The Washington Post leads with an investigation into a previously undisclosed branch of the Department of Defense called the Strategic Support Branch that has been carrying out human intelligence missions over the last two years. This move to perform work that was once solely coordinated by the CIA is seen by many as an attempt by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to take control of clandestine operations as well as get around laws that restrict the movement of CIA officers. The New York Times leads with word that the retired general who was sent to assess operations in Iraq will recommend an increase in advisers to train Iraqi forces. The main mission of American troops in Iraq after the elections will be to speed up the training of local troops by adding as many as 10,000 advisers who will work directly with Iraqi forces. The Los Angeles Times leads with the announcement of new security measures in Iraq on the days preceding the election, scheduled for Jan. 30. The Iraqi government will declare a national holiday from Jan. 29 to Jan. 31, at which point an 8 p.m. curfew will be imposed, few cars will be allowed in the streets, citizens will not be permitted to carry weapons, and the Baghdad airport will be closed. Iraqi troops will be in charge of securing polling sites, while U.S. forces will remain in the background to prevent the image of American soldiers watching over Iraqis while they vote.
Although conflicts between the CIA and the Pentagon have often played out in the public arena, WP's story by investigative journalist Barton Gellman reveals for the first time just how far the Defense Department has come in setting up its own human intelligence operations outside of public view. While none of the sources in the story would reveal where the branch has been operating besides Iraq and Afghanistan, an initial memo suggests operations could take place in countries that have good diplomatic relations with the United States. Responding to concerns about lack of congressional oversight, Pentagon officials emphasized that they too remain accountable to Congress. They also pointed out, however, that there are fewer restrictions placed on Department of Defense intelligence gathering than at the CIA. Two members of the House Intelligence Committee contacted by the Post did not know about the existence of this new branch. A sidebar inside the paper also raises questions about the qualifications of the Strategic Support Branch's leader, Col. George Waldroup. Some criticize Waldroup's quick ascent from a civilian job to being in charge of human intelligence operations and say neither he nor his team are qualified to carry out clandestine missions effectively.
As more Iraqi troops are trained, Gen. Gary E. Luck will reportedly recommend that U.S. forces should take over responsibility for securing Iraq's borders as well as supporting Iraqi forces who may need their help. An article inside the WP about the changes in the role of U.S. troops after the election mentions that more troops will be brought in from Saddam Hussein's old army to increase the number of local forces.
Both the NYT and LAT front articles on the way Iraq's different ethnic groups view the upcoming elections. Although Shiites and Kurds are mostly excited about the prospects of electing their leaders, most Sunnis express skepticism, and many are unlikely to vote. The NYT interviewed "50 to 60" Iraqis, among whom all the Shiites said they will vote and all but one of the Sunnis said they were planning on staying home.
The WP goes inside with a new study that reveals relief operations in the Aceh province of Indonesia are still largely disorganized almost a month after the tsunami hit. The report, which was coordinated by several groups including the United Nations, and was still in draft form when reviewed by the WP, will recommend that aid agencies work together to plan relief efforts in order to maximize their effectiveness.
The NYT reefers a story on the future of Jewish settler homes in the Gaza strip. As the Israeli government prepares to remove all of the settlers from Gaza this summer, the Israeli and Palestinian governments seem to be planning on destroying the houses despite widespread poverty among many residents of Gaza. Community buildings such as schools and hospitals will probably be kept standing but some Palestinian officials emphasized that no final decision has yet been made.
The WP fronts an analysis on the high number of members of Congress who come from political families. Six current senators came into office to replace their fathers, and at least seven of the new House members have politically famous last names.
Finally, the NYT visits what has become one of Washington, D.C.'s best-known bars, Smith Point. The bar, made famous by the regular appearances of the Bush twins, has become a sort of refuge for young Republicans. It was packed on inauguration night after all the official balls were over. Describing the bar, the NYT states that Smith Point has become "a genuine velvet-rope hot spot." The article goes on to quote Smith Point's owner on how much he dislikes the term "velvet rope," preferring to call it a "crowd-control stanchion." Maybe the crowds needed to be controlled on inauguration night, but an article in the latest issue of Newsweek revealed that on normal nights, patrons are kept waiting outside even when the bar is mostly empty.