Today's Papers

In the Heat of the Flight

The New York Times, USA Today, and Los Angeles Times all lead with the latest on the shuttle investigation: It appears increasingly likely that the crash was due to tile damage caused by insulation that fell off the external fuel tank during liftoff. NASA calculated last week that the debris wasn’t a problem. They’re going to redo the calculations. The Washington Post gives a big above-the-fold box to the shuttle but leads with the White House’s unveiling of its proposed $2.2 trillion budget for ‘04, which increases funding for the Pentagon and the Deptartment of Homeland Security and squeezes most other discretionary domestic spending.

While broken tiles are the leading suspects, shuttle-program manager Ron Dittemore warned that they still have a lot to figure out. He pointed out that the elevated temperature readings along the left wing weren’t severe enough to cause the crash: “There’s some other missing link that we don’t have yet that’s contributing to this temperature increase.”

The LAT’s off-lead uncovers a 3-year-old NASA report that made far-reaching suggestions for improving the safety of the shuttle and, according to the report’s author, was essentially ignored. “Do I think the recommendations were followed appropriately? No, I don’t,” he said. “It is clear to me that the cost got in the way.” The author, who used to head NASA’s Ames Research Center, also said that NASA tried to pressure agency engineers to counter the report’s conclusions. In the past few days there have been plenty of stories questioning NASA’s commitment to safety. This one really delivers.

According to the White House’s calculations, the proposed budget will produce a deficit of $304 billion this year and $307 billion in ‘04. The papers all point out that those numbers are almost certainly too rosy since they don’t take into account war with Iraq, rebuilding that country, or Bush’s proposed tax cuts. Among the programs that get slashed in the budget: the EPA’s clean-water fund, a Clinton-era effort to put more cops on the streets, and a decade-old program to upgrade public housing.

The papers all seem a bit surprised by the audaciousness of the budget. A stuffed WPnews analysis” calls it evidence that Bush has essentially dropped his “compassionate conservatism” and instead signed on to the Reagan Revolution of tax cuts, deficits, and limited domestic spending. The LAT news piece on the budget also invokes the Gipper.

The NYT editorial page isn’t a huge fan of the budget, calling it “an act of buck-passing and procrastination.” That’s love-talk compared to the Post’s editorial on the White House’s proposed personal savings accounts, which were formally unveiled in the budget. Calling them “Trojan horse” tax cuts for the rich, the Post says that the proposals, which would allow people to stash away tax-free thousands in investment income, are further “indications of this administration’s recklessness when it comes to the future fiscal health of the nation.” The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page thinks its competitors should chill out; it calls worries about the deficit needless “moaning.”

The LAT fronts a poll on Bush and Iraq: Sixty-five percent of respondents want “explicit authorization” from the U.N. before any invasion. Fifty-six percent said they approve of the job the president is doing; that’s down seven points since December and in line with other recent polls.

The NYT and LAT front word that the Pentagon has put 24 long-range bombers—B-52s and B-1s—on standby to be deployed on short notice to bases near North Korea. Officials said they are just trying to “deter opportunism” on the part of Pyongyang. Recently satellite photos have shown that North Korea is taking its nuclear fuel rods out of storage, probably to begin turning them into bombs. As Slate’sFred Kaplan has noted, the White House has been trying to play down North Korea’s latest provocation. Now the administration seems to be acknowledging it, at least on background: “It’s fair to say that there is a broad assumption in the administration now that Kim Jong Il is out to produce his weapons as fast as he can,” one unnamed official told the NYT.

With Secretary of State Powell’s much-awaited U.N. presentation just one day away, everybody has been wondering whether he will bust out with an Adlai Stevenson moment and prove that Iraq has been lying. So, it’s good that an op-ed in the Post reminds us that Stevenson’s famous photos didn’t really prove anything: “To the ordinary person, the photos presented simply showed a bunch of trees and tubes.” The convincing part was the CIA’s analysis. And as RFK put it, “I, for one, had to take their word for it.”

The Journal, in a piece by Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, highlights critics’ complaints that the U.S.’s recently announced plan to send small security and reconstruction teams to a few cities in Afghanistan is inadequate. (TP wondered about that.) Instead, say development workers, the U.S. should just support expanding the international peacekeeping force beyond the borders of Kabul. According to a State Department official quoted in the piece, the U.S. won’t do that.  

The Post’s Lloyd Grove picks up on an important interview former neo-lefty polemicist Christopher Hitchens gave Doublethink, a conservative magazine. Among the apparent revelations Hitchens makes: 1) His former Oxford buddy Bill Clinton was a CIA snitch. “I think he was a double,” Hitchens says. “Somebody was giving information to [the CIA] about the anti-war draft resisters.” 2) More importantly, “Clinton and I had a girlfriend in common—I didn’t know then—who’s since become a very famous radical lesbian.”