Congress kept in dark about secret counterterrorism initiative.

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
July 12 2009 3:48 AM

Cheney to CIA: Don't Tell Congress About Program

The New York Times leads with  news that, under instructions from former Vice President Dick Cheney, the CIA deliberately failed to tell Congress about a secret counterterrorism program. The Washington Post leads with  news that Attorney General Eric Holder is considering whether to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate allegations that CIA operatives tortured terrorism suspects. The Los Angeles Times leads a recap of President Obama's visit to Ghana, where he gave a speech exhorting the African continent to take responsibility for its own future.

None of the papers provide any actual material details about the secret counterterrorism program, which apparently lasted from 2001 until early last month, when CIA director Leon Panetta learned of its existence and ordered it disbanded. Two unnamed sources told the NYT about Cheney's apparent involvement in covering up the program, which the CIA claims was never actually operational.

The Post's article plays down the alleged Cheney connection (possibly because the paper was scooped by the NYT), focusing instead on the fact that House Democrats may choose to investigate the program. The CIA is supposed to report on all but its most sensitive operations to the full House and Senate intelligence committees; any investigation will hinge on whether the program was sensitive enough to legitimately skirt that requirement. But without any indication of what the program actually was, it's hard to say whether all this smoke will be traced back to an actual fire.

Following up on a story that Newsweek broke yesterday on its Web site, the Post reports that recent disclosures about torture protocols during the Bush administration have led the attorney general to more seriously consider initiating a probe into alleged CIA malfeasance. But the story relies heavily on anonymous sources, making it hard to gauge the validity of the information. The NYT story, much shorter than the Post's, quotes a Justice official who "spoke anonymously because the decision had not yet been made."

The LAT piece about Obama's visit to Africa is a strong one, putting Obama's visit and speech in the context of both his personal heritage and of recent Western involvement in Africa. The paper interviews a few Ghanans who noted that the substance of Obama's speech was fairly unmemorable: "It was the same things about good-governance and responsibility that we've been hearing since the 1980s," said one man.

The NYT account, consisting largely of excerpts from Obama's speech, is less satisfying—the reporter interviews no actual Ghanans and overdoes the heavy-handed symbolism. ("When he first came as a college student, he had little more than a backpack and a train ticket. On Friday, he arrived on Air Force One.") Tellingly, the LAT story was co-written by the paper's Nairobi bureau chief, while the NYT piece came solely from domestic political reporter Peter Baker of that paper's D.C. bureau. The Post's competent story is co-written by White House reporter Michael Fletcher and Africa correspondent Karin Brulliard.

All three papers run scene-setters in advance of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor's Senate confirmation hearing, which begins next week. The NYT runs down what it imagines to be the easiest "path to the court"—namely, don't say anything controversial during the hearing process. The Post notes that Sotomayor is "a striking mixture of uneasy outsider and consummate insider."

The LAT fronts a deep investigative piece, reported in conjunction with ProPublica, about how incompetent, abusive nurses in California tend to retain their licenses for years because of a nursing oversight board that "often takes years to act on complaints of egregious misconduct." One chronically angry nurse repeatedly assaulted patients. Another allegedly fell asleep while performing CPR. "The nursing board is there to protect the public from me," said the chronically angry (and oddly self-aware) nurse.

The NYT off-leads a feature on a group of Somali-American students from Minnesota whose unexpected shift toward Islamic radicalization (and their consequent involvement with militant groups in Somalia) has precipitated "what may be the most significant domestic terrorism investigation since Sept. 11." The article says that Somali militant group al-Shabaab is affiliated with al-Qaeda; but, as a Post story from April reported, it's unclear how strong the group's al-Qaeda ties really are—or whether those ties actually exist.

The LAT fronts a story on the recent bloodless coup that overthrew Honduran President Manuel Zelaya—a Chavez-style leftist authoritarian who was "an increasingly arbitrary and provocative leader"—one day before a controversial and dubiously legal vote that would have made it easier for Zelaya to rewrite the country's constitution. '"For [Zelaya], it was all about becoming a big figure. If he had to dance the cha-cha-cha, he'd do it. If he had to spout Marxist rhetoric, he'd do it,'" noted one Honduran political analyst.

"A scar that will be visible for years": The Post runs a comprehensive ombudsman piece slamming the paper's decision to hold off-the-record, pay-to-play "salons" involving politicians, academics, and members of the Post newsroom. Calling the idea "an ethical lapse of monumental proportions," Andrew Alexander fairly eviscerates Publisher Katharine Weymouth, who claims not to have realized that these events would have generated such controversy. Alexander's unstinting conclusion: "The Post's reputation now carries a lasting stain."

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.

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