Excerpts from recent editorials in newspapers in the United States and abroad:
Sacramento Bee on overreaching federal investigation of leak to AP threatens press freedoms:
Protecting national security is one thing. Fishing expeditions that could intimidate and impede important watchdog reporting are another matter entirely.
The Justice Department certainly appears to have gone too far in trying to ferret out who leaked information on a secret CIA operation that foiled an al-Qaida plot to bomb a U.S.-bound airliner last year around the first anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden.
According to The Associated Press, federal prosecutors secretly seized phone records for April and May 2012 not only from the reporters and editor involved in that story, but from more than 20 phone lines in the news cooperative's offices in Washington, D.C., New York and Hartford, Conn., that house more than 100 journalists, as well as several of their personal phones.
While the records would not reveal what was said during the calls, they would show the phone numbers of people or agencies that reporters called, potentially including whistle-blowers and confidential sources. The AP is right in calling the sweeping dragnet an unjustified and unprecedented intrusion into its newsgathering. All Americans, not just defenders of press freedom, ought to be alarmed by this threat to the First Amendment.
It is eerily Nixonian in its scope -- and yet another scandalous distraction in the early months of President Barack Obama's second term. ...
Attorney General Eric Holder, who announced last June he had appointed a U.S. attorney to probe the leak, called it one of the most serious he has seen. "It put the American people at risk -- and that is not hyperbole," he told reporters Tuesday.
Holder, who removed himself from supervising the investigation because he had been questioned, nonetheless said that prosecutors have followed all department rules. Among them is that phone records from news organizations can be subpoenaed only after "all reasonable attempts" have been made to get the information from other sources.
The Obama administration is telling Americans to trust its assurances that seizing so many phone records from so many reporters was proper and necessary. That's a lot to ask.
Arizona Republic on getting border-security numbers right:
In the kids movie "Finding Nemo," a small fish's recommendation to "just keep swimming" reflects a brave and admirable trust in the future.
But our nation's "just keep building" approach to border security should be based on something a little more concrete.
And it isn't.
This week's report from the Council on Foreign Relations is not the first time that the U.S. has heard about the Department of Homeland Security's inability to provide meaningful information about the effectiveness of two decades' worth of border enforcement.
In December, a Government Accountability Office report said the DHS missed its own deadline for establishing performance goals and measures to assess how well border-security strategies work.
Last week, U.S. Border Patrol chief Michael Fisher told a Senate hearing his agency lacks "a scientific method" to determine how many people are entering the country illegally. That means they cannot accurately know what percentage of crossers are apprehended.
And that matters.
The Senate "Gang of Eight" immigration-reform bill -- the nation's best chance in many years of achieving meaningful reform of failed and deadly immigration policies -- sets a border security "effectiveness rate" goal of catching 90 percent of those who try to come across illegally. ...
Everyone agrees apprehensions along the southern border are down dramatically, and the DHS has made itself dizzy taking bows and talking about how the border is more secure than it has ever been. But the council's report suggests only one-third of the decrease is due to border security. The rest is the result of the economy.
What's more, there is no good way to assess whether interior enforcement or border enforcement is more effective in deterring people from crossing the border illegally, the report says. We should know what's more effective: 100 Border Patrol agents along the line or 100 Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigators in interior enforcement.
But we don't know.
Congress and the DHS should not act like cheerful little fish swimming through unknown waters toward a hoped-for happy ending. But that's what's happening.
With all the billions being spent on border security, it's worth targeting a few million at finding what works and why.
The Tampa Tribune on hacked off at China:
Relations between the United States and China have always been rocky, and it was no surprise when Washington accused the Chinese of using electronic technology as their weapon of choice in their bid to win the economic rivalry between two of the world's most powerful nations.
The White House made clear, the rivalry is much more than merely economic. There clearly are fears that the Chinese also are anticipating, if not actually planning, an eventual military clash with the United States.
