Congressional leaders agree on a surveillance compromise; Obama rejects public financing.

Congressional leaders agree on a surveillance compromise; Obama rejects public financing.

Congressional leaders agree on a surveillance compromise; Obama rejects public financing.

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
June 20 2008 6:37 AM

He's in the Money

The Washington Postand the Wall Street Journal's world-wide news box lead with news that House and Senate leaders reached an agreement on surveillance legislation. If the measure is approved, and everyone expects that it will be, the New York Times says it "would be the most significant revision of surveillance law in 30 years." The big winner? President Bush. After battling with Democrats on the issue for months, the president got pretty much everything he wanted. "The White House got a better deal than they even hoped to get," Republican Sen. Christopher Bond said. Democratic leaders insisted that the deal is a compromise but were criticized by some of their own. Sen. Russ Feingold said the deal "is a capitulation."

The New York Timesand Los Angeles Timeslead with Sen. Barack Obama's decision to go back on his pledge and reject public financing for the general election campaign, which will allow him to raise and spend an unlimited amount of money in the battle for the White House. By turning down $84.1 million in federal money, Obama became the first major party candidate to reject public funds since the system was instituted in 1976. USA Todayleads with a look at how at least 18 more levees on the Mississippi River "are at high risk of being overwhelmed this week," illustrating how outdated much of the flood protection is in the area. Many of the 31 levees that have already failed to provide adequate protection in the region were built at least 30 years ago.

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One of the biggest disagreements in the surveillance debate involved whether to grant immunity to telecommunications companies that are facing dozens of lawsuits. Under the new agreement, the companies could get the lawsuits dismissed if they show a judge written assurances from the government that their cooperation with the warrantless surveillance was legal. Everyone agrees this is much the same as simply granting immunity because, as an ACLU lobbyist said, the companies "have to produce a piece of paper we already know exists." The measure also effectively expands the government's power to monitor foreign communications by allowing broad warrants targeting large groups of people at once. The government would have to get individual warrants to eavesdrop on Americans but could carry out warrantless surveillance for a week in emergency circumstances.

Democratic leaders said the most important part of the compromise agreement involves the "exclusivity" language that spells out the surveillance law, which is the only legal way for the government to carry out its eavesdropping operations. Democrats insist the language would prevent the White House from getting around the law.

The WSJ highlights that the agreement "was driven largely by the realities of election-year politics" as Democrats facing re-election in more conservative parts of the country worried about appearing soft on national security. Obama is now in the unenviable position of having to decide whether to anger the Democratic base by supporting the measure or risk losing the support of independent voters if he speaks up against it. Ultimately, "the surveillance powers may end up being a rare survivor of the administration's post-9/11 redrawing of national-security law," the WSJ deftly points out.

Obama's decision to opt out of the public financing system wasn't entirely unexpected, but it immediately brought criticism from Republicans who accused the presumptive Democratic nominee of going back on an earlier pledge to accept public money. "This is a big, big deal," Sen. John McCain said before confirming that he would accept public financing.

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The strategic advantages to Obama are clear as he is now "positioned to mount a general-election campaign on a scale the nation has never seen," notes the LAT. Obama has already raised hundreds of millions of dollars and, as if to underscore his financial advantage, the presumptive nominee launched his first television advertisement of the general election that will air in 18 states, including several that have consistently voted for the Republican candidate in the past. The LAT notes that while Obama has always emphasized that he intends to redraw the electoral map, with so much money on hand he could also choose to plunge millions into states he doesn't even expect to win simply to distract McCain and force him "to defend that territory."

Earlier in the campaign, Obama had pledged to "pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve the publicly financed system." Obama's campaign said they tried to reach an agreement with the Republican campaign, but McCain's aides said there were never any serious discussions on the issue. Yesterday, Obama justified his decision by saying that Republicans would spend millions of dollars in "smears and attacks." But the NYT highlights that there is no evidence so far that "Republicans will have the advantage when it comes to support from independent groups." A Republican strategist said Obama is "looking for ghosts that don't exist."

Responding to an editorial criticizing his move, Obama writes a column in USAT saying that the decision "wasn't an easy one." The Democrat writes that while he agrees "that we need to limit the influence of big donors" and will work to fix the system when he's elected, "the system as it stands doesn't work as it should." USAT's editorial board says Obama's promise to reform the system when he's president "reminds us of St. Augustine's famous prayer: 'Lord, make me chaste—but not yet.' "

In a piece inside, the NYT says that Obama's decision means that the already-troubled public financing system is now "facing the most critical threat to its survival." Presidential campaigns have always found a way to get around the limits imposed by the post-Watergate system, but Obama's decision "may do more to shatter the system than all of the loopholes it has spawned." McCain may go down in history as the last major presidential candidate to accept public money.

The NYT's David Brooks has had enough. In a scathing column, Brooks criticizes Republicans for being "saps" and thinking that they're "running against some naive university-town dreamer" when in reality Obama is "the most effectively political creature we've seen in decades." Obama is a "split-personality politician" who says one thing but then demonstrates that he'd do anything to get elected. "He's the only politician of our lifetime who is underestimated because he's too intelligent."

The NYT fronts word that a large-scale Israeli military exercise that was carried out in early June appeared to be a dress rehearsal for an attack on Iran's nuclear installations. No one thinks the exercise means that an attack will actually take place in the near future, but the fact that it was so large seemed designed to get attention from intelligence agencies around the world. "They wanted us to know, they wanted the Europeans to know, and they wanted the Iranians to know" that Israel is prepared to act if Iran continues on the path to build a nuclear weapon, a Pentagon official said.

Ventriloquism appears to be making a comeback, notes the WSJ. Terry Fator was almost laughed off stage when he appeared with his puppets on NBC's America's Got Talent. He was used to the sneers about his chosen profession, but he went on to win the contest and has now signed a $100 million, five-year deal with a hotel in Las Vegas. This fall he's publishing an autobiography titled Who's the Dummy Now?

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the Today’s Papers column from 2006 to 2009. Follow him on Twitter.