Today's Papers

Blunt Instrument

The New York Times leads with news that “American officials” are negotiating with Iraqi insurgent leaders in an attempt to lure them into the political process. The Wall Street Journal tops its news box with Shiite protesters in Baghdad calling on the United States to crack down on an insurgency that has killed nearly 200 in the last two days. The Washington Post leads (at least online) with a Congressional Research Service report that casts doubt on the legality of the National Security Agency’s warrantless domestic wiretapping program. (The NYT also fronts this.) The LAT leads with an uprising against Tom DeLay by House Republicans.

The NYT lead is mostly sourced to “a Western diplomat,” but it also features interviews with two insurgent leaders and with “a former associate of [Saddam] Hussein” who was, the insurgents assert, released by the United States as a “goodwill gesture” toward them. The American negotiators are trying to exploit a presumed rift between Iraqi nationalist insurgents (who simply want the U.S. gone) and al-Qaida (which has international, pan-Islamic goals). Predictibly, the “nationalist” insurgents blame most of the insurgency’s carnage on Abu al-Zarqawi and other “foreign” al-Qaida leaders. The United States is talking to the insurgents via intermediaries, the paper reports, and the communications are part of a larger strategy to encourage Sunni participation in the new government. It’s unclear from the article whether the two insurgent leaders, identified by pseudonyms, were interviewed by the Times reporters in person.

The report by the Congressional Research Service, the nonpartisan policy-analysis arm of the Library of Congress, argues that the White House’s legal justifications for the spy program are shaky. The report focuses on two legal questions: 1) Did Congress implicitly authorize such a program when it passed a resolution in September 2001 granting the president the use of “all necessary and appropriate force” to combat those who attacked the United States? The CRS concludes that it is unlikely a court would make such a broad interpretation. 2) Is the president bound by the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which created a series of “intelligence courts” designed to authorize top-secret surveillance warrants? The CRS concludes that he probably is and backs this up with quotes from lawmakers who drafted the bill.

The report did not explicitly judge the legality of the current NSA program (the details of which the CRS is not privy to). The Post notes that judges in the FISA courts will receive a classified briefing on the program on Monday. In the NYT, Republican Tom Kean, a 9/11 Commission co-chair, criticizes the White House for end-running the FISA law—which, he notes, gives “very broad powers to the president” anyway. The Journal’s editors defend the NSA program, in part by citing instances in which the Carter and Clinton administrations argued for the very same eavesdropping powers that Bush now claims to have. 

Yesterday three House Republicans initiated a petition to hold a special leadership election designed to oust Tom DeLay as House majority leader. (The current majority leader, Roy Blunt, is a “temporary” appointment, and until recently DeLay had been expected to return to his post when Congress reconvenes later this month.) The petition has already garnered the support of 25 to 30 congressmen. A DeLay spokesman belittled the putsch attempt, but sources tell the Post that DeLay is expected to cave and relinquish the post even before the petition garners the 50 signatures needed to initiate the party-wide vote necessary to call a leadership election. Although many consider House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s position to be safe, the NYT quotes a Republican congresswoman calling for a re-examination of the entire leadership

The NYT fronts an internal Pentagon report concluding that 80 percent of marines who died from upper-torso wounds in Iraq could have been saved by larger body armor. The Marine Corps has known this since last June, yet did not place an order for the armor until September. (The report itself was held up for four months when the corps failed to pay a medical examiner $107,000 to examine the data.) The Army, for its part, has not even placed its order yet. Based on this report and other studies, the Times concludes that 300 of the 1,700 U.S. military fatalities in Iraq could have been averted with the new armor, which has been available since 2003. Meanwhile, the Pentagon upped its body count from Thursday’s insurgent attacks to include 11 U.S. soldiers.

Yao Wenyuan, the last surviving member of Mao’s little band of butchers, the “Gang of Four,” died sometime in December, China reported. Yao served 20 years in prison after Mao died and Deng Xiaoping—who had been purged by Yao—assumed power.

The Journal reports that 50 earthquake refugees commandeered two U.N. relief helicopters in order to flee the disaster zone.

The Journal brings word of a Web service that will make a picture taken in Attica look like it was taken in Acapulco. For a modest fee, Friends Beyond the Wall will pluck your relative or friend out of his forlorn prison photo and insert him into your family portrait, or simply make him appear as if he’s not living behind bars. For those who can’t access the Journal’s “before” and “after” slideshow of doctored photos, you can view an equivalent slideshow on the service’s Web site. (TP’s favorite part of this site, by the way, is the inmate cookbook, which takes culinary ingenuity to a whole new level.)