Today's Papers

Government Could Control Automakers

The New York Timesleads, and the Washington Postoff-leads, news that Congress and the White House are getting closer to agreeing on a plan to rescue the U.S. auto industry by providing $15 billion in emergency loans as long as the companies agree to grant the government broad oversight powers. Assuming a deal is reached, “the car industry would be the latest to submit to strict government scrutiny in return for a bailout,” declares the Wall Street Journal, which gives top billing to the news on its front page. USA Todayleads with a new report by the Pentagon’s inspector general that says the military was well aware of the dangers posed by roadside bombs before the Iraq war but did little to develop vehicles that could have done a better job of protecting service members in the war zone. The Marine Corps leadership basically ignored a 2005 request for Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles and said that outfitting more armor in existing Humvees was the “best available” option. A study earlier this year claimed hundreds of Marines died unnecessarily because of delays in getting the appropriate vehicles to the war zone.

The WP leads with news that the five Guantanamo detainees accused of planning the Sept. 11 attacks said they were ready to confess and plead guilty. The offer to plead guilty was later withdrawn after the military judge raised a number of legal questions, but this latest development could complicate things for President-elect Barack Obama, who has vowed to close the detention camp. The Los Angeles Timesdevotes its top nonlocal spot to the unsealing of the Justice Department’s case against five private security guards for their role in the shootings in Baghdad’s Nisoor Square last year that killed 17 Iraqi civilians. A sixth Blackwater guard provided information to authorities as part of an agreement to plead guilty to lesser charges.     

Under the plan currently in the works in Congress, President Bush would appoint an official who is being referred to as the “car czar” to oversee the rescue program. The WP specifies that the car czar would be at the head of a seven-member “auto board” that would not only make sure the government money is used properly but also that the industry is taking steps to return to profitability. The czar would have to approve any business transaction of $25 million or more. The NYT points out that Democratic officials hope the new car czar will be able to stay put when President-elect Barack Obama gets to the Oval Office, which suggests the White House will work with the incoming administration to select someone.

Ford announced yesterday that it would not seek short-term federal aid, but if the other companies agree to take the money, they’ll have to accept some restrictions on executive compensation. They would also be barred from paying dividends to stockholders until the loans are paid back, and they’d be forbidden from leasing or owning private jets. The WSJ says that the government would receive stock warrants that would add up to at least 20 percent of the loans a company receives, which would mean taxpayers could benefit if the firms manage to turn around. The WP highlights that the government could demand that the auto companies get rid of their top executives and points out that Senate banking committee Chairman Chris Dodd said yesterday that General Motors’ chairman “has to move on.”

The LAT points out that the details of the rescue package “appear to match most of the terms Bush has been insisting on,” but the WSJ says that the White House would prefer that the package “were even tougher on the car makers” and the administration “gave a chilly reception to the latest overture by Democrats.” The WP details that the proposal drafted by the White House includes a “financial viability adviser” within the Commerce Department that could force the auto companies to declare bankruptcy while the Democratic plan would allow the oversight board to develop goals for the company but “could not compel them to act.” Despite the disagreements, officials are optimistic they’ll be able to reach a deal that will win passage by the end of the week.

In a front-page analysis, the NYT’s David Sanger says that while the one word that no one in Obama’s team “wants to be caught uttering” is nationalization, in many ways that is pretty much what the rescue plan proposes. The “car czar” would essentially be “a one-man board of directors” who would essentially have unfettered power to decide how the companies operate. The problem with this is not just that the government might make a bad corporate manager or that taxpayers could lose billions of dollars but also that the United States would officially be contradicting what it has been advocating to countries around the world for years. While Detroit’s Big 3 are in talks with the government, there’s no hint that foreign automakers who have factories in the United States would get anything. “If Japan was doing this, we’d be threatening billions of dollars in retaliation,” one expert said.

