Today's Papers

Exit Quietly

The New York Timesleads with word that the Iraqi government has been firing inspectors general who are supposed to keep an eye out for corruption. These oversight officials were put in place in every Cabinet-level ministry at the behest of American officials in order to bring some level of transparency to the Iraqi government. But as claims of corruption in the Iraqi government increase, it seems Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government would rather get rid of the watchdogs than deal with the growing problem. USA Todayleads with a new report by the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction that reports the Pentagon spent about $600 million in more than 1,200 Iraq reconstruction contracts that were canceled. Almost half of these contracts were canceled because problems with the contractor, including failure to deliver and poor performance.

The Washington Postleads with a look at how a number of political appointees have been transferring over to civil service posts in preparation for the end of the Bush administration. Between March and November, about 20 political appointees in a variety of departments have become career civil servants. The Wall Street Journal leads its world-wide newsbox with, and the Los Angeles Timesfronts, the hijacking of a huge oil tanker by suspected Somali pirates more than 450 nautical miles from the Kenyan coast. The hijacking of the Saudi-owned Sirius Star supertanker carrying more than $100 million worth of crude came as a shock because pirates usually operate much closer to shore and don’t go after such huge targets. The LAT leads locally with news that the California State University system is proposing a plan to cut enrollment at its 23 campuses by 10,000 students because of the state’s budget woes.

The dismissals of the Iraqi oversight officials were done so quietly that no one knows exactly how many people were actually involved. Out of a total of 30 Cabinet-level ministries that have one inspector general each, some say as many as 17 were fired. Other estimates are much lower and Stuart Bowen,the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, said he knew of six dismissals. Interestingly, the Washington-based Bowen says much of the blame for this turn of events lies with the United States because it created the powerful positions but provided little training and support for what was an alien concept in Iraqi politics, known for its secrecy and back-scratching during Saddam Hussein’s reign. Of course, the suspicion is that Maliki will either seek to leave the jobs vacant or fill them with supporters.

It is difficult for managers to get rid of employees with civil service status, which means the Bush appointees who have changed their status are for all practical purposes guaranteed a job in the Obama administration, at least for a while. These types of transfers are hardly new: The Clinton administration approved 47 such changes in the former president’s last 12 months in office. This time around, the most stark example of this practice is in the Interior Department, where six political appointees were given senior civil service positions. Career Interior officials naturally see this as an attempt by the Bush administration to prevent the Democratic White House from putting its mark on the department.

The WSJ notes that the hijacking of the Saudi-owned oil tanker “sharply increases the stakes” in the efforts to protect energy supplies. Although hijackings by pirates off the Somalia coast have been on the rise, these attacks are usually closer to shore and none of the affected vessels came close to having the dimensions of the Sirius Star supertanker. “What this represents is a fundamental ability of pirates to be able to operate off the coast to an extent we have not seen before,” U.S. Navy Lt. Nathan Christensen tells the LAT. “It’s the largest ship we’ve seen attacked.” Although there have recently been stepped-up efforts to monitor the Somali coast to try to push back against the pirates, the threatened area is huge and amounts to “four times the size of Texas,” notes the WSJ. Many fear that this hijacking means that pirates are becoming more daring and sophisticated in their attacks. They certainly have a financial incentive to carry out these risks as ransoms continue to increase. The NYT points out the pirates’ profits are expected to reach $50 million this year.

The LAT fronts an interesting look at how the bad economic situation coupled with increasing deficits may be just what the doctor ordered for President-elect Obama to finally be able to overhaul the nation’s health care system. Some have been suggesting that Obama should put health care on the backburner since there’s so much else to deal with, but others say the new administration will have a rare opportunity to take dramatic action. Not only are doctors and physicians worried about the newly unemployed joining the millions of Americans who are uninsured, but businesses also see it as an urgent issue since medical benefits eat up so much of their budgets at a time when profits are shrinking.

The NYT points out an eleventh-hour plan by the Bush administration to issue a rule that would prohibit health care providers from discriminating against health care workers who oppose abortion or sterilization procedures because of their “religious beliefs or moral convictions.” This means it would be illegal for a health care center to require staff members to perform or assist in these procedures. Three officials from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission are speaking up against the plan, saying that it would put in doubt 40 years of civil rights law that already prohibits job discrimination based on religion.

The WP goes above-the-fold with a long profile of Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson that details how the former head of Goldman Sachs has changed quite a bit during his 30-month tenure. Although he was skeptical, to say the least, of government involvement in the economy when he first arrived in Washington, he was forced to change his mind when faced with such a disastrous economic picture. “My thinking has evolved a lot to the point where I’ve seen regulation up close and personal,” Paulson said. “I’ve realized how flawed it is and how imperfect, but how necessary it is,” he added. Paulson said that sometime in the next few weeks he’ll unveil a set of plans to update the country’s regulatory structure so the government can properly oversee a bigger chunk of the market. He’ll also urge the new administration to give the government the power to take over any failing financial institution, not just banks.

“There is no playbook for responding to turmoil we have never faced,” writes Paulson in an op-ed piece in the NYT. “We adjusted our strategy to reflect the facts of a severe market crisis, always keeping focused on our goal: to stabilize a financial system that is integral to the everyday lives of all Americans.” Paulson insists that as Obama’s administration will take over and try to figure out how to best deal with the slump, it will benefit from a more stable banking system as well as having the authority and resources to tackle the problem.

Indeed, in an interview with the WSJ, Paulson said he’s unlikely to tap into what is left of the $700 billion bailout package because he’d rather keep it on hold for an emergency and not make decisions that will tie Obama’s hands. “I’m not going to be looking to start up new things unless they’re necessary or it’s just clear that they need to be done,” Paulson said. This suggests that the Bush administration doesn’t plan to use any of the bailout money to prevent more home foreclosures, a course of action that many have been pressing for. One of the strongest proponents for action in the foreclosure front has been Sheila Bair, chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp, whom the LAT profiles today on Page One, noting that she’s one of the few officials “whose reputation has actually improved during the financial crisis.” Bair’s focus on the issue, on top of her willingness to criticize the Bush administration, may earn her a spot in Obama’s administration, particularly since the incoming president has always highlighted his plans to include Republicans in his government.

In an op-ed piece in the LAT, historian Matthew Pinsker says that Team of Rivals, the book on the Lincoln presidency that everyone seems to be citing these days as Obama puts together his Cabinet, doesn’t tell the whole story. While it’s true that Lincoln gathered former rivals in his Cabinet, that approach didn’t work as well for him as many assume.  Not only did Lincoln anger friends, but he also ended up having to rule with an iron fist over his advisers after his former rivals almost destroyed his presidency. “Lincoln was a political genius,” writes Pinsker, “but his model for Cabinet-building should stand more as a cautionary tale than as a leadership manual.”