The Washington Post leads with the U.S. and four Central American countries' agreement on the trade deal known as the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Costa Rica, Central America's wealthiest country, dropped out of the CAFTA negotiations. The New York Times downplays the agreement, putting it inside and saying the limited number of countries signing on—Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador—wraps up a year of "reversals and setbacks" for the administration's free-trade efforts. The Los Angeles Times' national edition leads with the U.S.'s big operation in the guerrilla hotbed town of Samarra, where thousands of troops have canvassed the city. Military officials said that while they expected a big fight, there was little action, though a few Iraqis were wounded. The paper says antioccupation sentiment is so widespread that the Samarra police are divided between pro and anti-American factions. Also, one GI was killed late Wednesday in Baghdad. The Wall Street Journal tops its world-wide newsbox (online) with military officials saying that despite previous reports to the contrary (cited in TP) yesterday's fuel truck explosion in Baghdad, which killed at least 10, was an accident. USA Today leads with another poll detailing Bush's post-capture bump: The paper has the president's approval rating jumping from 54 percent to 63 percent. More interestingly, Dean dropped six points. Asked who they would vote for, Bush beat Dean by 59 percent-37 percent compared to 53 percent-43 percent in November. Despite the lead play, the story acknowledges that, obviously, these numbers don't mean much: "Such poll 'bounces' often are temporary." The NYT's lead says that the New York Stock Exchange is going to appoint the president of Goldman Sachs, "a technocrat," as its new chief exec. The paper also says that the Big Board has decided to split the chairman and chief executive's roles in an attempt to ensure that no exec gets too much power.
The Journal puts the trade deal on Page One, emphasizing that it's going to have a hard time getting congressional passage. A number of Republicans have already suggested that they oppose it. As the Post highlights, most consumer and industrials exports from the U.S. to the Central American countries will be immediately duty-free, but agricultural products will take years, partly because the sugar industry successfully lobbied for protection from cheap imports. The Post also mentions that the deal includes "intellectual-property provisions that would protect U.S. pharmaceutical companies from low-cost Central American generic drug makers."
The Post says all the way on A42 that the head of the weapons of mass destruction search team, David Kay, is quitting. It's not exactly clear when Kay is going to clean out his desk, but the WP says he might not be back after the holidays and might not be around for his group's next interim report let alone the final one. Many staffers on Kay's team have already been reassigned to counter-insurgency duties. As the Post notes, when the president was asked in an ABC News interview Tuesday whether he still believes that Saddam had actual "weapons of mass destruction as opposed to the possibility that he could move to acquire those weapons," Bush replied, "So what's the difference?"
The LAT and WP both have front-page pieces on Howard Dean's apparent tendency, now regularly highlighted by other presidential contenders, for making contradictory and occasionally false statements. Dean's most notorious comment recently came during a radio interview that touched on Bush and 9/11. He said, "The most interesting theory that I've heard so far, which is nothing more than a theory, [and] I think it can't be proved, is that [Bush] was warned ahead of time by the Saudis." (Slate's Chatterbox noted that Dean tried to deny having said that.)
The LAT largely dismisses the criticisms, while the Post lends them significant credence, referring in its first sentence to Dean's "penchant for flippant and sometimes false statements." The WP article does a retrospective of Dean's misleading statements, spending much time on his gubernatorial days. It waits until the 20thparagraph to note Vermont legislators from both parties "said they rarely found cause to question his honesty and chalked up his controversial comments to misspeaking."
(For more background on Dean's rhetorical issues, read this column in Spinsanity, a Web site that tracks dissembling from all sides.)
The WP fronts and NYT off-leads a judge's ruling that President Reagan's would-be assassin, John Hinkley Jr., can have unsupervised visits with his parents outside his psychiatric hospital. Hinkley will be required to be in his parents' presence at all times. The Secret Service also regularly trails Hinkley, who psychiatrists have agreed isn't a threat to himself or others so long as he sticks to his meds.
The NYT fronts former Illinois Gov. George Ryan's indictment on graft charges. "Basically the state of Illinois was for sale for friends and family at times," said a U.S. district attorney.
The WP's Dana Milbank notices that the administration has cleansed a bit of history from one of its Web sites. Before the war, the head of USAID told ABC's Nightline that rebuilding Iraq would cost U.S. taxpayers just $1.7 billion. Recently, says Milbank, the transcript containing the slightly low-ball estimate has been "purged" from USAID.gov. An agency spokesperson explained that the transcript was removed because, "There was going to be a cost." An ABC News rep said that's not true, "We would not charge for that."