Today's Papers

Wild Yonder Blues

The New York Times leads with an advance peek at the federal budget for fiscal 2005, which is expected to slow the growth of government but still yield a record $450 billion deficit. The Washington Post leads with the official start of the process that will transfer authority in Iraq to native hands by June 30. The Los Angeles Times leads with the touch-and-go (but successful) landing of a NASA research craft on the surface of Mars.

The OMB director claims that the new budget (which will be introduced to Congress early next month and will take effect in its final form at the start of October) will set a course for halving the deficit in five years, driven mainly by cuts in spending on housing vouchers, job programs, biomedical research, and some health-care benefits for veterans. Administration officials project a 3 percent increase in domestic discretionary spending (i.e., non-defense, non-homeland security, non-Medicare/Medicaid) over fiscal 2004. The plan also proposes some new tax cuts and comes at a time when federal revenues have fallen for three straight years, the first time they have done so since the 1920s. Total federal spending has risen just over 20 percent during the same three years. (A piece in the NYT’s “Week in Review” section registers discontent among some conservatives over the growth of spending under President Bush, with an analyst from one right-leaning think tank calling the administration’s spending projections artificially low.)

With six months to go before the transfer of power in Iraq, the remaining challenges are clear, if the methods required to meet them are somewhat less so. Serious divisions remain in the Iraqi Governing Council, only complicating the process of drafting laws and building military and governmental institutions that a senior U.S. official in Baghdad likens to “drinking out of a firehose.” Among the measures designed to help ease the transition, U.S. officials suggest that when the U.N. Security Council debates the return of U.N. staff to Iraq later this month, coalition officials may not attend, forcing Iraqis to speak on their own behalf instead.

A related piece in the WP’s “Outlook” section worries that ethnic tensions in Iraq will doom any attempt to install national democracy from the top down and argues that democratization should begin more gradually from the local level. (And elsewhere on the ethnic-strife-amid-reconstruction beat, the papers update the slow progress of the loya jirga trying to write a constitution in Afghanistan. Talks stalled Saturday over whether a Turkic language should be recognized as official in addition to Pashto and Dari.)

The U.S. military announced the deaths of three GI’s killed in Iraq on Friday—two when their convoy was attacked in Baghdad, and a third by a mortar in Balad, 60 miles to the north. An LAT fronter takes a look at the threat posed by fatal military accidents, which have claimed the lives of more than 80 U.S. soldiers in Iraq, nearly one-fifth of the total killed. More than 20,000 military personnel have died in accidents since 1980, according to the Defense Dept., while fewer than 1,000 have died in combat.

NASA’s Spirit rover entered the Martian atmosphere at 12,000 mph before slowing, bouncing, and rolling to a stop with the aid of an elaborate system of parachutes, thrusters, and airbags. After a few days’ rest, it will try to determine if Mars has ever supported water or life. Elsewhere on the red planet, a British probe is either deep in a crater or dashed to pieces. It was supposed to have begun transmitting data on Dec. 24, but scientists so far haven’t heard a peep.

The NYT off-leads a look at Pakistan’s apparently pivotal role in the global traffic in nuclear-weapon components, deeming it “the intellectual and trading hub of a loose network of hidden nuclear proliferators,” having done business with such countries as Iran, North Korea, and Libya. Pakistan’s top atomic-weapons scientist denies sharing nuclear materials with foreign countries, although the paper has turned up a brochure circulated by his lab that appears to put centrifuge technology up for sale. The paper also notes that the scientist was similarly coy about the status of Pakistan’s own nuke program, routinely denying its existence until the country tested a bomb in 1998. (An NYT “Week in Review” piece argues that while underground traffic in nuclear components is alarming, actually building a bomb is much easier said than done.)

The papers all mention (the WP up front) that an afternoon British Airways flight from London to Washington—twice canceled in the past two days—resumed without incident Saturday, although it was delayed several hours by extra security checks. A spokesperson for the airline tells the NYT that the earlier cancellations were prompted by specific terrorist threats, contrary to an assertion made by a U.S. official in yesterday’s paper that the flights had been scratched because BA pilots refused to fly with armed air marshals on board. On Saturday the airline canceled a round-trip flight between London and Riyadh in response to “security advice” from the British government.

Everyone notes that a chartered Egyptian passenger plane crashed in the Red Sea Saturday, killing all 148 people onboard, most of whom were French tourists. French and Egyptian officials say that the accident appears to have been caused by mechanical failure and doubt any connection to terrorism.

The papers note that four Palestinians were killed in separate clashes with Israeli soldiers in Nablus on the West Bank.

The WP goes inside with a Brazilian judge’s order to begin fingerprinting and photographing all U.S. citizens who travel to Brazil. The ruling comes in response to a new American policy that will similarly log people entering the U.S from several countries (Brazil among them). In handing down his decision the judge vehemently denounced the very practice he was endorsing: “I consider the act absolutely brutal, threatening human rights, violating human dignity, xenophobic and worthy of the worst horrors committed by the Nazis.”

And as the first contests of the Democratic presidential campaign draw near, the all-important Troubadour Primary is heating up as well. According to the WP, Bonnie Raitt, Michelle Shocked, and Willie Nelson have all cast their lot with Dennis Kucinich, while the NYT notes that Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul, and Mary has announced his qualified support for John Kerry. Though admittedly troubled by the senator’s support for the war in Iraq, Yarrow has also written a 10-minute song in his honor. (Sample couplet: “These bullies now in power echo fascists’ great tradition/ Keep us scared, create a war and stifle opposition.”)