The Jump Off
The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal's world-wide newsbox lead with Attorney General Michael Mukasey's announcement that the Justice Department has opened a formal criminal investigation into the CIA's destruction of interrogation videotapes. Mukasey said that after a preliminary inquiry that began Dec. 8, "there is a basis for initiating a criminal investigation of this matter." The attorney general didn't clarify what evidence might have been discovered or what crimes could be under investigation, but everyone agrees the main focus is likely to be obstruction of justice.
USA Todayleads with news that the price of oil reached $100 a barrel yesterday for the first time. It didn't stay there for long and ended up closing at $99.62. The NYT points out that the $100 mark apparently came courtesy of a "lone trader" who appeared to be "looking for vanity bragging rights." Regardless, the price still increased $3.64 and USAT says it won't be long before it reaches consumers, particularly since experts point out that gasoline prices usually rise in the spring.
Mukasey appointed John Durham, the No. 2 federal prosecutor in Connecticut, to lead the investigation. Both the LAT and NYT say that appointing someone from outside Washington was an "unusual move," but everyone points out that it was a clear attempt to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest. In fact, the U.S. attorney's office in eastern Virginia, where the CIA's headquarters is located, has recused itself from the case. The CIA's inspector general also recused himself because he predicted that he would be called as a witness. No one has anything bad to say about Durham, a veteran prosecutor whom everyone describes as tough and relentless. He's probably best known for leading an inquiry into allegations that FBI agents and police officers in Boston had ties with the mob.
The Post does point out that Durham is a registered Republican, but the LAT notes he's largely seen as apolitical. Congressional Democrats criticized Mukasey's decision not to name an independent special counsel, which means Durham won't have the same broad powers as Patrick Fitzgerald, who recently investigated the leak of the identity of a CIA operative. Durham will report directly to the deputy attorney general, and the NYT points out the investigation will probably last several months and might not be over until after the end of the Bush presidency. Lawmakers vowed to press on with their own investigations, but the LAT says they will likely slow down as some witnesses could now be more reluctant to testify before Congress.
After so much waiting, it's hard to believe it's finally here. But it's true; after the most expensive campaign in the history of the Iowa caucuses, tonight actual voters will state their preferences in a race that is still up in the air. All the papers front the last-minute efforts of the campaigns to convince Iowans that they should brave the subfreezing temperatures to caucus. The NYT points out that the vast difference in the level of excitement between the two parties was evident even on the last day as the Democratic contenders spoke to audiences of hundreds of people, while Republicans addressed much more intimate gatherings. The LAT says the Democratic candidates "shifted to a somewhat quieter tone after days of discord" and largely avoided mentioning their opponents by name.
On the Republican side, things were a bit more heated. Mike Huckabee suggested Mitt Romney was trying to buy an Iowa victory, and Romney criticized Huckabee for choosing to fly to California for an appearance on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. The WP points out that some of the candidates were clearly turning their sights to New Hampshire, as Romney also criticized Sen. John McCain, who is his strongest rival in the Granite State. Sen. Barack Obama also seemed to be looking east as he made a plea to Republicans and independents. The NYT notes at the end of the story that "perhaps the biggest uncertainty" lies with Rep. Ron Paul, as some Republicans are worrying that he might turn out more supporters than anticipated.
The WP's Dan Balz has a helpful guide to the Iowa caucuses and lists eight questions that tonight's contest could answer.
Back to Huckabee's TV appearance for a moment. The NYT says the trip to California "added to the mystery behind his campaign strategy." Also strange was that he didn't seem to realize that he would have to cross a picket line to chat with Jay Leno. Huckabee appeared to be under the impression that the deal reached between the writers' union and David Letterman's production company applied to all the late-night shows. Huckabee "does not appear to be able to distinguish between Leno and Letterman and yet is running for president of the United States," writes the Post's Lisa de Moraes. For her part, Clinton taped her appearance on Letterman's Late Show so she didn't have to leave Iowa.
The LAT catches late-breaking news out of Kenya, where police clashed with protesters who were gathering to stage the banned "million-man march" that was called by the opposition to protest the results of last week's election. Police fired tear gas, but early-morning wire stories report that the crowds did not appear to be as big as many feared. The country's main newspapers ran identical banner headlines: "Save Our Beloved Country."
The NYT and LAT front, while the WP goes inside with, dramatic accounts that detail how a mob set fire to a church on Tuesday and killed up to 50 people. "The church turned into an oven," says the LAT. The NYT notes that Western diplomats are trying to get the government and opposition leaders to the negotiating table, but neither seems open to compromise. "One of the most developed, promising countries in Africa has turned into a starter kit for disaster," says the NYT.
Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the "Today's Papers" column from 2006 to 2009. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoliti.