Les Misérables

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Nov. 6 2005 7:28 AM

Les Misérables

The New York Times leads with a story not carried by the others: a joint American and Iraqi assault on the Syrian-border town of Husayba, described by the U.S. as an entry point for foreign insurgents and a stronghold of the al-Qaida outfit run by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The Washington Post leads with a detailed examination of the FBI's use of "national security letters," a subpoena of sorts that requires no judicial oversight and whose use by the FBI has exploded since passage of the Patriot Act. The Los Angeles Times leads with Gov. Schwarzenegger's bus tour of Southern California as he campaigns for some of the eight measures on Tuesday's state ballot. He was joined by Sen. McCain, and he was protested by union activists and (naturally) Warren Beatty and Annette Bening.

The military tells the NYT that the Husayba offensive marks the first time that the Iraqi Army has deployed multiple battalions in combat. The 1,000 Iraqis were led by 2,500 Marines with air support. Despite these large numbers, the government took only a few blocks of the city on Saturday. But the military characterized the resistance it received as evidence of at least partial success: In previous operations in this region, commanders said, tipped-off insurgents had fled the area before troops arrived. Elsewhere in Iraq a U.S. soldier was killed, and two were injured, by a roadside bomb. A hard-line Sunni politician was shot and seriously injured.

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"National security letters" have been around for decades, the Post reports, but since the Patriot Act became law in October 2001 their use has expanded from 300 to 30,000 per year. Such a letter can compel an institution to hand over "transaction records" on a suspect—who he called, what Web sites he visited, where he traveled, what he bought, etc. Unlike issuing a regular subpoena, issuing an NSL requires no grand jury investigation or judicial oversight, allows for the dissemination of compelled information among multiple government agencies, and prohibits the suspect from even knowing he is being investigated. Since the Patriot Act, an FBI agent need merely request authorization—with little-to-no justification—from one of five-dozen bureau supervisors. NSL-obtained information used to be destroyed when a suspect was cleared; now information on cleared suspects is permanently stored in a database.

The Post notes one particularly massive instance of such data mining. To investigate a terror threat on Las Vegas in 2003, the feds compelled the release of transaction info (hotel and plane reservations, car rentals, etc.) on everyone who visited the city over a two-week period—about a million people. This data was sifted and yielded no suspects, yet it still sits in a government database. The Post's reporters show great skill in dredging up hard information on such a classified subject. (One cavil: The article quotes former Congressman Bob Barr, R-Ga., criticizing the unchecked use of NSLs, but fails to mention that he voted for the Patriot Act.)  

The WP, NYT, and LAT all stuff news stories about the worsening violence in France. (To its credit, the Post does front a news analysis and a photo.) The most up-to-date coverage TP can find is, not surprisingly, on the AFP wire. On Saturday night, 1,295 cars were torched and 312 people were arrested—an increase from Friday night (897 cars and 253 arrests). Rioting has spread from Paris to many other towns and cities, and officials said that arsonists are showing evidence of organization, such as using cell phones to mobilize away from police and blogs to incite unrest elsewhere. The Post's analysis, however, asserts that most rioters are what they appear: poor, angry Muslims—usually young, second-generation immigrants. A piece in the NYT's "Week in Review" concludes that France's racial problems are, unlike America's, of recent origin and thus capable of being redressed.

The LAT off-leads, and the other papers tease, the failure of Western Hemispheric leaders to agree on a free-trade zone at the end of their conference in Argentina. The White House played up the fact that 29 of 34 nations favor such a zone. But the five who don't—Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Uruguay, and Paraguay—represent over a half of South America's economy. Most heads of state, including President Bush, left before the conference ended, and despite an informal agreement to talk again, an expected final declaration was never produced. The papers quote Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez crowing over Bush's "defeat," but an overview in the Post concludes that "cautious skepticism—not Chavez's tone of enraged dismissal—emerged as the strongest unifying force" at the conference. 

The LAT fronts an investigation of the extreme mismanagement of equipment procurement in Iraq's military. The U.S. appointed a Polish Iraqi with no weapons-buying experience who proceeded to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on no-bid contracts for shoddy materiel. The Iraqi Justice Ministry is now charging him with corruption, but his case is far from isolated: "The portrait that emerges from interviews and documents," the paper informs, "is a Defense Ministry whose members were picked [by the U.S.] with the care of choosing a pickup basketball team."

The NYT fronts a feature on the conditions of jails and justice systems throughout Africa. They are, as one might predict, abysmal. But a truly surprising statistic (to this writer) comes in the sixth paragraph: The total prison population of Africa is only 1 million. The U.S.—whose population is a third the size of Africa's—has over 2 million in prison. Either the U.S. jails too many or Africa jails too few. (TP suspects both.)

A piece inside the LAT is the first TP has seen in a national newspaper on the smoking ban about to be passed in Washington State. It would be the strictest in the nation—banning smoking not only in bars, but in private clubs, cigar lounges, and within 25 feet of any public building.

Yossarian Lives! The Post's lead notes that only one figure in the government—the inspector general—monitors the use of national security letters. How exactly does he do this monitoring? By waiting for complaints from suspects … who, of course, are never told they are being investigated. Guess what! He has found no evidence of abuse. "'We do rely upon complaints coming in,' [the inspector general] said in House testimony in May. He added: 'To the extent that people do not know of anything happening to them, there is an issue about whether they can complain. So, I think that's a legitimate question.' "

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