Today's Papers

“You Have Been Liberated”

The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Washington Post,and the Wall Street Journal’s world-wide newsbox lead with the Colombia military’s movielike rescue operation that freed former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, three U.S. defense contractors, and 11 Colombian soldiers and policemen who were being held hostage in the jungle by leftist rebels. The daring raid was years in the making as Colombian forces apparently managed to infiltrate the upper echelons of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and convinced guards to group the high-profile hostages in one location to be picked up by what were supposed to be rebel-friendly helicopters. “The operation was impeccable,” Betancourt, who was kidnapped in 2002, said at a news conference. Betancourt described how the hostages had no idea what was going on until the rescue helicopter was in the air and an undercover officer turned to them and said: “We’re the Colombian army. You have been liberated.”

The New York Timesfronts the news out of Colombia but leads with a House committee’s conclusion that Bush administration officials knew about Hunt Oil’s plan to sign an oil deal with the Kurdish regional government in Iraq and didn’t object. American policy is to warn companies not to sign separate deals until Iraq passes a national oil law. In fact, the State Department had publicly said it was concerned the deal would undermine the Iraqi central government. But e-mail messages and other documents reveal that State and Commerce department officials not only knew about the impending deal and didn’t object, but in some instances even seemed to welcome it. The chief executive of Hunt Oil is a major backer of President Bush and a member of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.

The WSJ has the most detailed look at the Colombian rescue operation and says it couldn’t have come at a better time for President Alvaro Uribe, who lately has been engulfed in a bribery scandal. The paper is also, surprisingly, alone in mentioning that the success of the mission is a finger in the eye for Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who had tried to position himself as the only leader able to negotiate for the release of the hostages. USAT and WSJ note up high that the rescue mission took place on the same day as Sen. John McCain was visiting the country. Of course, the timing was pure coincidence, but it seems Uribe and his aides had briefed McCain about the operation. Curious how the operation worked? The WSJ has a blow-by-blow in a separate story.

U.S. officials took pains to emphasize that the rescue mission was a Colombian-led operation, but everyone notes the United States helped with the planning and provided critical intelligence. The three American citizens who were released yesterday were flown directly to San Antonio, Texas. The Northrop Grumman employees had been in captivity since 2003, when their surveillance plane crashed.

The FARC is believed to be holding about 700 hostages, but Betancourt, who holds dual French-Colombian citizenship, was by far the most valuable. French President Nicolas Sarkozy had made her release a priority since he took office, and more than 1,000 cities and towns around the world have made her an honorary citizen. Interestingly enough, the NYT is alone in noting that Betancourt seemed healthy, a contrast to how she looked in a photograph that was widely circulated late last year.

Everyone notes the rescue mission is a huge setback for the FARC, a group that has been fighting the government for more than 40 years but has suffered some crippling blows lately. Three of the group’s top officials have died recently, hundreds are deserting every month, and one top level commander who surrendered in May said the FARC was “crumbling.” The NYT says that the “apparent disintegration” of the FARC has led some to compare it to the Shining Path, a group that once inspired terror but now is made up of a few hundred militants involved in drug trafficking. An editorial in Colombia’s El Tiempo describes yesterday’s raid as the most shattering setback for the FARC and one that “inflicts an unprecedented moral blow.”

The NYT, WP, and LAT front news that McCain made changes in the top levels of his campaign staff in what was the second personnel shakeup in a year. Yesterday, McCain put senior strategist Steve Scmidt, who once worked with Karl Rove, in charge of most day-to-day operations and diminished the role of Rick Davis, his campaign manager. The move came after weeks of handwringing by Republicans who have been complaining that McCain seems to lack a clear message to sell his candidacy to voters. Many say McCain is jumping around from issue to issue without a clear strategy and point to his three-day trip to Colombia and Mexico as a prime example of how his campaign lacks focus. The NYT notes the move is the latest sign that many who worked with Rove are gaining influence in the campaign.

The WSJ fronts a look at how McCain backers are finding ways to get around the campaign-finance law, which the presumptive Republican nominee helped to write, in order to catch up to Sen. Barack Obama in the money race. The paper mostly focuses on how the Republican Governors Association is recruiting big-money donors by telling them that anything they contribute will help McCain in key swing states. These types of groups are forbidden from pledging that they’ll help a federal candidate with their money, but those who work at the association are telling donors that helping elect Republican governors will also be good for McCain in November. Republicans are trying to raise $120 million on McCain’s behalf through the national and state parties and 527 organizations, including the governors group.

In yet another bit of bad news for the LAT, the paper reports that it will be cutting 150 jobs from the newsroom by Labor Day and will publish 15 percent fewer pages each week. The editorial downsizing, which amounts to about 17 percent of the total newsroom, is part of the latest cost-cutting effort that aims to reduce the total Times staff by 250 positions.

The NYT reports that the polygamist sect that made headlines when hundreds of children were seized from the Yearning for Zion ranch has found a way to profit from all the attention. The sect has created a Web site to sell children’s clothing that adheres to their strict standards “for modesty and neatness,” and apparently there’s been lots of interest. “The venture may have come not a moment too soon,” notes the NYT. “There has not been a soul in the fashion world who has not queasily wondered which designers will cite the women of the Yearning for Zion ranch as an inspiration for their next collections.”