Today's Papers

Dead Men Stopping

The Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post lead with news that Illinois Gov. George Ryan, two days from the end of his term, has commuted the death sentences of 167 death row inmates to life in prison. The New York Times leads with news that the other papers stuff: The U.S. is vastly escalating its troop presence in the Persian Gulf.

Ryan’s move, announced in a speech at Northwestern University, follows the previous day’s announcement that four death row inmates were being pardoned for the stated reason that their confessions were coerced through torture. Three of the four pardoned inmates were in attendance for Ryan’s speech, where the governor said, “Our capital system is haunted by the demon of error: error in determining guilt and error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die.”

The LAT notes that before yesterday and since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court permitted states to reinstitute the death penalty, there have been a total of 46 commutations. All the papers gather quotes by relatives of the victims harshly criticizing Ryan’s order to commute everyone on death row, and all the papers spend considerable time examining Ryan’s road from death-penalty supporter to troubled conscience. The LAT goes the furthest in predicting that Ryan’s move will open up a national debate on the issue. The paper is also the only one to mention what Ryan’s successor has to say. Incoming Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich says the commutations were a “big mistake,” although he says he intends to keep Ryan’s moratorium on executions in the state while not seeking to halt death sentences.

The NYT’s lead says that in the last 24 hours, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has signed three deployment orders moving a total of 62,000 troops to the Persian Gulf. The troops will gradually move to bases in the region through mid- to late-February. The paper says the move signals a “new phase in the campaign” against Iraq, and that the 150,000+ troops expected to be in the region by February would “be well positioned to attack Iraq.” Still, the paper notes that mid-February will also be the time that an expected two million Muslims will be participating in hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. The paper calls it a “complicating factor for an early offensive.”

The WP fronts a sure-to-be controversial assessment, acutely interesting but thinly substantiated, on the Bush administration’s decision to include Iraq in its war against terrorism. The paper sees little support for Iraqi combat (“tepid support for military action at the State Department, muted concern in the military ranks of the Pentagon and general confusion among relatively senior officials and the public”) and says the decision to go after Iraq was made by a “small group of conservatives” who pushed the agenda of how to attack Iraq on the confused, who remain flummoxed by “how or even when the policy was decided” in the first place. The paper writes that according to 20 participants (in what, the paper doesn’t say) the administration made Iraq its central focus without producing a rich paper trail or record of key meetings. The paper says the “the process circumvented traditional policymaking channels,” although it doesn’t say how. Finally, in an article where confrontation with Iraq is said to have been painted as imminent before it was even debated, shouldn’t the paper also analyze its own (43rd paragraph) admitted role in accepting imminence?

The papers all front news that North Korea has threatened to abandon a moratorium on ballistic-missile tests. According to North Korean ambassador to China, Choe Jin Su, because the U.S. has “nullified” a bilateral missile security arrangement, “We believe we cannot go along with the self-imposed missile moratorium any longer.” The WP writes midway through its article, “The prospect of the North developing more sophisticated ballistic missiles has often been cited as a justification for the Bush administration’s planned missile defense system.” The NYT lead stresses New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s role as mediator in three days of unofficial talks with North Korean envoys. The LAT plays up Richardson’s comment to reporters that one diplomat told him that North Korea “has no intentions of building nuclear weapons.”

The LAT on the front and the other papers in their business sections pick up a point that’s gaining steam in criticisms of President Bush’s recently announced economic plan. The centerpiece of the Bush plan includes a $364 billion dividend tax cut. But since most people own stock in the form of retirement accounts, which get taxed as income anytime anyone withdraws from them, the tax cut is mostly moot, even for a large majority of investors.

The papers report that President Bush will be seeking a 73 percent increase, to $842 million, in the Security and Exchange Commission’s budget. The money will be spent to help fight corporate fraud.

Are Mexicans a bigger threat than North Koreans? The LAT writes a non-story about the ho-hum local reaction that North Korean dignitaries got when they visited Gov. Richardson and Santa Fe. Meanwhile, the WP goes with a story about how gangs of citizen brigades, with names like the “Civil Homeland Defense,” are patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border. According to the WP sources, the volatile atmosphere is like the Wild West, where U.S. citizens are kidnapped or shot by Mexican drug traffickers and where migrants are shot by vigilantes.