By Daniel Politi, Slate magazine
The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today lead with President-elect Barack Obama’s surprise choice of Leon Panetta to lead the Central Intelligence Agency. By picking the former congressman and chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, Obama immediately raised the ire of many in the intelligence community who were quick to question why someone with scant intelligence experience would be tapped to lead the agency. The selection will apparently be formally announced within the next few days. The Wall Street Journal leads its world-wide newsbox with Israel vowing to continue with its military operation in the Gaza Strip even as European leaders intensified their calls for a cease-fire.
The Washington Post leads with Obama’s decision to take his economic stimulus package to Capitol Hill two weeks before he moves into the Oval Office. In his first full day in Washington since the election, the president-elect tried to convince Republicans that they would have a say in the negotiations over the package. While Republican lawmakers are encouraged by Obama’s decision to make tax cuts a big chunk of the package, many are still skeptical about its overall size. Obama told lawmakers he wants a bill on his desk by the end of January or the beginning of February, a timeline that many in Congress think is unrealistic.
Criticism of the choice of Panetta to lead the CIA didn’t just come from anonymous intelligence officials but also from members of the president-elect’s own party. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the incoming chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, made it clear she wasn’t consulted about his selection. “My position has consistently been that I believe the agency is best served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time,” Feinstein said in a statement. The concerns over Panetta’s lack of intelligence experience were echoed by both the outgoing chairman and the ranking Republican on the committee. It’s not clear whether these early objections would mean that Panetta is in for a tough confirmation battle.
By picking Panetta, Obama seems to “have concluded that a spy chief who understands politics” would be more suited to the job “than one who understands espionage,” notes the LAT. Indeed, everyone highlights that the former Clinton administration official is widely seen as an effective manager who knows the ins-and-outs of Washington. Some praised the choice and said Panetta had been exposed to lots of intelligence matters during his time at the White House and as a member of the Iraq Study Group. Some also insisted that his close relationship with Obama could translate into more influence for the agency inside the administration. In addition, Panetta has no ties to the harsh interrogation techniques that the agency used during the Bush years and that Obama has criticized. Last year, Panetta wrote an essay in which he said that the United States “must not use torture under any circumstances.”
The problem is that CIA staffers have always been notoriously resistant to being led by an outsider. And, as the WP points out, Panetta’s partisan background also raised some eyebrows since the last member of Congress who held the job became controversial when he appointed several former Republican staff members to important positions in the CIA. “The best way to change intelligence policies from the Bush administration responsibly is to pick someone intimately familiar with them,” an intelligence expert tells the NYT. “This is intelligence, not tax or transportation policy. You can’t hit the ground running by reading briefing books and asking smart questions.”
Israeli planes and ships continued to bomb targets in the Gaza Strip and there were reports of gun battles outside Gaza City. The NYT reports that Israel took control of buildings “in three eastern districts of Gaza City,” where it kicked out residents and shot militants in the streets. Hamas continued to fire rockets into Israel, and one of them hit an empty kindergarten. The WP says that more than 40 Palestinians were killed yesterday, almost half of which were children. Palestinian officials say the death toll has reached 550. In addition, three Israeli soldiers were killed by friendly fire outside Gaza City. Hundreds of thousands of Gaza residents continue to have very limited access to fuel and water supplies. The WP notes that the Red Cross has warned that water supplies for 500,000 Gaza residents could run out over the next few days.
Israel has recognized that it has hit some civilian targets, but insists it was only because they were hiding places for munitions and militants. “It offered limited evidence of its claim,” notes the NYT. Israeli airplanes continue to drop leaflets urging residents to leave their neighborhoods, but, as has been the case throughout the campaign, many in Gaza say they have nowhere to go. The NYT dedicates a separate piece inside to the story of one extended family that had been begging the Red Cross to evacuate them from an area in Gaza City that is considered a Hamas stronghold. No help came, and they had to evacuate when Israeli soldiers entered their building. But then an Israeli missile hit a relative’s house where many of them had taken refuge. Eleven members of the extended family were killed.
The LAT fronts a dispatch from the Rafah crossing, where Egypt’s border is open only to injured Gaza residents who are taken into Egypt by ambulances. In Cairo, many have been protesting their government’s decision to keep the country’s border closed. Closer to the border, however, many may be sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians but are less eager to have them streaming into their country.
In a front-page piece, the NYT details the plight of Muhammad Saad Iqbal, a Pakistani who spent five years as a detainee in Guanatanamo before he was unceremoniously released. He was arrested in Indonesia, and then taken to Egypt and Afghanistan before he was finally transferred to Guantanamo. His crime? Apparently he told members of an Islamic group that he knew how to make a shoe bomb. He denies he ever said that, but, regardless, it seems that after a mere two days of interrogations American officials generally saw him as someone who had a big mouth but had no real influence or power. Still, his nightmare continued for years. His lawyer is now suing the American government.
The 111th Congress convenes today, but the fates of two senators are still undecided. In Minnesota, the state’s independent canvassing board declared that Democrat Al Franken had won the seat by 225 votes out of 2.9 million. Republican Norm Coleman is expected to contest the decision. Democratic leaders want to seat Franken on a provisional basis, but, of course, Republican lawmakers have vowed to try to block any effort to get the comedian-turned-politician into the Senate while legal challenges are pending. Meanwhile, Senate officials rejected the credential presented on behalf of Roland Burris, whom embattled Gov. Rod Blagojevich appointed to take over Obama’s seat. Regardless, Burris has made it clear he plans to attend today’s swearing-in ceremony.
In an analysis piece, the LAT says that the controversy over the Burris appointment “has unexpectedly become the first example of how racial politics have changed” with Obama’s victory. While some continue to insist that the Senate denying Burris the seat is nothing less than racism, many black leaders, including Obama, have refused to back him even if it means that the Senate will be left without a single African-American member. Some now say that the old types of race-based complaints don’t have the same power now that a black man has been elected president. “”You can’t use 50-year-old ideas in a new political era,” a black pastor from Boston said.
Everybody reports that Steven Jobs, Apple’s chief executive, publicly announced that a “hormone imbalance” was responsible for his recent dramatic weight loss that has raised speculation about his health. The notoriously private executive, who is a pancreatic-cancer survivor, said he is undergoing treatment to gain weight. His statement was supposed to reassure investors, and Apple’s shares did indeed go up after the announcement. But his vague announcement almost raised as many questions as it answered. Jobs didn’t mention cancer once in his letter, but some medical experts say that a hormone imbalance could signal a recurrence of pancreatic cancer.
“It was a revelation that didn’t reveal anything,” says the Post‘s Neely Tucker, who writes that “hormone imbalance” is “such a vague description of the body’s inner workings that it could encompass everyone from the menopausal to Barry Bonds.” Yesterday’s announcement “could mean almost anything,” he writes. “The man who helped create some of the greatest communication tools of the modern age chose to communicate the image of forthrightness rather than the thing itself.”