Today's Papers

NSA Sweeps Weak

Everybody leads with the fallout from USA Today’s scoop that the National Security Agency has been vacuuming up most citizens’ phone records. President Bush hustled to a podium and declared, “The intelligence activities I authorized are lawful.” As the Washington Postnotes, he cited “no source of statutory or constitutional authority.”

USAT’s story caused what the WP describes, with a very wide brush, as a “bipartisan uproar.” The main blanching on the Republican side came from Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, who said he is going to bring in telecom execs for a hearing. The other major Republican to do some serious distancing was House Majority Leader John Boehner. “I am not sure why it would be necessary to keep and have that kind of information,” he said.

The latest program doesn’t actually listen in on calls, but it does seem to be directly connected to the government’s warrantless eavesdropping. It’s basically a funnel, or as the WP puts it, “it helps the NSA choose its targets for listening.”

An assessment inside the Los Angeles Timesemphasizes that Republicans have held only limited hearings on warrantless snooping and blocked a full-scale investigation. The WP says inside that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist opposes Specter’s call for hearings on the latest revelations.

The president said that the phone-records sweeps, which he didn’t explicitly acknowledge, “are focused on links to al-Qaeda and their known affiliates.” The papers paint a different picture. The government mines millions and millions of records, as the Post puts it, “to expose hidden connections and details of social networks, hoping to find signs of terrorist plots in the vast sea of innocent contacts.”

As USAT notes, sometimes it does all begin with one number. “You build a big spider web moving outward, looking at the calls to the original number, then the calls to and from those numbers and so on,” said one former intel analyst.

The legality of the program is, well, to be decided. But you’ll want to read this paragraph, buried far down in the Post:

One government lawyer who has participated in negotiations with telecommunications providers said the Bush administration has argued that a company can turn over its entire database of customer records—and even the stored content of calls and e-mails—because customers “have consented to that” when they establish accounts.

Finally, a window into the vagaries of media storms: Back in December, the New York Timeshad a piece similar to USAT: “SPY AGENCY MINED VAST DATA TROVE, OFFICIALS REPORT.” USAT’s scoop had more detail. But the NYT’s story went a long way—and yet didn’t have any legs. One possible explanation (apart, of course, from USAT’s added detail): The Times’ piece came just a week after the paper’s big scoop on warrantless spying, and it was lost in the wake.

Nobody fronts police beating pro-democracy protesters in Egypt. The NYT says the police “clubbed men and women trying to demonstrate as well as half a dozen journalists.” The LAT says hundreds were arrested and mentions that “among those assaulted was a Los Angeles Times reporter.” An Egyptian blog has remarkable photos of the protests and beatings.

A front-page piece in USAT looks at the budget shortages faced by national parks. A recent report by congressional investigators of 12 top parks found all were cutting services, including “visitor center hours, educational programs, basic custodial duties and law enforcement.”

The Wall Street Journal has a poll clocking the president’s approval rating at 29 percent. That’s the lowest point recorded by any recent poll.

The papers mentions—briefly—Iranian President Ahmadinejad saying Tehran is open to negotiations on its nuclear program. Another top Iranian official sent an open letter to Time magazine earlier this week offering specific starting points for negotiations. As USAT points out in one of the few stories on the offers, the White House is refusing to have direct talks with Tehran.

An Associated Press piece on the NYT’s site says Pentagon officials are “looking at ways the military can help provide more security along the U.S. southern border.” The article says the move comes after Karl Rove chatted with Southern lawmakers about adding troops to the border.

The WP notices that the House passed a defense bill that includes a provision allowing chaplains to invoke “the name of Jesus at public military ceremonies, undercutting new Air Force and Navy guidelines.” Among the opponents of the House’s provision: the Navy’s top chaplain. “The language ignores and negates the primary duties of the chaplain to support the religious needs of the entire crew,” said the chaplain, who is a Roman Catholic priest.