The move by Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four co-defendants to plead guilty “seemed to challenge the government to put them to death” and suggested they intended to weaken the government’s plan to hold a high-profile trial, notes the NYT. Some of the five men have declared their desire for martyrdom and seemed shocked that their guilty plea might prevent them from receiving the death penalty. “Are you saying if we plead guilty we will not be able to be sentenced to death?” Mohammed asked the judge. The judge also said that two of the co-defendants haven’t been deemed competent to represent themselves, and the three others said they would hold off on their guilty plea until the five could act together. If their guilty plea is ultimately accepted, it could complicate Obama’s efforts to close down the military tribunals, since it might be difficult to transfer the case to federal court. On the other hand, if they’re allowed to continue, the new administration might have to “oversee an execution resulting from a process that many Obama supporters and legal advisers regard as deeply flawed,” points out the WP.

The case against the Blackwater guards that was unsealed yesterday provides the most complete details of the shootings that severely strained relations between Iraq and the United States and raised questions about the use of contractors in a war. The five guards were charged with 14 counts of manslaughter, and 20 counts of attempting to commit manslaughter. Prosecutors claim that none of the Iraqis killed that day posed a threat to the guards but said manslaughter was a more appropriate charge than murder because of the difficulties of operating in a war zone. The five men surrendered to federal to authorities in Salt Lake City in a move to support efforts to get the case out of Washington, D.C. and into a more conservative part of the country. But a judge rejected the request and ordered the five men to appear at a hearing in Washington early next year.

The WP’s Eugene Robinson writes that while the indictment of the Blackwater guards may appear to be a commendable effort to hold private guards accountable for what appears to be an indefensible massacre, it really represents “a whitewash that absolves the government and corporate officials who should bear ultimate responsibility.” Just like in Abu Ghraib, the government is singling out a group of individuals for an atrocity and ignoring the larger corporate and governmental policies that allowed it to happen in the first place. “The five Blackwater guards may have fired the weapons,” writes Robinson, “but they were locked and loaded in Washington.”

The WSJ leads its worldwide newsbox with word that Pakistani officials raided a camp run by the terrorist group believed to be responsible for the Mumbai attacks and arrested two of its senior leaders along with 10 other people. It appeared to be the first concrete step by the Pakistani government to fulfill Indian and American demands for action against Lashkar-e-Taiba. The NYT also fronts the news but says the information is less than clear, as the paper couldn’t even obtain definite confirmation that Zaki ur-Rehman Lakhvi, who is believed to be the group’s operational commander and the mastermind behind the attacks, was arrested. The LAT seconds the confusion and says it got contradictory information from several Pakistani officials. But the WSJ affirms that Lakhvi was indeed captured, along with Zarar Shah, another top commander. Still, many experts say “the raid was a good first step but also a relatively easy one,” notes the WSJ, because the real question is what Pakistan will do about the group’s parent organization that has a high public profile.

In an op-ed piece in the NYT, Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, says that the “Mumbai attacks were directed not only at India but also at Pakistan’s new democratic government and the peace process with India.” Reminding readers that militants killed his wife, Benazir Bhutto, Zardari writes that Pakistan is also a victim of terrorism and warns against jumping to conclusions about his country’s involvement in the attacks. “For India, Pakistan and the United States, the best response to the Mumbai carnage is to coordinate in counteracting the scourge of terrorism,” he writes.

The NYT and LAT front, and everyone covers, news that NBC managed to keep Jay Leno and will announce today that he will host a show each weeknight at 10 p.m. that will follow a format similar to The Tonight Show, which he has hosted since 1993. The move will keep Leno in the network after Conan O’Brien takes over the show next year and will save the company lots of money in production costs since a talk/variety show is much cheaper to produce than a scripted show. But it also represents a huge gamble since a show of its kind hasn’t flourished in prime time for several decades. The WP focuses most extensively on how the move will affect O’Brien and says many industry executives “bet Conan must be madder than a wet hen.”