Why did the TSA really ease the liquids ban?

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Sept. 26 2006 5:29 AM

All Wet

Nearly all the papers front the TSA's relaxed rules on liquids in airplane carry-on luggage. USA Today, which leads with the story, has details: Beginning Tuesday, travelers will be allowed to bring aboard three-ounce containers of liquid toiletries, provided all the items fit in a quart-sized plastic bag. Liquids bought in airports' security areas will be allowed regardless of size. The Washington Post leads with a significant alteration to the still-pending detainee treatment bill: Over the weekend, the White House successfully expanded the definition of "enemy combatants." The Wall Street Journal tops its world-wide newsbox with a summary of continued congressional wrangling over the bill and other issues. The cooling housing market takes the Los Angeles Times' top spot, while the New York Times leads with a federal judge's ruling that light-cigarette smokers can pursue a class-action suit against tobacco companies.

The papers all play the relaxed carry-on rules slightly differently. The NYT highlights the government's official line: The change reflects "weeks of testing to determine how much of a liquid explosive would be needed to cause catastrophic damage to an airplane." But the other papers dig into secondary motivations. The Post emphasizes that the decision came "under pressure from airline and passenger groups." USAT notes that the 20 percent increase in checked luggage prompted by the ban led officials to worry about "cut corners." (Last week, the paper fronted a report on overstretched luggage-screening equipment.) And the WSJ notes that airport vendors have lost considerable revenue under the ban. Together, the papers walk readers up to the conclusion that security is not the only issue being considered.

The Bush administration, supported by House allies, has slipped a small but important change into last week's "compromise" bill on terror suspects, the Post reports. The earlier bill, worked out in negotiations with restive Senate Republicans, defined enemy combatants as those who have "engaged in hostilities," but the latest draft legislation expands the definition to include those who have "supported hostilities." The new language could boost the administration's contention that it can designate virtually anyone an enemy combatant; the Post notes it "does not rule out the possibility" that the designation could be applied to a U.S. citizen.

The Post lead mentions another controversial aspect of the bill that USAT and the NYT explore in depth: If passed, the legislation would strip detainees of the right to challenge their imprisonment in court. USAT reports that Senate judiciary committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., is among those opposed to denying such habeas corpus petitions, although the bill appears headed for passage without him. Still, his committee took up the issue today, and among those invited to testify was Thomas Sullivan, a lawyer for several Guantanamo detainees. The NYT includes a brief quote from Sullivan, but it's worth citing his remarks at length. Describing existing Guantanamo hearings to Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a former judge who supports stripping habeas rights, Sullivan channeled Joseph Welch:

There was no lawyer given to the defendants. They didn't speak English, most of them. They were young men who had no training in law. There were no rules of evidence applicable… Now, [do] you call that due process, Your Honor? Do you? … This is a historic moment in our time. To suspend the writ of habeas corpus without hearings, rushing it through just before elections, where people are afraid to vote against this bill because somebody on the other side is going to hold up a TV commercial and criticize them for it, is phony.

The broad battle over anti-terror laws is playing out on several other fronts as well. The NYT fronts an EU report expected later this week that will push for more privacy controls on the administration's monitoring of international financial transactions. And the LAT goes inside with Senate wrangling over the NSA's domestic surveillance.

The more mundane economic news leading the LAT and the NYT signals trouble ahead for U.S. businesses. The LAT reports that declining home sales—which posted their first year-over-year drop in a decade last month—could weaken the U.S. economy significantly by dampening consumer spending. (The NYT and USAT take a slightly less urgent view.) And the tobacco industry is facing an especially challenging fall, the NYT reports. A judge ruled that smokers can pursue their claim that manufacturers of light cigarettes misled them into believing the cigarettes were less dangerous than regular ones. The WSJ published a helpful backgrounder on the case several months ago.

Also on the front page: The NYT goes high with the death of a senior al-Qaida member who escaped from an American prison in Afghanistan in July 2005. British soldiers killed the man, Omar al-Faruq, during a raid in Basra. USAT and the WSJ front the Army's decision to extend the tours of nearly 4,000 soldiers in Iraq. The WSJ, which relies on an AP report, calls the move a "new sign of mounting strain from the war." The LAT offers a fascinating examination of military officials' preparation for Ramadan at Guantanamo. Supporters of the prison's inmates charge the U.S. military, which provides no Muslim chaplains, is insensitive to religious issues. Guards claim the prisoners use religion to manipulate them.

Everyone stuffs the latest on the continuing meltdown of Republican Sen. George Allen. Following up on a Sunday article in Salon, the Post and the NYT report that two Allen acquaintances, one a former UVA football teammate, allege that the senator has used the "N-word." (The New Republic has more.) Allen denies the charge, and it's unclear how reliable the witnesses' accounts are, which may explain the papers' decision to keep the news off the front page.

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