Today's Papers

It’s All Relative

The New York Timesand Washington Postlead with early looks at the Iraq progress report that will be issued by the White House sometime this week (possibly as early as today). Out of the 18 benchmarks that were set by Congress, the report rated progress in eight areas as “satisfactory,” seven as “not satisfactory,” and one as a mixture. The administration said it was too soon to evaluate the progress in the remaining two benchmarks. As the NYT makes clear, the decision to rate the progress, instead of simply stating whether the benchmarks had actually been met, allows the White House to paint a more positive picture of the situation in Iraq. The Los Angeles Timesleads with “three top U.S. intelligence officials” saying that al-Qaida has been gaining strength recently, primarily due to its ability to operate freely in certain areas of Pakistan, which increases the risk that the terrorist network will carry out an attack in the United States.

USA Todayleads with a previously unreleased Army investigation that says Iraqi police cooperated with the insurgents who carried out the daring January attack in Karbala that killed five U.S. service members. Among its findings, the investigation concluded that Iraqi police disappeared from the scene before the attack, and insurgents had inside information because they knew how the Americans would defend themselves as well as where to find U.S. officers. In case anyone needed it, the report served as a stark reminder of how militants have been able to infiltrate Iraqi security forces. The Wall Street Journal tops its world-wide newsbox with the failure of Democratic senators to gather the necessary Republican support to pass a measure that would have given troops more time off between tours. The vote illustrates how Democrats will have to appease Republican demands if they want to pass any of the upcoming Iraq-related amendments.

Even in areas where the White House will refer to positive developments, officials were quick to emphasize that none of the benchmarks have been fully met. But administration officials were in damage control mode and insisted the report will “not conclude, as it has been characterized, that this is a colossal failure,” as one tells the NYT. Most of the benchmarks reporting progress were in military areas, while there was little advancement in issues dealing with Iraqi politics. The NYT has the most complete details of what is in the report, and even includes a handy chart. Administration officials who talked to the NYT seemed to view this interim report as a sort of report card for the Iraqi government, and although there is some pointed criticism of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government they didn’t want to be too negative in order to give them an incentive “to improve their grades.”

Both the WP and NYT contrast the White House’s leaked report with the much more negative assessment given by intelligence officials, who told lawmakers yesterday that there has been little progress since January.

Yesterday wasn’t the first time that officials from the intelligence community sharply differed with the White House on Iraq. The WP fronts a story by Bob Woodward that says CIA director Michael Hayden gave the Iraq Study Group a “starkly different” assessment of the prospect for victory in Iraq than the one espoused by President Bush. Hayden told the group’s members that “the inability of the government to govern seems irreversible.” Woodward says that Hayden’s “bleak assessment … was a pivotal moment” for the study group. Meanwhile, the Post goes inside with word that the White House is blocking efforts to bring back the Iraq Study Group. Apparently the administration doesn’t want any assessment to rival the September progress reports.

A new threat assessment, titled “Al-Qaida Better Positioned to Strike the West,” says al-Qaida’s ability to operate in certain areas of Pakistan, which is a result of the now infamous deal between the government and tribal leaders last year, has given it the facility to plan attacks around the world. The Post also fronts the intelligence report and says it will be discussed at the White House today. Intelligence officials emphasized that, despite the resurgence of al-Qaida, there’s no specific threat against the United States.

As the White House struggles with its interim report, the LAT fronts a look at how several officials are now saying it was a mistake to set such specific benchmarks to measure progress in Iraq. The administration is trying to point to progress in other areas, but the benchmarks have made it easier for critics to point to specific failures.

Nobody fronts the latest in the fight between Democrats and the White House over the subpoenas for testimony relating to the firings of U.S. attorneys. Harriet Miers, the former White House counsel, refused to appear before Congress. The current White House counsel said Miers had “absolute immunity” from testifying and the president told her not to show up. The LAT emphasizes the Justice Department’s legal opinion that says Miers, and possibly other senior officials, don’t have to answer the subpoenas, which puts into question whether it would prosecute any officials if Congress were to hold them in contempt.

Former White House political director Sara Taylor gave a scattered testimony in which she frequently invoked executive privilige and didn’t say much. But Taylor did say that she never spoke with Bush about the firings and added that she didn’t think the president was very involved in the decisions. Democrats responded by saying that if that was the case, Bush shouldn’t be able to claim executive privilege.

Everybody fronts the death of Lady Bird Johnson, who, as USAT puts it, “turned the first lady’s office into a political power center, and literally transformed the nation’s landscape.” Everyone notes she was the first wife of a president since Eleanor Roosevelt to take on a prominent role in the administration and was well-known for her conservation work, which is widely credited for raising environmental awareness in the American public. She was 94.