The New York Times and Wall Street Journal world-wide newsbox lead with news that Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself from the investigation into the apparent outing of a CIA agent by somebody at the White House. A U.S. attorney in Chicago, who everybody suggests is a straight shooter, is taking over the case and won't have to report to higher-ups. The Washington Post and USA Today lead with the new federal regulations meant to prevent mad cow disease, including a ban on the sale of meat from non-ambulatory cows. Such "downer" cattle have a higher chance of having the disease. The Post calls the new cattle rules, which also mandate a system to track cows from birth to slaughter, "perhaps the most ambitious proposed in a generation."The Los Angeles Times leads with the Bush administration's announcement that it will ban the sale of ephedra, the over-the-counter herbal weight loss pill that has been linked to heart attacks and strokes. The ban will take effect in about two months. It's the first time the FDA has banned an herbal supplement since the passage of a 1994 law restricting the agency's authority over supplements.
The deputy attorney general who announced Ashcroft's recusal said there was no actual conflict of interest: "The issue that [Ashcroft] was concerned about was one of appearance." Of course, that appearance hasn't changed one way or the other for months, and the papers mostly take the recusal as a sign that investigators are getting closer to nailing the leaker. The deputy AG advised against such speculation. But he also said, "It's fair to say that an accumulation of facts throughout the course of the investigation over the last several months has led us to this point." Last Friday, the Post said that the probe was "gathering momentum."
A NYT profile of Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney now in charge of the leak investigation, says he's a non-ideologue who's unlikely to pull punches. A week before Christmas, he announced the indictment of former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, a Republican. * "If John Ashcroft wanted any favors on this one, he went to the wrong guy," said one defense attorney.
The WP focuses on the political backstory of the mad cow rules, saying the cattle industry opposed such changes for a decade and last month GOP legislators killed legislation that would have implemented some of them. According to a recent USDA report, 35 percent of product samples tested in 2002 contained "unacceptable nervous tissues." Said one Democratic senator who had pushed for the earlier legislation, "Every time you talk about something the government could do, you had opposition. Anything I tried to do was blocked."
An op-ed in the WP reminds (as TP mentioned last week) that even with imperfect testing, the chances of a serious mad cow disease outbreak in the U.S. are extraordinarily low. As the op-ed emphasizes, the papers haven't been hitting that point-of-view much.
The WSJ reports that after "weeks of infighting" the White House decided yesterday to hold off about $4 billion in reconstruction money until Iraq gains sovereignty next summer. The Journal also mentions—down in the fifth paragraph—that the administration's top reconstruction official threatened to resign a few weeks ago, after complaining that the spending plan was scattershot. "I personally feel that we are setting ourselves up for failure," he wrote in a Dec. 16 e-mail.
The WP fronts the Pentagon's decision to stop using Halliburton as a supplier for oil in Iraq. The move came as part of a decision to change the government agency overseeing the fuel contracts. A recent draft audit by the Pentagon found that a Halliburton subcontractor charged too much for the oil. Pentagon officials said the contract was always meant to be temporary and that the decision has nothing to do with the pricing issues.
The WSJ notes high that the Bush administration, responding to criticism of its planned military tribunals, replaced Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz as overseer of the system and named a recently retired military lawyer in his place. The White House also appointed four well-respected jurists to an appeals panel, including President Carter's first attorney general.
The NYT's John Burns profiles an Iraqi doctor who was jailed during Saddam's reign and whose nephew was murdered by security police who taped a grenade to the young man's chest. (The execution was filmed, and the Times has photos of it.) The doctor says he prayed for U.S. troops to invade: "They did a very good job for America and for Iraq in getting rid of Saddam, and we thank them." And now he wants them to leave ASAP: "They are young boys lost in a foreign country, and every day there is a bomb in the road. So please tell them, we would like that they would leave our country as soon as possible, as soon as they have arranged a stable government to replace Saddam."