Today's Papers

Just Plane Incompetent

USA Todayand the Washington Postlead with yesterday’s congressional hearing where federal safety inspectors told lawmakers that they were repeatedly prevented from reporting safety problems with Southwest Airlines planes. The inspectors said that when they tried to take further action, they were often harassed and threatened by senior Federal Aviation Administration officials. A number of officials testified that problems with Southwest planes were more extensive than had been previously revealed and that the agency had allowed the airline to continue flying planes with safety problems. The whistle-blowers and lawmakers criticized the FAA for treating airlines as “customers” rather than companies that need to be regulated.

The Wall Street Journal leads its world-wide newsbox with President Bush’s winning the backing of NATO allies for a missile-defense shield in Eastern Europe. The New York Timesleads with a new poll that shows 81 percent of Americans believe the country has gone “off on the wrong track,” which marks an increase of 12 percentage points since last year. It is the highest level of dissatisfaction with the country’s direction since the NYT/CBS poll first asked the question in the 1990s. Most believe the economy is in a recession, and Americans blame the government more than banks or borrowers for the current crisis. The Los Angeles Timesleads with a look at how Sen. Barack Obama is quickly cutting into Sen. Hillary Clinton’s lead in superdelegates. In December, Clinton had 106 more superdelegates than Obama, but now that lead has been reduced to 30.

USAT highlights what was probably the most startling testimony at the congressional hearing. One of the two whistle-blowers who initially raised concerns about Southwest choked up as he told the story of how a manager came into his office and all but threatened him while he was working on a document detailing the problems with the inspection of Southwest planes. “You have a good job here, and your wife has a good job [at the FAA],” the manager told him while holding a picture of the inspector’s family. “I’d hate to see you jeopardize your and her careers.” The inspectors also talked about orders to shred documents so they wouldn’t get to Congress, and they emphasized that the lax attitude toward Southwest stemmed from the close relationship their supervisor in Dallas had with the airline’s managers. The manager still works for the FAA, although the agency insists he doesn’t have responsibility for safety decisions. “What do you have to do to get fired there?” Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson asked.

At his final NATO summit, Bush managed to accomplish two of his three main priorities. While he failed to persuade key European leaders to open the way for Ukraine and Georgia to join the alliance, Bush did gain backing for the missile-defense shield and managed to get NATO to send more troops to Afghanistan. In addition, Bush reached an agreement with the Czech Republic to build a radar facility for the U.S. system.

The NYT fronts a follow-up look at the problems faced by Iraqi security forces during last week’s operation in Basra. Yesterday, the LAT said the biggest problem with desertions came from police officers. Today, the NYT doesn’t separate soldiers from police officers and says there were more than 1,000 members of the security forces that refused to fight in Basra. The paper also mentions that there were so many problems with the Iraqi forces in Basra that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki decided to incorporate approximately “10,000 recruits from local Shiite tribes into his armed forces.” This, of course, angered Sunnis who have long been waiting for the government to incorporate members of the so-called “Awakening Movement” into the security forces. The paper talks to a British official who says Maliki brought in “6,600 reinforcements to Basra to join the 30,000 security personnel already stationed there.” An American official estimated that about 4 percent of the total number of security forces “had deserted or underperformed.” But the numbers are nothing if not confusing.

The WP also fronts a piece looking at the buildup to the Basra fighting and its failures, which doesn’t provide much new information, but there are some interesting tidbits. The paper talks to an Iraqi official who says around 30 percent of the Iraqi troops “abandoned the fight.” But 30 percent of what? The Iraqi official says militias had anywhere from 12,000 to 15,000 fighters, which was about the same as the number of Iraqi troops. That would mean there were as many as 4,500 desertions, but it seems strange that the NYT and WP have such different numbers of Iraqi troop totals. Perhaps the WP isn’t counting police officers, but it’s not clear why it would do that, and that would also mean the number of desertions was much higher. Perhaps more interesting, the NYT tries to find out how many of the desertions involved officers. But, again, that’s far from clear, and the numbers range from “several dozen to more than 100,” although there apparently were at least two senior commanders among the deserters.

Meanwhile, tensions grew once again between Maliki and cleric Muqtada Sadr. Maliki vowed to continue targeting militias and specifically mentioned areas that are well-known strongholds of Sadr’s Mahdi Army. The NYT notes that despite the supposed cease-fire agreement, raids on the Mahdi Army “have if anything become more frequent.” Sadr accused Maliki of breaking his promise and called for a million Iraqis to march to the holy city of Najaf on Wednesday to protest against U.S. occupation.

Everyone notes a new National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq gives a more upbeat portrayal of the situation on the ground than previous reports. The report is classified, and this time there’s no public version. Officials who read it say it generally supports the “surge” by citing improvements in the country. Democrats were quick to criticize  it, saying that most of its content has been reported in the media and that it appears to have been written to help the administration during next week’s Iraq hearings. Several key lawmakers also want a summary of the report to be made public, but that doesn’t appear likely.

The NYT fronts an interesting look at Abu Yahya al-Libi, a man who has quickly risen in the al-Qaida ranks and who some think could be the heir to Osama Bin Laden. Libi, a Libyan, escaped from a U.S. prison in Afghanistan in 2005 and has since appeared in a number of videos promoting al-Qaida’s message. Not only is Libi young and charismatic, he is also a religious scholar, which sets him apart from al-Qaida’s top leadership.

In news from the Democratic primary, the papers note that Obama continues to hold a wide lead in fundraising and is furiously outspending Clinton. In March, Obama raised $40 million, which was double Clinton’s take, and he has spent $3 million in television and radio ads in Pennsylvania, compared with the $500,000 she has invested in the state. Meanwhile, the NYT goes inside with a poll that seems to show Democrats aren’t as excited about Obama as they were after his February victory streak. His favorability rating has dropped seven percentage points, and Obama and Clinton are now pretty much tied among Democratic voters. Also, Obama seems to have lost the huge lead he had among men. Still, most expect he will be the party’s nominee.

For all those who are looking forward to Passover but are dreading the idea of opening yet another bottle of generic Manischewitz, the WSJ’s wine critics are here to tell you that there’s no need to suffer, and they provide a guide so you can be the most popular person at Seder. Although “the k-word still turns off some wine drinkers,” the writers assure readers that “today’s kosher wines are diverse, interesting and often excellent.”