Today's Papers

Was Powell Kept Out of Torture Loop?

The Los Angeles Timesleads with a Senate intelligence committee report that was released yesterday and gives the most detailed chronology of events that led to the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of harsh interrogation techniques on terror suspects. The techniques were approved by a group of senior Bush administration officials in July 2002 after the issue was discussed in a series of meetings that apparently didn’t include the secretaries of state and defense. The report also states that the Justice Department issued memos in 2006 and 2007 noting the techniques were still lawful despite congressional moves to restrict their use. The Washington Postleads with a look at how the release of the torture memos has once again dragged President Obama into a controversy related to his predecessor. Republicans and CIA officials have criticized the release of the documents, while Democrats are pushing for an investigation, a subject that was a hot topic of debate on Capitol Hill yesterday.

The Wall Street Journalbanners word that Bank of America’s chief executive was pressured by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to not disclose the increasingly dire conditions at Merrill Lynch before the bank bought the company. In February testimony before New York’s attorney general, CEO Kenneth Lewis said he wasn’t explicitly told to keep quiet, but he made it clear that he believed it was what the government officials wanted. USA Todayleads with word that General Motors will stop production at most of its U.S. plants for nine weeks in mid-May. In what the paper says could very well be “a record voluntary shutdown,” GM plans to close up shop in 15 of its 21 North American plants, mostly in the United States. The move would affect suppliers and could reverberate throughout the entire economy. One expert said it could suggest that “bankruptcy is more likely, rather than less likely” for the automaker. The New York Timesleads with new Census Bureau figures that report fewer Americans are changing residences. From March 2007 to March 2008, 35 million people moved, the lowest number since 1962. In percentage terms, it was the lowest number since the bureau began to keep track in 1948.

The LAT points out that the clear involvement of the most senior members of the Bush administration in approving the brutal interrogation techniques makes it clear that “any effort to hold architects of the program accountable was likely to extend beyond Justice Department legal advisors and into the highest reaches of the government.” The report released yesterday also raised questions about whether administration officials tried to keep information away from some senior officials, particularly Secretary of State Colin Powell. But it’s unclear how complete the report is because it also states that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was not involved in the early discussions when other documents from that time suggest he was. According to the report, neither Powell nor Rumsfeld was briefed on the interrogation program until September 2003. “This chronology is misleading and incomplete and does not reflect the [National Security Council] review process or the information presented to the NSC,” a former White House official tells the Post.

Many top Democrats have decided to keep quiet about whether there should be a far-reaching investigation into the approval of the harsh interrogation techniques. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was an exception, saying she was in favor of an investigation and emphasized that witnesses shouldn’t be immune from prosecution. While the administration seems confident there won’t be a congressionally backed investigation, it’s still unclear whether a commission similar to the one that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks could become a reality. Whatever ends up happening, it seems clear that White House officials “have been drawn into a debate they did not foresee,” says the Post.

The LAT and NYT go inside with looks at how many legal experts are troubled by the prospect of prosecuting the lawyers who approved the interrogation techniques and think it’s unlikely that anyone would be indicted. “Those who want heads to roll are likely to be dissatisfied,” a criminal-law professor said. In order to have a case against the lawyers, it would be necessary to show that they deliberately misinterpreted the law. Ultimately, being a bad lawyer who gives bad advice isn’t a crime. Considering that some of the lawyers, particularly John Yoo, had been talking about their particular views on presidential power before joining the administration, it would be difficult to prove they actually believed that what they were writing was wrong. The NYT points out “that dynamic” could change. The Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility has apparently obtained e-mail messages from that time, and if it turns out the lawyers first thought the program would be illegal but changed their mind when pressured by policymakers, then prosecutors could theoretically have a case.

Interestingly, the LAT points out the whole issue would be different if another country used the same interrogation tactics on Americans. In that case, there would be a consensus that the foreign official who authorized water-boarding of a U.S. agent should be prosecuted for war crimes. “There would be no controversy, no debate,” the Washington director of Human Rights Watch said. “And no one would buy the excuse that one of those dictators was relying on the advice of his legal counsel.”

