line, wrote out its notes in reverse order and overdubbed it onto a recording of the song that was running backward. To complicate matters even more, he recorded two versions of the solo — one clean, one with the guitar distorted — and combined them. His contribution to the three-minute song took six hours to record.” Harrison was 58.