Citing a report issued by the Pentagon, the Obama administration accused China's military of electronically attacking our government's computer systems as well as those of American defense contractors. The White House warned that the Chinese may be attempting to map this country's military capabilities so that they "could be exploited during a crisis."
Previously, the White House had not directly accused the Chinese of waging cyberwarfare against the United States, but there were clear signs that the administration strongly suspected China of embracing a systematic strategy to steal intellectual property and to thus gain strategic advantage. ...
The Chinese didn't take kindly to Washington's assertions. In Beijing, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs representative declared that "China has repeatedly said that we resolutely oppose all forms of hacker attacks" and suggested the Pentagon's report consists of "groundless accusations and speculations."
The Pentagon report insists China has risen into the top ranks of offensive cybertechnologies by investing in electronic warfare capabilities in an effort to blind American satellites and other space assets. China, it said, also hopes to use electronic and traditional weapons systems to gradually shove the American military back to nearly 2,000 miles from China's coast.
The report argues that China's first aircraft carrier, commissioned last year, is only the first of several the country will deploy over the next 15 years. ...
We may have better relations with China than 40 years ago, but they are not our friends. The United States must remain prepared to expose and defuse the schemes of this most perplexing nation.
The Augusta Chronicle on Obama administration scandals:
If it weren't so serious, it would be comical to watch the media try to spin the Obama administration scandals the president's way.
When White House spokesman Jay Carney continued Friday to cling desperately to the fairy tale that the administration had not substantively altered the CIA talking points on the Benghazi attack - ABC News has released evidence that the talking points were revised 12 times to hide the truth of the attack - some in the media wanted to downplay Carney's fable.
"Jay Carney has got caught saying something that wasn't completely true," liberal commentator David Corn meekly admitted on one talking heads show.
"That's called a lie, David," responded Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute.
Even Watergate legend Carl Bernstein quickly came to Obama's defense after the IRS admitted targeting conservative groups, saying he "can't imagine" the outrageous and frightening tactic could've had the president's blessing.
Really Carl? ...
Beyond that, we're all aware by now of the love affair much of the media have had with this president. They've even admitted they gave him favorable coverage - and the favoritism was so obvious so early on that Saturday Night Live performed a skit in which reporters offered him a pillow to be comfortable in a 2008 primary debate with Hillary Clinton.
Obama also has benefited indirectly from the manic, unfocused attention of most media outlets, who run from sensational local story to sensational local story (e.g., Jodi Arias, the Cleveland kidnapping). Now that the victims in the Cleveland case have asked for privacy, will the media leave a place where they're not wanted - and finally go to a place (the Benghazi and IRS scandals) where they're actually needed?
For now it appears inevitable. ...
Some also allege the Benghazi lies are covering up an Obama administration gun-running operation that would be illegal - can you say Iran-Contra? - and at the very least highly hypocritical for an administration intent on gun control here at home.
It will be interesting to see how much interest the media take in all this.
The Star-Ledger, Newark, N.J., on Angelina Jolie's public announcement of double mastectomy is heroic:
Angelina Jolie, in publicizing her double mastectomy, now joins a pantheon of celebrities who have gone public with private pain to help others. It was a brave decision that will almost certainly save lives. And it should also ignite a discussion about the costs of genetic testing for women who are at high risk, as Jolie was.
Jolie, 37, wrote about her decision to have the procedure done as a preventive measure in today's New York Times. Her mother died of ovarian cancer at the age of 56 in 2007. She has six children with actor Brad Pitt - three adopted, three biological - and the thought of leaving them motherless was a strong motivating factor for the actress. She has been expert at using her celebrity to advance the causes she cares about - refugees and rural poverty among them - so perhaps her personal announcement is not so strange.
Jolie's genetic tests revealed she carried the faulty gene that gave her a heightened risk of developing breast cancer, and to a lesser extent ovarian cancer. That's when she decided to take action and have both breasts removed in February; breast reconstruction followed nine weeks later. ...