In the NYT’s op-ed page, Ali Soufan, a former FBI supervisory special agent, writes that “[o]ne of the most striking parts of the [torture] memos is the false premises on which they are based.” The memos justify the use of harsh measures because Abu Zubaydah had been uncooperative and then cite the success with that detainee as a reason to continue with the techniques, but that is inaccurate. Soufan interrogated Abu Zubaydah and writes that he “provided us with important actionable intelligence” before the harsh techniques were used. Soufan insists that there was no information that “wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics.” The use of these techniques brought a return to the “so-called Chinese wall” between the CIA and FBI that was much criticized after the Sept. 11 attacks. Since the bureau wouldn’t go along with the techniques, agents who were the most knowledgeable about the terror suspects couldn’t participate in the investigations.

It’s hardly a secret that the government pushed Bank of America to buy Merrill Lynch late last year to keep the financial crisis from spreading. The bank’s CEO, Ken Lewis, had previously disclosed he had considered backing out of the deal when he began to realize how much trouble Merrill was really in. If Lewis had told shareholders about this, they could have decided that preventing Merrill’s collapse wasn’t in their best interest. But Lewis said that “it wasn’t up to me” to disclose the information. The testimony “suggests how aggressively federal regulators have been willing to behave in their fight to fix the U.S. financial system,” notes the WSJ,pointing out it was the first time that government officials have been blamed for the failure to disclose troubles at Merrill, which ended up reporting a $15.8 billion loss for the fourth quarter.

The NYT, LAT, and USAT front news that Taliban militants in Pakistan have moved into new territory next to the Swat Valley that is 60 miles from Islamabad (the NYT says 70 miles). The NYT goes even further and declares that the militants “have established effective control” over Buner, which is a “strategically important district.” The move doesn’t mean that Pakistan’s capital is under immediate threat, but it does illustrate how the militants are making progress moving beyond the Swat Valley. “They take over Buner, then they roll into Mardan and that’s the end of the game,” a law enforcement official said. Yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that in signing a deal with militants, “the Pakistani government is basically abdicating to the Taliban and the extremists.” Clinton remarked that “the continuing advances” pose an “existential threat” to Pakistan and a “mortal threat” to the world.

The LAT says many Pakistanis “have a romantic view of Sharia,” or Islamic law, because they’re frustrated by the corrupt government and are worried about their own security. Many of the lower and even some of the middle classes don’t necessarily think their country is in chaos. The richest members of the population are the ones who are most worried, but they also have the ability to move abroad if things get truly dire. For its part, USAT sees a growing public backlash against the Paksitani Taliban, even among conservative politicians.

The WP and NYT front the death of David Kellermann, the acting chief financial officer of Freddie Mac. He apparently hanged himself early yesterday morning in the basement of his home. He didn’t leave a note, so it’s impossible to know whether his final act was related to work, but it’s clear that’s what consumed the vast majority of his waking hours over the last few months. Kellerman had worked at the mortgage giant for more than 16 years and felt immense pressure to turn the company around while also dealing with the demands of regulators and lawmakers. “The pressure right now is relentless,” a Freddie Mac executive told the NYT. “Everyone in the financial sector, regardless of where you work, is constantly told both that this is our fault, and that we have to work as hard as possible, otherwise the nation will fall apart.”

The WP takes a look at the troubles surrounding Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo, as there seems to be no end in sight to women claiming that he is the father of their child. Yesterday, a third woman came forward to claim that the former Roman Catholic bishop is the father of her 16-month-old son. The scandal broke when lawyers for one 26-year-old woman threatened a paternity suit against Lugo and he subsequently admitted that he was the boy’s father. Lugo hasn’t denied or confirmed the other two claims. The woman who came forward yesterday said she thinks Lugo could have as many as six children.

In the LAT’s op-ed page, the two men who published a book of letters to Obama from children write that they hope “the clarity of kidspeak” will be able to “cut through the perpetual din of presidential advice.” One 5-year-old from New Jersey had some “beautifully simple” advice on leadership: “Help us be nice. Get everyone in the circle, and then you can tell them to listen to you.”