The secret CIA program involved paramilitary teams; Sotomayor's first day in the hot seat.

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
July 14 2009 6:45 AM

CIA's Assassination Squad Plans

The New York Timesleads with more details about the secret CIA program that was kept from Congress since 2001 until the agency's director, Leon Panetta, canceled it last month. The program involved plans to send paramilitary teams around the world to assassinate top al-Qaida leaders. The Bush administration was determined to find an alternative to using missiles to kill suspected terrorists, but the program faced a number of obstacles and was never implemented.

The Washington Post, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal's world-wide newsbox all lead with the first day of hearings featuring Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. The senators did most of the talking yesterday, and Republicans were quick to try to portray her as someone who would allow her personal feelings to affect her rulings. When it was her turn to speak, Sotomayor read a seven-minute statement in which she said her judicial philosophy centers around "fidelity to the law" and she believes a judge's job "is not to make law" but "to apply the law." The Los Angeles Timesleads with news that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger fired three of the six members of the state Board of Registered Nursing. The move came a day after the paper reported that the board often takes years to discipline nurses accused of wrongdoing. Another board member had already resigned Sunday.

When the WSJ revealed some new information about the secret CIA program yesterday, it mentioned there was talk of setting up Special Forces teams that would operate in much the same way the Israelis did after the Munich Olympics attacks. As the papers reveal more details about the program, it's becoming clearer that comparison seems quite appropriate. The idea was to create teams of CIA agents and Special Forces to "put bullets in [the al-Qaida leaders'] heads," a former intelligence official tells the WSJ. The program had been discussed since the 2001 attacks but never became operational. The LAT says that as recently as a year ago the CIA discussed testing out the program to see whether the teams could be effective. Many within the CIA were determined to find a way to make this work, even as the Predator drone emerged as an effective way to kill al-Qaida leaders. The NYT points out that officials wanted to create a more "surgical" way to kill terrorists that wouldn't lead to so many civilian casualties and that could be used in crowded areas.

Ultimately, though, the program never got off the ground due to a number of obstacles that could never be reconciled. "It sounds great in the movies, but when you try to do it, it's not that easy," a former intelligence official tells the NYT. "Where do you base them? What do they look like? Are they going to be sitting around at headquarters on 24-hour alert waiting to be called?" Besides the logistical difficulties, there were also legal and political considerations. Although assassinations are banned, it doesn't apply to killing enemies of war. And besides, what's the difference between assassinating someone with a missile and assassinating him with a handgun? Legally, nothing. But politically, it doesn't quite look the same and would undoubtedly have to involve teams of Americans violating a country's sovereignty.

Several officials insist that since the program never became operational, there was no reason to disclose information about it to lawmakers. But others aren't so sure. One intelligence official tells the Post that lawmakers should have been notified because certain elements were operational and involved "significant resources and high risk." There's also disagreement about how instrumental former Vice President Dick Cheney was in keeping the program secret from lawmakers. The WP and LAT both quote intelligence officials who say that Cheney's role has been exaggerated as he wasn't really that involved in the program and only urged that congressional notification be delayed until the CIA had its plan straightened out. "It was more like, before you go around and start talking about this, see if it is something you can make happen," a former official tells the LAT.

USAT points out that it became clear in Sotomayor's first day before lawmakers that she "will have to answer not only for her own record but for President Obama's desire for a jurist with 'empathy.' " Even as some are predicting that the hearings could become contentious, it doesn't change the fact that something extraordinary would have to happen for Sotomayor not to become the first Hispanic on the nation's highest court. "Unless you have a complete meltdown," Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said, "you are going to get confirmed." Still, as the LAT highlights, Republicans seem to be focused now on trying to convince the public that she is a biased judge. Four of the seven Republicans in the Senate judiciary committee referred to Sotomayor's much-publicized comment that a "wise Latina" would "hopefully" make better decisions than a white man because of her life experiences. "If I had said anything remotely like that, my career would have been over," Graham said.

Democrats praised Sotomayor and used the opportunity to criticize Chief Justice John Roberts, saying that while he had promised to respect precedent in his confirmation hearings, he has since led the court in an even more conservative direction. In his confirmation hearings, Roberts famously compared judges to umpires. "Umpires don't make the rules, they apply them," he said. Yesterday, senators kept going back to that quote. "It's a little hard to see home plate from right field," Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., quipped. And Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., emphasized that some of the court's most important decisions "require much more than the mechanical applications of existing legal principles."

The NYT and WSJ front news that Steven Rattner, the so-called auto czar who led the administration's bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler, is stepping down. The resignation comes at a time when the New York attorney general's office has "intensified" its investigation into Rattner and the Quadrangle Group, a private-equity firm he co-founded that has been under scrutiny lately for allegedly paying to get access to New York's public-pension business. It's not clear whether his resignation is connected to the probe, and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner described the move as a natural transition now that GM and Chrylser are out of bankruptcy restructurings. But that seems a bit suspect, particularly considering Rattner isn't going back to Quadrangle and he wanted to get into politics. Ron Bloom, a senior member of the auto task force and former adviser to the United Steelworkers, will take over.

As she prepares for her final days in office, Gov. Sarah Palin writes an op-ed piece for the WP criticizing the cap-and-trade energy initiative, which she oh-so-creatively dubs the "cap-and-tax plan." She doesn't quite say it but suggests—"at risk of disappointing the chattering class"—that a significant amount of her time will be spent lobbying against the plan once she leaves office. Palin asserts that while it is true that "we need to reform our energy policy," the "answer doesn't lie in making energy scarcer and more expensive!" Palin writes that the plan's "ironic beauty" is that "even the most ardent liberal will understand supply-side economics." What should we be doing instead? Unsurprisingly, it's a throwback to last year's campaign: Drill here, drill now.

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.