Jolie's announcement brings to mind other high profile declarations of disease and illness: Betty Ford's battle with breast cancer in 1974 was the first to bring the big C out of the closet for many women. Later, Ford would do another public service by openly discussing her alcoholism and addiction to pills, and establishing a clinic to treat addictions. In more recent years, Magic Johnson's announcement that he was infected with HIV raised awareness and helped remove the stigma associated with the virus that causes AIDS.
But Jolie's announcement is in many ways singular. She is an actress at the height of her stardom, beauty and sex appeal - the latter is a big factor in her popularity. She and Pitt have been expert at managing their fame as the hot celebrity couple of their generation. By going public with her personal challenge, while still very much in the public eye, Jolie has shown extraordinary courage, the kind that leaves her cinematic heroines in the dust.
Chicago Tribune on Biotech crops and Europe, losing battle against progress:
Last year, too dry. This year, too wet. Spring planting is never perfect in America's agricultural heartland. The past few growing seasons have been especially challenging. Yet crop yields have held up.
One reason: bioengineered seeds, a big improvement on the ones Grandpa planted: The corn and soybeans grown across Illinois today are nearly all genetically modified to resist insects or tolerate herbicides. By protecting against pests and weeds, this technology helps to ensure ample harvests even in lousy conditions. Combine bioengineering with much-improved crop genetics, and the bins overflow.
So why won't Europe let its farmers plant these improved seeds? ...
Farmers want that technology because it works and it's safe: Two decades of experience here has yielded no harm to people or the environment. The EU's food safety watchdog has given its OK for cultivation of more genetically modified crops. But politicians won't give their OK.
The irony is that while Europe keeps its farmers from growing genetically modified crops, its citizens consume them in rising abundance. Europe especially depends on bioengineered soybeans from abroad for the animal feed used to produce meat, milk and eggs. The same crops officials won't approve for planting routinely enter the continent via import.
Unless the Europeans change their ways, they will have to keep importing more from the U.S. and other foreign sources, because their hypocritical policies make their agricultural sector less productive than it should be. ...
Europeans compound the damage they do to the poor by discouraging the developing world from adopting genetically modified crops. European opponents of modern practices claim that embracing them would put poor farmers at the mercy of big companies such as Monsanto that sell state-of-the-art seed, fertilizer and pesticide. They also falsely claim the jury's out on whether genetically modified crops can increase yields.
Some of their scare tactics are terribly patronizing: The opponents suggest, for instance, that farmers in the developing world should continue planting inferior seeds in the interest of promoting biodiversity. ...
Europe has fought this losing battle for too long. We hope upcoming free-trade talks with the U.S. allow common sense to trump baseless fears. Another of the world's leading economies needs to accept that bioengineering can safely help feed a hungry world.
The Kansas City Star on IRS picked wrong tests to ferret out abuses:
The Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative groups for extra scrutiny so far appears to be a case of bureaucrats run amok and leadership failing to rein them in.
If that holds true, the overreach is not a redux of the 1970s, when President Richard Nixon's administration ordered the IRS to target his perceived enemies. The furor among conservative groups notwithstanding, nothing yet indicates that President Barack Obama or anyone in the White House knew what was going on in the Cincinnati IRS offices, where applications from politically oriented groups seeking tax-exempt status had been sent for review.
Employees there struggled to devise a test to flag blatantly political organizations. Unfortunately, their methods were spectacularly wrong. The employees should have known better, and IRS leaders should have handled the rogue practices much more firmly.
Lois Lerner, director of the IRS division that oversees tax-exempt groups, acknowledged in advance of news exposés and an inspector general's report that workers had improperly singled out groups with "tea party" or "patriot" in their names. ...
For the IRS to single out groups of any political stripe is disastrous for public trust. The IRS must be independent of politics. Employees at any level who don't understand that should be fired.
