How many terrorist plots did we foil by water-boarding Zubaida?

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
March 29 2009 9:36 AM

Not Even One

The Washington Post leads with government officials saying not a single major terrorist plot was thwarted using information obtained by water-boarding suspected terrorist mastermind Abu Zubaida. The national edition of the New York Times leads with a look at the challenges waiting for President Barack Obama during his trip to the G20 summit in London. The Los Angeles Times leads with public health officials saying the decline in vaccination rates among California school children may put the state at risk for an epidemic.

CIA officials initially believed Zubaida was an al-Qaida ringleader and that information he divulged after being water-boarded would prove crucial to preventing terrorist attacks. Both assumptions were wrong. Zubaida wasn't even an official member of al-Qaida. While he did possess some very useful information about al-Qaida's membership, most of it was obtained before he was water-boarded. The leads he provided later were almost all dead ends that wasted agents' valuable time and resources. The paper says that Zubaida might now prove to be a thorny legal issue for the White House. If he's brought to trial in the U.S. after being water-boarded, he could very well be set free and establish a dangerous precedent for other Guantanamo detainees. The administration is examining the possibility of transferring his custody to another country instead.

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Obama has his work cut out for him abroad. Sure, he's popular in Europe, but that doesn't mean that he'll get much in the way of political cooperation at next week's G20 meeting. The White House has decided it won't even try to press European allies on implementing bigger stimulus plans or expanding NATO's presence in Afghanistan. Disagreements with Iran, China, and Russia are likely to cause even bigger headaches. The WP suggests, in its off-lead analysis, that the most Obama can hope for on this trip is to demonstrate to those watching back home that he won't let other world leaders push him around. Both papers write that some of Obama's problems can be traced back to bad blood left over from the last administration. The economic crisis has played a part as well, however, as world leaders now see the U.S. as being stretched too thin to impose its will without building a consensus among its allies.

In a separate piece, the WP explores Obama's decision to stop asking other nations to spend more on economic stimulus packages. The White House hopes that by backing off on the spending requests, it can get more countries to agree on important reforms to their financial systems. Changes for the International Monetary Fund may also be on the table.

California records show that the number of kids starting school without all the usual vaccinations has more than doubled since 1997. These unvaccinated children make up about 2 percent of kindergarteners statewide, but they tend to be concentrated in schools attended by kids from wealthier families. Officials say wealthy parents are choosing not to get their children vaccinated because of rumors that vaccinations cause autism. The trend might put 1 out of every 11 elementary school across the state at risk for epidemics of deadly diseases that have been all but wiped out in the U.S.

Computers belonging to government offices and private firms in 103 countries were infiltrated by a ring of hackers operating primarily out of China, says the NYT. The attacks weren't announced by a government task force, but by a group of Canadian researchers who were hired by the Dalai Lama's office to investigate a security breach. The hackers' motivation is unclear. While the breaches came from machines in China, the researchers caution against assuming it's a Chinese government project. Perhaps the scariest thing about the attacks is that they could have been mounted by almost anyone for almost any reason.

The LAT reports that taking government money may have actually hurt U.S. automakers GM and Chrysler. In the months since the two companies first appeared before Congress to ask for a bailout package, sales have fallen by 45 percent compared to the same period a year earlier. Meanwhile, Ford didn't ask for any money and it's seen its retail market share rise for four months straight. Experts say that as auto execs begged Congress for help, they were also poisoning their brand with consumers, who now see the automakers as weak and unstable.

Vice President Joe Biden's willingness to offer up new or unpopular opinions is helping define his role in the White House, says the NYT. While Obama doesn't always take Biden's advice, the VP regularly gets the last word at meetings and the president seeks his counsel on a range of issues. Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and several prominent staffers gave interviews for the story, offering copious but qualified praise for the vice president. But Biden is conspicuously absent from the piece. In an article on how Biden's candor increased his influence, it feels painfully strange that such a famously loquacious man never speaks for himself.

A Levi's plant closing down in the small Hungarian town of Kiskunhalas isn't just a huge blow to the local economy. It's also a symbol of an economic shift taking place across Europe that threatens to redivide the continent along all-too-familiar lines. The LAT has the story.

The NYT says immigrants can place peculiar challenges on the U.S. health care system. Immigrants often come to the U.S. with health problems that are rarely seen in the native population and they can sometimes be skeptical of Western medicine. Health care workers say emotional issues can be especially difficult to treat becuase of differing attitudes about mental health and the extremely traumatic pasts of some recent immigrants.

Go ahead and build a border fence; truly determined would-be immigrants will just sail around it. The LAT takes a look at how border crossings have turned into sea voyages, with tiny overloaded boats traveling up the coast, smuggling drugs and people into the San Diego area. Coast Guard officials say they simply don't have the manpower or the vessels to handle the increase in traffic.

The recession is cutting into child support, reports to the NYT. Judges across the country say they've seen a swell of parents who have lost their jobs and can't afford to make the same payments as before. The article doesn't suggest that divorce really changes the way a layoff affects a family—lost income is lost income. These hearings are just one more way to measure the recession's impact.

The WP fronts a feature on the military's use of  trained dogs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Officials say they're invaluable aides that help save human lives. Sadly, the heroic pooches aren't immune to post traumatic stress disorders.

The NYT Magazine runs an exhaustive look at the history of tax deniers.

Don't believe everything that you Tweet ...

Just because it sounds like Christopher Walken doesn't mean it is. The WP reminds  readers that not everyone claiming to be a celebrity on Twitter is the genuine article. Stranger still, not every impersonator is pretending to someone famous.

Jesse Stanchak is a writer living in Washington, D.C.

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