The Washington Post's lead with a peek at the White House's latest estimate on the budget deficit, which the paper says "may" exceed $450 billion. That's 50 percent higher than the administration calculated five months ago and $50 billion more than economists predicted just last week. Federal tax revenue has fallen for three straight years, a feat last achieved during the Depression. The Post attributes the fall to the economy, war, and tax cuts. The New York Times leads with North Korea's claims that it's reprocessed enough plutonium to make a half-dozen nukes. The administration says it's not sure yet if North Korea is bluffing. The Los Angeles Times leads with the Pentagon's announcement that in a change of plans, most of the 3rd Infantry will now remain in Iraq "indefinitely." The announcement came as India announced that it won't be sending soldiers to Iraq. The White House had been banking on nearly 20,000 Indian troops. USA Today's lead says that the commission investigating the shuttle Columbia crash is going to call for NASA to increase the quality and quantity of photos taken of the shuttle during missions. Last week, the paper reported that the photo program suffered from budget cutbacks.
A front-page Post piece notes a new trickle-down effect: With the feds now strapped for cash and giving less to states, the states are giving less to municipalities who, having no one to pass the buck to, are raising taxes. The trend is just beginning, but in Maryland 13 of 24 counties have recently raised taxes.
The Post goes inside with an interview with former Defense Secretary William Perry, who said last fall that the crisis with Pyongyang was containable but now says that the administration has made things more dangerous by fiddle-faddling and not settling on a policy. "Damned if I can figure out what the policy is," says Perry. "We are on a path toward war."
A statement from Indian officials said that they might still consider sending troops if there is "an explicit U.N. mandate for the purpose." The LAT quotes one administration official saying that the White House might consider going back to the U.N. to get that stronger mandate.
The NYT goes above-the-fold with complaints from Syrians, both military and civilian, that the U.S. is regularly violating Syrian airspace, at times attacking across the border. The Times' reporter, Dexter Filkins, watched a U.S. chopper briefly dart across the border. Locals, who protest that they can't smuggle anymore, say that anti-U.S. propaganda is proliferating in the area, and young men have started crossing into Iraq to attack GIs.
In a Page One piece, the WP notices the White House's conflicting statements about the bogus uranium claim that made it into the State of the Union. President Bush said yesterday that the CIA's doubts about the intel were "subsequent" to the speech. As the Post explains, the president's contention is "at odds with those of his own aides," who have already acknowledged that the CIA dissed the intel months before the SOTU. The Post also notices another, ahem, misstatement by Bush yesterday: He said Saddam "wouldn't let [U.N. inspectors] in." The paper notes, too politely, that the president's assertion "appeared to contradict the events leading up to war." Appeared?
The article goes on to document a seemingly endless series of contradictory statements yesterday by Condi Rice and Ari Fleisher. But the headline—or hed, as it's known among journalistas—is comparatively tepid: "PRESIDENT DEFENDS ALLEGATION ON IRAQ; Bush Says CIA's Doubts Followed Jan. 28 Address." Insiders will know what that last bit means, but overall the headline doesn't convey the general thrust of the article. How about: "WHITE HOUSE OFFERS CONTRADICTORY EXPLANATIONS FOR INTEL CLAIMS"? That may seem saucy. But that shouldn't matter; it's accurate.
Another example of why the papers should consider sending their headline scribes to journalism reeducation camp: The NYT's David Sanger, in a stuffed news analysis, reconstructs the path the bogus intel took and details how the White House's various stated defenses don't hold up: "Many are still asking how a White House aware of the doubts could have shown such caution in October, and thrown it to the winds in January." The mushy headline, "A SHIFTING SPOTLIGHT ON URANIUM SALES." Headline writers—typically copy editors—have an obligation to give readers the most accurate sense possible of an article's conclusions, regardless of how poorly those conclusions reflect on our nation's leaders. They're frequently failing.
As legendary WP editor Ben Bradlee once noted, "Even the very best newspapers have never learned how to handle public figures who lie with a straight face." One sentence he says you'll never see on Page One, "'That is a lie.'"
According to a bit buried in the WP's Page One uranium piece, a four-star general visited Niger early last yearto look into the uranium claims and came away sure that Niger wasn't selling the stuff. "I was convinced it was not an issue," says the general. He says he passed that conclusion on to the Pentagon's top military man, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (Blogger journalist Josh Marshall, who is required reading on this scandal, hinted a few days ago about the general's trip.)
The WP and NYT front word that the Justice Department plans to defy a judge's order to make a captured al-Qaida figure available to testify in the trial of accused terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui. The papers say that in response the judge will likely dismiss the case against Moussaoui. If that happens, the feds have said, they'll give Moussaoui a military tribunal. The government argues that letting the AQ guy testify would "necessarily" result in the disclosure of classified info.
The Financial Times reports that Iran has offered to talk about its nuclear program with the U.S., while the White House has denied the overture. TP can't find any other mentions of this.
The NYT, alone among the papers, fronts word that Yasser Arafat and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas have settled their recent spat and worked out a power-sharing agreement. According to early morning reports, a Palestinian stabbed one person to death in Tel Aviv and wounded two others.
Everybody notes that the NYT's publisher has named a new top editor, Bill Keller, who lost out two years ago to the recently deposed Howell Raines.
The WP's Dana Milbank has the best take on departing White House spokesman Ari Fleischer's final press conference. The questioning was unusually pointed, allowing Fleischer to employ his full arsenal: As Milbank summarizes, "Evasive Maneuver One: Refer the questioner elsewhere. Evasive Maneuver Two: State a generic policy of not responding. Evasive Maneuver Three: The non-sequitur." At the end of the fine performance, the press presented Fleischer with a cake. "We've received assurances that it's not yellow cake," said the reporter, using another name for a type of uranium. "But that doesn't prove that it's not yellow cake."