It is vital to come up with an acceptable protocol for evaluating groups seeking 501(c)(4) status, meaning they may participate in politics as long as social welfare remains their primary focus. These groups have proliferated since the U.S. Supreme Court's regrettable 2010 Citizens United ruling, which allows corporations, labor unions and others to raise unlimited sums from anonymous donors and still be considered tax-exempt.
Applications for the 501(c)(4) tax status nearly doubled from 2010 to 2012, to more than 2,400, Lerner said. ...
Suspicions that some of these groups are purely political operations are legitimate. But that could apply to liberal organizations as well as conservative. The IRS needs a test to identify questionable applications. Using conservative keywords isn't it.
The targeted groups were required to fill out extensive questionnaires. But none was denied tax-exempt status.
So far, the greatest damage sustained has been to public confidence in the IRS.
The Australian, Sydney, on Pakistanis defying Taliban to vote:
With his chequered past - particularly an attempt to impose sharia law and reluctance to condemn the Taliban - it is inevitable the sweeping victory by veteran opposition leader Nawaz Sharif in Pakistan's election should raise concerns. But by voting in unprecedented numbers in defiance of Taliban violence and its denunciation of elections as un-Islamic, voters have demonstrated their support for democracy over mindless militancy.
This should buttress Sharif in his remarkable rebirth as prime minister of a deeply-troubled, nuclear-armed nation. The Taliban went all out to disrupt the election and failed, even though hundreds were killed and wounded, and leaders of the ruling Bhutto Pakistan People's Party were so cowed they retreated to Dubai.
Sharif and his main rival, former cricketer Imran Khan of the Movement for Justice, were exempt from the threats. Sharif's victory is substantial and overshadowed only by the likelihood all his MPs will be from his fiefdom in Punjab and none from Pakistan's other three provinces. Khan did not get the "tsunami" he expected but will end up with a creditable 30-plus seats. Significantly, he will control the provincial assembly in Taliban - and al-Qaida-infested Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province bordering Afghanistan, something that will cause misgivings among NATO commanders because of his outspoken opposition to US drone attacks and the war on terror. Sharif, too, has criticized "America's war" and indicated willingness to negotiate with insurgents. The lesson of Pakistan's election is, however, that voters were prepared to defy the Taliban and support democracy rather than bow before Islamic extremism.
Daunting challenges confront Sharif, a rich industrialist and one-time protege of the hang-and-flog military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq. He has been bequeathed an economic, infrastructure and security disaster by the ill-starred PPP government. Yet its achievement in overseeing a handover from one civilian government to another for the first time in Pakistan's fraught history cannot be overstated.
Sharif has what the PPP did not have because of the widespread public loathing of its leader, President Asif Ali Zardari - a popular mandate. He must use it to get to grips with Pakistan's profound economic and structural woes as well as the terrorism at the heart of the country's difficulties.
The Khaleej Times, Dubai, on the bane of guns:
America has witnessed yet another shocking incident of gun violence. On annual Mother's Day parade in New Orleans, which was attended by nearly 400 people, gunmen opened fire, injuring at least 19 people, including three children.
The shooting, which has been described as a flare-up of street violence, brought an abrupt interruption in celebrations and caused the festive mood to grow somber. The authorities are looking into the matter and have assured everyone that the offenders will be punished.
This incident has followed a surge in gun-related violence during recent in the US, and justifies the necessity to enforce more stringent gun ownership laws. But if historical examples are anything to go by, accomplishing this would be no easy feat. After the unfortunate mass shooting at a Connecticut school last year that killed 26 people, President Obama introduced a bill, which aimed to impose tougher checks on gun ownership and ban assault weapons. But with Congress divided on the issue due to the strong lobby of the National Rifle Association (NRA), that gun control package is currently stalled. And, in fact, the clause concerning the ban on assault weapons was dropped entirely from the package.
But gun control is not completely a lost cause. State-level changes to gun laws have taken place in the aftermath of the Connecticut massacre. Both New York and Connecticut this year imposed tough checks on gun ownership and banned assault weapons.
