Today's Papers

A Change in the Air

The majors fill just about every column inch with terror news. The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times go highest with President Bush’s declaration that Tuesday’s horrors were “acts of war.” The WP also emphasizes the episode’s huge dimensions: the still unquantified carnage, the unprecedented air traffic freeze, the longest shutdown of Major League Baseball since D-Day, the longest shutdown of the New York Stock Exchange since the Depression, and the closure of one-quarter of all U.S. embassies. The New York Times lead has some of this, too, but focuses a bit more on the situation in rubble-strewn lower Manhattan, where a handful of people were pulled out of the World Trade Center’s remains alive, but where also a group of dead firefighters was discovered and where, more ominously still, not much of anything else was found. The USA Today lead focuses on the FBI’s intense effort, involving 4,000 agents, to reconstruct the attack and if possible arrest any non-suicidal participants. The paper’s headline announces “FBI IDENTIFIES HIJACKERS” and runs the driver’s license picture of one of them, Mohamed Atta, a pilot certified to fly small planes who received his training in Florida.

The LAT lead detects in President Bush’s comments “a paradigm shift” in how to think about, and respond to, terrorism and quotes a former CIA terrorism expert’s explanation: “The last three administrations, including Bush’s father’s, dealt with this problem as a criminal act. … But if it’s dealt with as a criminal act, you just get the soldiers rather than the generals.” The paper notes that in remarks yesterday, Secretary of State Colin Powell, “normally the most cautious” of Bush’s foreign policy advisers, was also “notably unyielding” in his comments that the U.S. now has to “go after terrorism and get it by its branch and root. …”

The LAT off-lead says that federal investigators now think the terror plot involved up to 50 men, of whom 10 remain at large. Although the government is not yet willing to say these men worked for Osama Bin Laden, that connection, says USAT, is what the FBI is focused on. A Wall Street Journal fronter on the investigation says that one of those involved, possibly still at large, once identified himself as a Saudi Arabian commercial pilot. All of those identified in the papers have Middle Eastern surnames. The coverage mentions that based on credit receipts connecting them to the hijackers, three men were arrested yesterday at a Boston hotel. USAT says, however, that they were later released without being charged with anything. The papers note that it’s becoming clear that some of the hijackers entered the U.S. from Canada, at a rural border long considered lax, says USAT.

The WP fronts and the NYT reefers that the U.S. military is weighing a wide range of responses of action vs. Afghanistan, where Osama Bin Laden operates from, one of which will be carried out if investigators are able to lay the attack at Bin Laden’s feet. Another factor making combat more likely: Everybody reports that yesterday NATO issued a statement supporting a U.S. attack against the parties found to be responsible. The Post reports that yesterday, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made a videotape for all U.S. military personnel in which he said, “It is my duty as head of this department to tell you that more, much more will be asked of you in the weeks and months ahead. This is especially true of those who are in the field.” The Times piece says that according to administration officials, the stunning loss of life in Tuesday’s attack has “freed the administration to broaden potential retaliation beyond the low-risk, unmanned cruise missile strikes of the past. …”

Searchers for something uplifting in this whole mess should perhaps turn to the stories, fronted by the WP and LAT, pieced together from passengers’ cell phone calls, indicating that some of those aboard the plane that ultimately crashed in a field in rural Pennsylvania decided to physically resist the hijackers and that perhaps this is the reason that plane did not reach a target.

The NYT reports, both in its lead and in a separate inside story, that Yasser Arafat “angrily” rejected any suggestion, based on widely broadcast news footage of Palestinians dancing in the streets, that they had rejoiced over the terror attack. Arafat tells the paper that “it is clear and obvious that it was less than 10 children in East Jerusalem, and we punished them.” Also, both the Times and USAT report that Arafat donated blood for U.S. attack victims. USAT adds that the Palestinian Cabinet secretary called international news agencies and said that their staffs’ safety could not be guaranteed unless they withdrew footage of Palestinian police firing joyfully into the air.

The papers report that according to presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer, one of the reasons President Bush didn’t fly directly back to Washington Tuesday immediately after the onset of trouble was that the Secret Service became aware that there was a credible threat made against the White House and/or Air Force One. The NYT’s William Safire says (citing not just an unnamed source but also Karl Rove) that what made the threat credible was it showed knowledge of presidential procedures and whereabouts. Then Safire asks a provocative question about that: How did the terrorists get the code-word information that established their (in Safire’s phrase) “mala fides”? Doesn’t that, he wonders, mean they have a mole at the White House, Secret Service, FBI, FAA, or CIA?