Today's Papers

New Madrid Fault

The New York Times and Los Angeles Times lead with the sustained outpouring of public grief in Spain as millions of people took to the streets Friday in nonviolent (and occasionally silent) protest of the coordinated bomb attacks that killed nearly 200 rush-hour commuters in Madrid Thursday. The Washington Post fronts coverage from Spain but leads with word of a petition filed with the FCC by federal law-enforcement officials earlier this week, asking for greater latitude in wiretapping Internet-based phone services.

The Madrid death toll has risen to 199, while hundreds of injured remain hospitalized. Police sources estimated that 8 million people took part in the marches held throughout the country, but one Spanish paper put the number at 11 million—about a quarter of Spain’s population. According to the NYT, which offers the most detailed coverage of the aftermath, 80 percent of Spanish trains were said to be running on time Friday, although service was briefly snarled by a bomb scare at the station where several of Thursday’s explosions took place.

Although Spanish officials say they have ruled out no one in their search for the culprits, the government is largely sticking to its theory that the Basque separatist group ETA was behind the blasts (a view endorsed by some U.S. officials), despite competing evidence that Islamic terrorists might have been responsible. Meanwhile, with parliamentary elections still set to proceed tomorrow, Spanish party leaders continue to try to finesse the awkward interplay of national tragedy and practical politics. An official from the main left-leaning opposition party suggested that the government is purposely withholding information about the authors of the attacks until after Sunday’s vote, while a spokesman for the governing center-right party—which has been leading in the most recent polls—dismissed talk of possible al-Qaida involvement as a calculated effort to distract from the dangers posed by ETA and to frame Spain’s controversial support of the war in Iraq as an ongoing threat to domestic security.

Cited as evidence of ETA’s fingerprints is an unexploded bomb that was found in a backpack on a train after the attacks. The bomb was composed of a Spanish-made explosive that ETA used to use a lot in the 1980s (although apparently not so much since then), and officials say that evidence gathered in the wake of several recent foiled terror attempts revealed that the group might have ramped up its ambitions and potential firepower to the point where it could pull off such a large-scale attack. (Spain’s interior minister also told reporters that he had yet to receive intel from any foreign governments about an al-Qaida connection, and American officials told the NYT that they hadn’t seen the sort of spike in chatter that typically precedes an AQ attack.)

But people claiming to represent ETA told a Basque newspaper and TV station Friday that the group had nothing to do with the attacks—apparently the first time in its existence that ETA has openly disavowed a terrorist act on Spanish soil, according to the WP. The chief clue so far pointing to Islamic extremists—a van found near the blast site containing documents and audio tapes in Arabic—was also said to contain detonators identical to the one found attached to the unexploded bomb.

As post-attack anxiety ripples outward, the LAT fronts word that the Greek government has requested
extra security support from NATO for the upcoming summer Olympics. Back Stateside, U.S. security officials circulated an alert telling local law enforcement to keep an eye on trains, and Senate Democrats introduced legislation Friday that would set aside an additional $500 million for rail security.

The government outfits calling for wiretapping changes—the DOJ, the FBI, and the DEA—say that Internet phone services are an increasingly popular mode of communication for terrorists and criminals, and should therefore be subject to the same wiretapping protocol as landlines. Critics contend that expanding surveillance options would let the government peek into vanilla Web activity like instant-messaging and everyday browsing, and discourage Internet innovation in general. (On a not-unrelated note, a piece inside the NYT looks at candidate John Kerry’s uncanny knack for getting his unvarnished private asides picked up by live microphones.)

The NYT and LAT front the arrest of six Iraqis in connection with the deaths of two civilian Coalition Provisional Authority employees earlier this week. Although the attackers had previously been described as police impersonators, four of the arrestees appear to be current Iraqi cops. According to the NYT, about 90 percent of the reconstituted Iraqi police force had served in the same capacity under Saddam. (Two GI’s were also killed by a roadside bomb in Tikrit early Saturday.)

In other Iraq news, the WP reports inside that a senior Bush administration official (left unnamed for security reasons) will travel to Baghdad this weekend in hopes of smoothing differences on the Iraqi Governing Council as the June 30 deadline for the handover of power nears and the U.N.’s future role there remains uncertain.

Another report inside the WP updates on the House and Senate Intelligence Committees’ investigations of the shadowy “B-Teams” created within the Pentagon during the run-up to war in hopes of ferreting out links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida. According to congressional sources from both parties, the inquiry has concluded that the groups were smaller than had previously been rumored, and did not circumvent traditional intelligence channels to the extent some Democrats had alleged.

The Post’s clarified policy on anonymous sourcing continues to bear juicy contextual fruit, this time in a front-page piece documenting worries that some prominent (but shy) Republicans harbor about President Bush’s recent economic-policy missteps. “Republicans refused to speak for the record because they said that if they did, they could not be candid about the problems without infuriating Bush and his most powerful aides,” the paper stage-whispers. The latest snafu came earlier this week when an industrialist who Bush had nominated to be “manufacturing czar” withdrew his name from consideration after it became known that his company had laid off more than a thousand workers in the past few years and opened a new plant in China.

And as the lion and the lamb continue to duke it out for climatic supremacy this March, conditions in the interior west have been especially harsh for man and beast alike. The NYT notes that a mysterious illness has killed more than 300 elk in Wyoming, while the WP fronts a dispatch from slowly thawing Montana, where during the winter herds of unfortunate antelope fell through thin ice while others were hit by trains, and (according to one local, at least) ducks literally dropped out of the sky, having starved to death in mid-flight. In the shadow of massive snow drifts that echo and embellish the region’s inexorable demographic decline, a county sheriff puts the season in perspective: “You feel like the life has gone out of you. Just like one of those antelope, you want to lay down and die.”