The papers go their separate ways today. The New York Times leads with the messy aftermath of former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik’s decision late Friday to remove his name from consideration for the post of Homeland Security secretary, citing his employment of, and failure to pay taxes for, a nanny who was an illegal immigrant. The Washington Post off-leads Kerik, going instead with an exclusive: American officials have been tapping phone conversations between Mohammed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and Iranian officials as he attempts to negotiate a solution to the crisis over Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program. The Los Angeles Times leads with an examination of the frayed state of relations between the United States and Russia in the wake of the botched Ukrainian presidential elections.
It hasn’t been a fun weekend at Bernie’s. Kerik took time out from hanging Christmas lights outside his New Jersey home Saturday to hold a driveway press conference, telling reporters that while he believed his nomination could have survived confirmation hearings, they “would have been messy, ugly and an embarrassment to President Bush,” according to the NYT. The WP says the Bush administration isn’t offering Kerik any sympathy: During the pre-appointment vetting process, he was asked “repeatedly” whether he had ever employed an illegal alien and denied it, administration officials tell the paper. Even Kerik’s political patron, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, sounds less than supportive in the NYT, calling the revelations “an embarrassment” and adding: “I never had a conversation [with the White House] in which I vouched for him.”
Both Kerik and the White House maintain that it was the nanny that sank the nomination. But the NYT quotes an anonymous Democratic Senate staff member saying that “multiple media organizations were pursuing multiple stories,” about Kerik’s checkered past. What was else was there? For one thing, Sunday’s New York Daily News reports that, during his job as a police official, Kerik allegedly accepted thousands of dollars in cash and gifts—including “a bejeweled Tiffany badge”—from a friend who worked for a city contractor with possible mob ties.
According to the WP, unidentified U.S. government officials are poring over intercepts of ElBaradei’s conversations with the Iranian diplomats, in which he discusses his agency’s ongoing probe of Iran’s supposed nukes program. “The intercepted calls have not produced any evidence of nefarious conduct by ElBaradei,” the paper reports. But some administration officials believe the transcripts show that the nuclear watchdog has been “way too soft” on the Iranians, an official tells the paper. ElBaradei’s detractors within the administration are trying to use the intercepts to build a case for replacing him with another, more America-friendly, IAEA chief. But it’s a long shot: There’s no clear candidate to succeed ElBaradei, and what some see as weakness, his supporters call old-fashioned diplomacy. The IAEA takes the bugging in stride. “We’ve always assumed that this kind of thing goes on,” a spokesman tells the paper.
The LAT’s lead says that the U.S. is concerned about Russia’s steady drift away from democracy under President Vladimir Putin, as well as its meddling in its neighbors’ political affairs. Though it’s pegged to the recent clash over Ukraine’s elections (Putin endorsed the governing party’s candidate, while Western governments cheered on the challenger), there’s not much new to the story. An unnamed “U.S. official” muses about whether relations between the countries have reached a “tipping point,” but goes on to say that “steady, constant, subtle pressure” may be the answer—in other words, more of the same.
The NYT continues to play catch-up to the WP when it comes to spycraft. Today, it off-leads a story the Post had yesterday, about a top-secret $9.5 billion “stealth” spy satellite that Senate Democrats are (obliquely) criticizing for being too expensive and possibly unnecessary. And it misses the ElBaradei skullduggery, instead going inside with a pair of analyses of the state of play when it comes to Iran. The gist: Europe favors negotiations, while the U.S. is getting impatient. There are “whispers about military strikes,” the NYT reports, and the Pentagon has gone so far as to draw up a plan for attacking the country’s nuclear sites. But Iran’s program is “well hidden and broadly dispersed,” making a successful military strike almost impossible, Pentagon war planners tell the paper. (An article in this month’s Atlantic Monthly makes the same point.)
The NYT and WP front, and the LAT reefers, the latest news from Ukraine: As expected, tests show that opposition presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko is suffering the aftereffects of dioxin poisoning. The poisoning explains Yushchenko’s recent health problems, as well as the facial blemishes that make for shudder-inducing “before and after” photos. A doctor treating Yushchenko suggested the poison could have been slipped into his patient’s soup. Everyone notes that the candidate dined with the head of Ukraine’s secret police shortly before falling ill.
Naming Names: The WP fronts an investigation that is sure to enliven Georgetown cocktail party chatter. According to the paper, “hundreds of affluent Washingtonians” have taken advantage of an obscure tax loophole intended to promote historic preservation to write off around 10 percent of the value of their homes. One society doyenne saved around $165,000. There’s nothing illegal about the write-off, but the article calls out a number of prominent citizens for taking it, including Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and New Yorker writer Seymour Hersh. “In my neighborhood, almost everybody has one,” Hersh said.