Today's Papers

Budding Crisis

The Washington Post and New York Times lead with news that American soldiers opened fire on a car as it approached a military checkpoint outside Baghdad yesterday, mistakenly wounding a prominent Italian journalist shortly after she was released by insurgents who had been holding her captive. An Italian intelligence agent was killed in the incident, which shocked Italy and embarrassed Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a supporter of the war in Iraq. The Los Angeles Times fronts the shooting but leads with the Bush administration’s call for Syria’s “full and immediate” withdrawal of its troops from Lebanon.

Giuliana Sgrena, a leftist journalist whose reporting was highly critical of the United States’ role in Iraq, was kidnapped on Feb. 4. A group called “Mujaheddin Without Borders” subsequently released a videotape of Sgrena in which she tearfully begged for her life, and tens of thousands marched in Rome to demand her release. The Italian government got her back yesterday under circumstances the NYT describes as “murky.” (A ransom may have been involved.) Shortly after dark, a car carrying Sgrena and at least two Italian intelligence agents approached a checkpoint along the road leading to Baghdad’s airport. According to the military, the car was speeding and failed to stop despite warning signals from soldiers. All the papers mention that the road is notoriously dangerous; the NYT implies that the some soldiers may be trigger-happy, mentioning several similar incidents.

The WP, which datelines its story from Rome, has the best detail on the reaction in Italy. Srgena’s editor called the incident “a tragic demonstration that everything that’s happening in Iraq is completely senseless and mad.” Berlusconi said he was “petrified and dumbfounded,” and called the American ambassador in for a dressing-down. But analysts say it’s unlikely that the incident will seriously damage relations between the allies.

President Bush now has Saudi Arabia, Russia, and France backing his tough line on Syria, “a rare occurrence,” the LAT writes. “When the United States and France and others say, ‘withdraw,’ we mean complete withdrawal, no half-hearted measures,” Bush said. The WP, which fronts its story beneath a huge photograph of Lebanese protesters waving flags and anti-Syrian signs, chooses to emphasize Syrian President Bashar Assad’s countermove: He will address his country’s parliament today to announce that some of Syria’s estimated 15,000 troops will be retreating to a the eastern Bekaa Valley, near the border between the two countries. This, the paper notes, will merely fulfill its obligations under a treaty signed in 1989. The NYT, which is the only paper with a Beirut dateline on its story, stuffs it anyway. It says many Lebanese are skeptical of any Assad pledge and notes that on Thursday, “Syrian troops were seen digging trenches,” which may not be a good sign.

Both the WP and the LAT front long pieces on the massive identity-theft case involving ChoicePoint, a clearinghouse for financial data on millions of Americans. Conmen posing as legitimate businessmen managed to obtain Social Security numbers and other personal information for as many as 145,000 consumers. The WP tick-tock traces the investigation from suspicious calls to ChoicePoint last September to the arrest of a Nigerian man, who had in his possession “credit card applications, financial statements and other mail that had been redirected from homes around the nation.”

The LAT’s piece emphasizes a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into possible insider trading by ChoicePoint CEO Derek Smith and President Douglas Curling. They allegedly began selling company stock on Nov. 9, the same day the company was served with a search warrant in the identity-theft case. Smith says it’s just a coincidence, and that he was unaware of the investigation until recently. “There is no way that a CEO can know everything that is going on,” he said.

The NYT off-leads a feature on the burgeoning drug traffic between Canada and the United States. Call it “Vancouver Vice”: Encouraged by Canada’s relatively tolerant attitudes toward marijuana use, growers are flocking to British Columbia, where they raise “B.C. bud,” a potent strain of weed that enjoys “an almost mythic reputation on the street.” The province produces an estimated 3.7 million pounds of the stuff every year. A single pound sells for as much as $3,500 wholesale, more than three times the price of old-fashioned Mexican swag. All is not bliss, however: On Thursday, four Mounties were killed in Alberta as they attempted to search a pot farm. The killings “stunned a country that has apparently not lost that many officers at once since the mid-19th century.” Some drug enforcement officials see the violence as a harbinger of things to come. One America tells that paper that Seattle today is like “Miami before the drug wars.”

The NYT and WP front word that President Bush nominated Stephen L. Johnson to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Bush’s pick was … stop the presses … applauded by environmental groups. The question is whether Johnson, a scientist and career EPA administrator, will have any power. “The real story is that on major issues, the decisions are going to be made directly by the White House,” said one environmental advocate.

Everyone stuffs the latest bizarre development in Ukraine’s Jacobean political drama. Yuri Kravchenko, the former interior minister, reportedly committed suicide by shooting himself twice (!) in the head. Many Ukrainians don’t believe the shots were self-inflicted. Kravchenko was to testify in an inquiry into the 2000 murder of journalist Georgiy Gongadze. Many believed he would have implicated his then-boss, former president Leonid Kuchma. “Before God, before the people, I have a clear conscience,” Kuchma said.

Yosemite Sam … If Bashar Assad thinks Bush is talking tough, he definitely doesn’t want to tussle with Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas. A wire story inside the WP, citing Roll Call, says Johnson recently raised the issue of Syria with the president. Apparently channeling the ghost of Slim Pickens, he offered the following plan of action: “You know, I can fly an F-15, put two nukes on ‘em and I’ll make one pass. We won’t have to worry about Syria anymore.”