The New York Times leads with news that the Justice Department continues to claim American intelligence operatives can use interrogation methods that might be illegal under international law. The Los Angeles Times gives its top news spot to an investigative piece on Barack Obama's financial relationship with longtime political supporter Robert Blackwell. Seven years ago, Obama received a $1,000 donation from Blackwell one day after writing a letter urging Illinois officials to provide one of Blackwell's companies with a state grant. The Washington Post leads with a feature on what it calls the world's "worst food crisis in a generation."
Driven by rising demand and stagnant supply, world grain prices are skyrocketing to levels not seen since the 1970s. Since 2005, food prices have climbed 80 percent, an ascent produced by an unhappy coincidence of events: a weak harvest in the United States and Europe, soaring oil prices in Argentina and Ukraine, and a fiscal crisis that has led investors to move funds out of mortgages and into grain futures. The dietary deficit has sparked "food-related violence" in at least 14 nations, including riots in Haiti that led to the resignation of the country's Prime Minister.
The Times reports that, in a March 5 letter to Congress, the Justice Department made no specific determination of which CIA interrogation tactics violate the Geneva Conventions' prohibition on "outrages against human dignity." The administration instead suggested that a flexible, case-by-case standard would be appropriate. "The fact that an act is undertaken to prevent a threatened terrorist attack, rather than for the purpose of humiliation or abuse, would be relevant to a reasonable observer in measuring the outrageousness of the act," wrote one of the Department's lawyers. The letter had not previously been made public, and the CIA's rules for interrogation remain secret.
Obama's financial relationship with Blackwell started after the Senator's failed 2000 congressional campaign, when Blackwell began providing Obama with an $8,000 monthly retainer for providing legal advice to his technology company. A few months after the payments ended, Obama sent a letter to state officials suggesting that they give a $50,000 tourism grant to a different Blackwell company, this one specializing in table tennis. The Obama campaign denies that there was any connection between the payments and the grant request.
The NYT says rising food and gas prices are producing thrifty and creative new consumption habits. Tighter budgets are leading to tighter belts, and Americans are trading in their Lucky Charms and Tide for less costly store-brand alternatives. (In the case of Lucky Charms, that appears to be something called "Millville Marshmallows.") Says one retail consultant: "It hasn't gotten to human food mixed with pet food yet, but it is certainly headed in that direction."
In other domestic economic news, the Post reports that a rise in housing foreclosures and a tumbling real estate market have made vacant properties "havens for squatters, vandals, thieves, partying teenagers and worse."
The Post fronts a feature on the U.S. government's spotty regulation of the potentially dangerous chemicals used by plastics manufacturers. In one case, the Food and Drug Administration deemed a compound safe based on two industry-funded reports, despite hundreds of studies to the contrary.
The Times goes above the fold with an analysis of the three presidential candidates fiscal plans, and concludes that they have one thing in common: "[E]ach could significantly swell the budget deficit and increase the national debt by trillions of dollars." Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama's proposals would create additional shortfall through new government programs, while John McCain's plan would do the same by enacting new tax cuts. Analyst's say McCain's plan would lead to the biggest increase in the national debt, which already stands at $9.1 trillion, about $3.5 trillion higher than in 2001.
The Times has a first-person story from a staff reporter who was jailed in Zimbabwe for "committing journalism." The journalist, Barry Bearak, had come to the repressive country to report on the presidential election and was arrested for working without the appropriate papers. He and another reporter were released after more than a week in a crowded and wretched Harare prison.
The Los Angeles Times files a progress report on the United Nation's and African Union's joint effort to establish a 26,000-troop peacekeeping force in Darfur. The effort is off to a slow and stumbling start. The paper says it is "a tale of good intentions and loftier ambitions, mixed with some of the same issues that dogged" previous efforts. "Among the problems are the slow deployment of troops, a lack of adequate equipment and a shabby network of military bases."