And now, after the New Orleans shooting, Obama has again pressed for regulation of gun ownership. Still, real change in gun laws at a federal level will continue to be a distant dream. And this is definitely disappointing, considering that gun-related violence is a big cause of fatalities in the country. While American has intensified its effort to hunt down home-grown terrorists after last month's bombings in Boston, the country still remains far from addressing the factor that has been a major cause of tragic massacres. It seems like in the US interest groups politics will continue to have precedence over human lives.
The Star, Toronto, on Pakistan's democratic promise:
The results are not yet official, but Pakistan's parliamentary election marks a moment of unprecedented potential for one of the world's most troubled countries.
For the first time in its 66-year history, Pakistan will see the transition from one democratically elected government to another. Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted by the military in 1999, will return to power, displacing a regime that has overseen widespread corruption and economic regress since taking over in 2008. Sharif won a surprisingly strong mandate Saturday from the roughly 60 per cent of eligible voters who cast a ballot. That turnout would have been remarkable under any circumstances, but amid threats and attacks from the Taliban, it proved just how committed Pakistanis are to determining their own future.
Allegations of voter fraud have somewhat dampened celebrations. But even if real, it seems the crimes were not widespread enough to significantly change the outcome. This was undoubtedly a victory for Pakistani democracy.
Beyond that, Sharif's win is cause for cautious optimism. His dovish approach to foreign policy has the potential to defuse tensions in the region, particularly with India and Afghanistan. And he has promised improved relations with the United States, strained by drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal regions. Meanwhile, private-sector faith in the conservative Sharif's promises of economic recovery sent the Karachi stock exchange skyward in the lead-up to the vote.
Sharif's success -- and that of Pakistan's democracy -- will depend in part on the reaction of the military and the judiciary, institutions that have so often overshadowed the country's politicians. Here, too, there are promising signs. The prime minister-designate and the judiciary are united by a common antipathy toward former ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who led the coup that deposed Sharif in 1999 and who eight years later scandalously fired the chief justice of the supreme court. ...
Undoubtedly much uncertainty and tumult lie ahead. The next year will bring new heads of Pakistan's military and judiciary, and will test Sharif's self-professed diplomatic prowess. Still, there's reason to hope that, when the dust clears, a more peaceful and prosperous Pakistan will be visible in the distance, as well as a more democratic one.
The Telegraph, London, on Syria being on the brink:
As the poison from Syria's civil war spreads, the pace of diplomatic exchanges is quickening. At the White House today, David Cameron, fresh from meeting Vladimir Putin on the Black Sea, will brief Barack Obama on the Russian president's latest thinking. Also on the agenda will be the G8 conference which the Prime Minister is due to host in Fermanagh next month. Once again, Britain is playing an important mediatory role between Moscow and Washington, this time in an attempt to defuse the most agonizing political dilemma faced by the great powers since Bosnia-Herzegovina was ripped apart in the 1990s.
The key to ending that conflict was Nato intervention. Chastened by more recent experiences, the alliance has held back from direct military action in Syria. Meanwhile, the involvement of neighbors has been incremental, whether in the supply of arms by Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar or the flood of refugees that threatens to overwhelm Jordan. This month, however, has seen a dramatic increase in tempo, with two air strikes by Israel on Syria and the killing of 46 people in bomb explosions in the Turkish town of Reyhanli.
Both incidents should serve as an ominous warning to Bashar al-Assad, who, by continuing to send arms to Hizbollah, has drawn the most formidable military force in the region into the conflict, and, by blaming Turkey for the Reyhanli bombings, has antagonized the outside power best placed to topple him. The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is due in Washington on Thursday, purportedly bearing proof of the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons. That is what Mr. Obama has called his red line. However reluctantly, alliance members are being pushed toward direct involvement. The alternative is to watch impotently as Syria drags the whole region into the abyss.