The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today all lead with the conviction of former WorldCom CEO Bernie Ebbers on nine charges related to $11 billion of accounting fraud at WorldCom. Everyone expresses a little surprise that Ebbers was convicted despite the absence of a smoking gun; prosecutors relied almost entirely on the accounts of the company's sketchy former CFO. A New York Times analysis blames Ebbers' decision to take the stand, but the paper leads instead with the surprising revelation that at least 26 prisoners in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan have died in acts that investigators suspect are criminal homicides. The number is several times greater than detailed in last week's Church report, which cited only 6 deaths caused by prisoner abuse. The Wall Street Journal's world-wide news box leads with what it calls "a deepening case of political hypertension" in Congress, where, as all the papers note, Democrats have now officially threatened a parliamentary version of mutually assured destruction should the G.O.P. indeed go "nuclear" on judicial nominations.
Everyone really floods the zone with Ebbers. The WSJ runs no less than five verdict stories—two on the front page. The Post and NYT each have at least four stories, including, respectively, reactions from former MCI employees who saw their pensions evaporate and an affectionate hagiography of the trial judge. And USAT backs up its characteristically short lead with a long trial story inflected with gambling metaphors ("Ebbers' final roll of the dice came up snake eyes…"), and even a bullet-pointed personality piece on the cowboy boot-wearing, Lexus-driving CEO's many "self-contradictions."
The Journal, Post and NYT all run speculative pieces that ponder the Ebbers verdict as a potential bellwether for other big-time executives accused of fraud, like Kenneth Lay and Richard Scrushy. The defeat of the no-nothing, "Aw, shucks" defense, in which a CEO claims ignorance of fraud taking place on his watch, could bode ill for them. "These guys are shaking in their boots now," a criminal defense lawyer tells the LAT for its lead.
The NYT says it got its prisoner homicide numbers through sheer tenacity, repeatedly asking the Army and Navy for an accounting of crimes they are investigating—a welcome feat when some of the best torture reporting is being done by the ACLU. Last time the paper checked on homicides, last May, it says it found only 16 that investigators suspected were criminal. Nevertheless, while some soldiers have been charged and tried, the paper says that others received only nonjudicial punishments for the deaths, and no details about those cases, such as the identities of the victims or perpetrators, have been released.
The WP fronts a WaPoll, which finds that 56 percent of Americans think Iraqis are better off now than before the war, but 53 percent still think the war wasn't worth it. Meanwhile, USAT fronts a poll of Iraqis, who seem to agree, at least in some respects: 62 percent believe their country is headed in the right direction. One step forward is today's meeting of the new National Assembly. Everyone notes that the Shiites and Kurds weren't been able to settle on the shape of a government beforehand as they'd hoped, although the WP says an agreement is close. The NYT is more pessimistic, even finding a woman-on-the-street to frame the situation with an ovine metaphor that evokes a folksy, fertile crescent wisdom: "A state without a government is like sheep without a shepherd, and in such a situation the wolves can play very easily," she said. "Not having a government is causing a great deal of harm to the Iraqi people and to the interests of Iraq."
Elsewhere in Iraq, a soldier was killed by a car bomb yesterday morning while on patrol in Baghdad. Military officials also announced that a Marine was killed Monday in Anbar province, home of Fallujah and Ramadi.
And Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi announced that he will start withdrawing Itay's 3,000 troops from Iraq. The NYT suggests the move comes is related to Berlusconi's announcement that he is running for re-election next spring, against antiwar, center-left candidate Romano Prodi. The WSJ goes one further, explaining that Italy's regional elections, often seen as a test-run for the national vote, are only a few weeks away: "You see that in terms of managing public opinion, Berlusconi has always been superb," said the head of a polling institute in Milan. "His timing on this issue is impeccable."
The WP has a feel-good story about a spontaneous roadside celebration as Lebanese workers demolished an enormous Beirut billboard emblazoned with the portraits of Syrian president Bashar Assad and his father. Meanwhile, not far away, the NYT and USAT watch Syrian intelligence agents moving out of their offices, packing furniture and files into trucks.
The Senate may vote today on a provision in the budget resolution to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling; for the first time, it may actually pass. And, after a series of newspaper reports on alleged ethical lapses by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the hammer struck back, according to stories the WP and LAT front. The Post proudly says that DeLay reserved his most caustic derision for one of its own stories, about a junket to Britain. That story, DeLay said, "is why I'm just a little less than my normal chipper self."
The NYT, WP and LAT all cover the announcement, by the FBI and NYPD, that they've have broken an arms trafficking ring that had made a deal with an FBI informant to smuggle Russian-made tank guns and shoulder-launched guided missiles into the country. Everyone, rightly, treats the existence of the ring as a chilling proof-of-concept. But there are some doubts about whether the bust is a significant victory. According to the NYT, in one of 15,000 phone calls the FBI recorded over its yearlong investigation, a ringleader said, in the NYT's words, "he had never made an arms deal before and worried that the informer, who he thought was an arms broker, would think he was too young."
Pot-kettle alert … Yesterday, TP—always a vocal advocate of giving appropriate credit to papers that break stories—said that a WSJ piece on the Bush administration's decision to finally sell Pakistan some long-awaited F-16 fighters was a "scoop." Wrong: The story appeared on March 12 in the Dallas Morning News, after which it was picked up by many other outlets. Many apologies.