Today's Papers

Taps Uncapped

Everybody leads with word that a special federal appeals court yesterday expanded the government’s ability to conduct wiretaps and physical searches. The ruling endorses the Bush administration’s position that there need not be a complete separation between criminal investigations and counterintelligence ones. The administration argued that last year’s Patriot Act gave the government the authority to blur that line—which has long existed, since counterintelligence operations require a lower standard of evidence than criminal ones—and the court agreed.

Yesterday’s ruling overturned a lower court decision in May that had barred the administration from implementing its interpretation of the Patriot Act’s rules. Before the Patriot Act, in order for a counterintel warrant to be issued, investigators needed to convince a court that gathering foreign intelligence was the sole purpose of an investigation. Now, gathering intel need only constitute a “significant purpose” of an investigation.

In lowering the wall between counterintel operations and criminal investigations, the court explained, “[t]here is simply no basis (in law) to limit criminal prosecutors’ ability to advise FBI intelligence officials” on undertaking searches or sharing the results.

Both the lower court and the one that issued yesterday’s ruling are odd birds: The lower one, known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, meets secretly and is mainly concerned with granting the looser counterintelligence warrants. Its May ruling against the administration was the first time it made one of its cases public. Meanwhile, the appeals court, which also meets behind closed doors, had never convened before. Its purpose is to hear appeals of rulings from the first court. But since the lower court had never before denied the government a requested wiretap or search order, there was never any need to appeal. Judges on both courts are selected by Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

The New York Times and Washington Post both editorialize against the decision. The Post, which concludes that the fault ultimately lies with the legislators who passed the Patriot Act, says that the court’s decision should be understood as “one more part of an alternative legal system that is emerging to handle terrorism cases—a system that lets Americans be investigated and locked up without any of the normal protections of the justice system.”

The NYT off-leads the White House’s contention that Iraq’s continued firing at British and American planes constitutes a “material breach” of the new U.N. resolution. Despite the big play given by the Times, the administration explained (through unattributed quotes) that it’s not really considering going to war over the transgressions. Instead, the White House might use them at some future point to argue that Iraq has displayed a “pattern of non-compliance.” Nobody else fronts this.

Everybody mentions that U.S. intel officials are now essentially certain that the al-Qaida tape broadcast last week was indeed recently recorded by Osama Bin Laden.  USA Today, alone among the papers, went out on a limb last week and basically said that was the case. 

A front-page piece in the NYT outs the latest corporation to have funky accounting: the United Way. The same single contributions are sometimes counted as revenue by multiple local affiliates, thus inflating the nonprofit organization’s numbers. The Times says the national United Way’s reporting guidelines promote such double-dipping.   

A front-page piece in the Post points out that Congress hasn’t passed its non-defense appropriations bills, and as a result most of the government will be forced to continue operating at 2002 levels for at least the next few months. The Post says that’s bad news for domestic security agencies, many of which had been slated to expand their operations and get loads more money in fiscal ‘03. The article, headlined “SPENDING BILL DELAYS CRIMP WAR ON TERROR,” mentions about halfway down thatnearly all non-defense government agencies will be hit by the lack of new spending bills. Idea: Are some non-security-focused agencies also being hit hard by the spending stall? If so, it’d be interesting to know the details.

The Post continues with its Woodward-fest: In today’s installment, the paper rehashes an interview Woodward had with the president. Per usual, Woodward doesn’t interject with any context and simply lets the president tick off his talking points: “As we think through Iraq,” said Bush, “we may or may not attack. I have no idea yet. But it will be for the objective of making the world more peaceful.” It’s a transcript, not a news story.

Meanwhile, the WP goes inside with a second Woodward piece, this one recounting a walk he took with Bush at the president’s Texas ranch. Between such artful observations as noticing a rock that “looked ancient, as old as the Roman catacombs,” Woodward notes that Bush said some important things about Iraq. For example, “I’m the kind of person that wants to make sure that all risk is assessed.”