Today's Papers

Messy Condi-meant

The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal newsbox, and New York Timesall lead with air marshals shooting and killing a passenger on a plane at Miami’s airport after, officials said, the man claimed he had a bomb, ran from marshals, and then tried to reach into his bag. He was shot on the jetway. It is the first time an air marshal has fired on or near a plane in U.S. history. No bomb was found. A local TV station interviewed another passenger who heard the man’s wife say he was manic-depressive and hadn’t taken his meds. For what it’s worth, USAT reported three years ago that air marshals are “too often overworked and poorly trained to be effective.”

The Washington Postfronts the shooting but deemsSecretary of State Rice’s  latest, and deeply ambiguous, comments on the U.S.’s treatment of detainees lead-worthy. Said Rice: “The United States’ obligations under the CAT (Convention Against Torture), which prohibits cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, those obligations extend to U.S. personnel wherever they are, whether they are in the United States or outside of the United States.”

The Post is alone in asserting that Rice’s comments herald a significant change. Here’s how the WP’s coverage begins:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday that the United States prohibits all its personnel from using cruel or inhuman techniques in prisoner interrogations, whether inside or outside U.S. borders. Previous public statements by the Bush administration have asserted that the ban did not apply abroad.

That is obviously what Rice wanted people to hear—that U.S. personnel are prohibited from engaging in “cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment” anywhere. But it is not what she said. Here’s the out: While Rice asserted that the U.S. abides by the “obligations” of the anti-torture treaty across the globe, the administration’s legal position is that those “obligations” don’t extend to the treatment of foreigners being held overseas. In other words, according to the administration’s long-standing legal position, CIA interrogators in, say, secret prisons in North Africa aren’t bound to treat foreign prisoners humanely.

The Post wasn’t the only one to have a tough time getting a read of Rice’s circumlocutions. Her underlings did, too. “State Department officials” in the NYT talked up her comments as “an important policy statement,” with one adding that it was “a change” in policy. One of those “officials” might want to poke their head out of the door and chat with the State Department spokesman who, according to the LAT, insisted that Rice’s comments simply reiterated what has already “been the U.S. policy.”

The NYT and WP include suggestions that Rice’s ambiguous construction was meant in part to actually push for more humane detainee policies. A “former senior American government official”—(Hello, Colin or Richard!)—told the Times that, apart from trying to placate Europeans, Rice was aiming “to tie more firmly the hands” of the Justice Department, CIA, and Pentagon. Of course, that doesn’t amount to a policy change, just a potential attempt at one. Unlike the Post’s news section, the WP’s editorial page gets it: “Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did not break any new ground yesterday.” As even the Post’s news article acknowledges, previous administration officials have (quietly) used the same line Rice did. For a second day, the NYT’s Rice coverage is also worth reading; it’s particularly sharp on the confusion.

One final glimpse—The WP: “RICE ACTS TO CLARIFY U.S. POLICY ON PRISONERS.” The LAT’s slightly different take: “RICE FAILS TO CLARIFY U.S. VIEW ON TORTURE.”

The WP alone fronts the latest on democracy in Egypt, where there were continuing elections yesterday and cops beat voters in some precincts. The Post describes one neighborhood where the Islamic opposition is strong and the police “prevented anyone from voting throughout the day.” But it’s actually been the freest (or least rigged) Egyptian election in memory.

The NYT unveils a poll on Page One showing President Bush’s approval rating jumping five points to 40 percent. The uptick seems to be driven by the economy and perhaps gas prices. Fifty-six percent of respondents described the economy as good, up nine points from a month ago. The numbers on Iraq are still dismal, which the Times points out right at the top. But there was a small bright spot there for the president—buried: “Approval of his handling of Iraq rose to 36 percent, from 32 percent in October.” That’s in the 21st paragraph.

The WP alone fronts three tax cuts passed by the House yesterday and another coming today that will cut about $95 billion in revenues, roughly twice the amount the GOP-led House pared from domestic programs last month in purported belt-tightening.

Good question … One letter-writer in the NYT:

If, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice claims, “we are respecting U.S. law and U.S. treaty obligations,” why are the secret United States prisons secret … and hidden from inspection by the International Red Cross? Why are they not on American soil? [And] why are suspects transferred by secret “renditions” to secret prisons in countries where torture is common?