Today's Papers

Skilling the Messenger?

The New York Times and USA Today lead with—and the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times front—yesterday’s indictment of former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling. The 57-page document alleges that Skilling was at the center of a conspiracy that used false public statements and accounting schemes to prop up Enron’s stock and enrich top executives. The WP leads, the NYT fronts, USAT reefers, the LAT stuffs, and the Wall Street Journal tops its world-wide news box with the official death of the Bush administration’s beleaguered plan to hold regional caucuses for an interim Iraqi government. It now appears the U.N. will help hatch a new transition plan before the scheduled June 30 handover of sovereignty. The LAT gives its top slot to a compelling report on the CIA’s troubled clandestine service in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the paper, the CIA station chief in Baghdad—now the largest station in agency history—was sacked in December after a series of intelligence breakdowns. Worse yet, there’s a shortage of qualified people to fill key posts, and new agents are being sent to Iraq straight out of the academy. “They don’t speak the language, don’t know how to recruit,” one former official said. “It’s on-the-job training.”

Skilling was defiant when he turned himself in yesterday morning. At the arraignment, beside a phalanx of lawyers, he pleaded not guilty to all charges and, according to the WSJ (subscription required), he chose not to wear a tie or a belt, “because he didn’t want to give government agents the satisfaction of removing those articles when they took him into custody.” When the judge advised Skilling of his right to have a lawyer present, the WPnotes that she added, “But it seems you have an embarrassment of riches in that regard.”

The papers report that among the most damning allegations are those involving former Enron CFO Andrew Fastow, who according to the LAT has been instrumental in building the case against Skilling. Last month, Fastow pleaded guilty to creating numerous off-the-books partnerships with cutesy Star Wars names in order to hide company debt. Allegedly, Skilling entered into side agreements with Fastow guaranteeing that these partnerships would not lose money—which would indicate Skilling approved the illegal accounting.

In Baghdad yesterday evening, U.S. administrator Paul Bremer said everything is up for negotiation—except the June 30 deadline. “The date holds. And hold it should,” he said. At the U.N., the papers report that Kofi Annan agreed as expected with the U.S. position that direct elections are impossible before June 30. “We need to find a mechanism to create a caretaker government and … help prepare the elections later,” the WP’s lead quoted him as saying.

What might a caretaker government look like? According to the NYT’s story, “several Iraqi leaders” say there’s a growing consensus to increase the size of the 25-member governing council to as many as 125 people in order to serve as an interim government until the U.N. can arrange direct elections late this year or in early 2005. Interestingly, this is the same plan the paper hyped in its lead story on Jan. 23—and in both stories the main proponents of the plan seem to be (drum roll, please) members of the governing council itself. According to the GC members, their expansion plan has already passed muster with leading Shiite cleric Ali al-Sistani, who scuttled the U.S.’s original caucus plan.

According to blind sources briefly mentioned in the WSJ and USAT, U.S. officials are also coalescing around the GC expansion plan. But the WP claims that it was only one among “a range of ideas” Annan discussed over a private lunch yesterday with the members of the U.N. Security Council, which he says will need to approve any transition plan. Among the other ideas raised, according to the Post, were a loya jirga–like plan to select a national assembly and “a suggestion that Iraq be administered by a government of ‘technocrats,’ rather than politicians, until direct national elections are held,” much as one of today’s NYT Op/Ed contributors suggests.

The WP fronts the Bush re-election campaign’s plan to dredge Sen. John Kerry’s distant past for an advertising assault in 20 battleground states, such as Florida and Wisconsin. They may even have a slogan selected: “He’s been wrong for 32 years, he’s wrong now.” Meanwhile, the LAT, NYT, and WP report that the A.F.L.-C.I.O. endorsed Kerry yesterday, and the NYT fronts a process piece on Sen. John Edwards’ bid for a win in New York, a state that has not been a presidential primary battleground since 1988. The paper suggests that Edwards is venturing into fraught territory, adding dryly that New York hosts “a vast media network that is both a curse and blessing to those who try to get their message across.”

Amidst growing unrest in Haiti, USAT fronts a piece with this eye-catching headline: “U.S. SENDING MILITARY TEAM TO HAITI.” In fact, the U.S. is sending a total of four military experts, who are heading there to assess the security of the U.S. embassy at the request of the ambassador. As the piece notes, along with articles inside the WP, NYT, and LAT, the U.S. and other countries are also sending envoys to press Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide to reach a compromise with his political enemies.

The NYT goes inside with a bellicose demand the U.S. will reportedly make during negotiations with North Korea in Beijing next week: The country must agree to dismantle its entire nuclear weapons program before the U.S. will talk about aid. But the WP explains inside that the U.S. has, at the same time, fairly modest goals for the negotiations. “The criteria for success is that the North Koreans don’t walk out,” one anonymous U.S. official told the Post. “The motto is ‘Do not harm.’ … This is a placeholder to get us through the election.”

San Francisco has decided to go on the offensive after being hauled into court for issuing same-sex marriage licenses for nearly a week. According to a Page-One story in the LAT and pieces inside the NYT and USAT, the city is now suing the state of California to overturn the law prohibiting same-sex marriage. There is a hearing scheduled for this morning to consolidate the various lawsuits. The WP and NYT both note that Chicago’s mayor came out in favor of gay marriage yesterday, and the WP speculates that a number of cities may follow S.F.’s lead by issuing gay marriage licenses of their own.

Deep inside the WP, Al Kamen dredges up the White House transcript of an interview Bush did with the U.S.-run Arabic television station, Al Hurra. At the end, Bush was asked whether he thinks people in the Middle East would vote for him if they could: “Absolutely,” he replied. “They’d vote for me because I am strong on the war on terror, for starters. I refuse to relent to terrorist groups. There’s no negotiation with these people.”