Today's Papers

Commando Performance

USA Today leads with an exclusive–that elite U.S. and British special forces commandos are already on the ground in Afghanistan hunting for Osama Bin Laden. The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post lead with President Bush’s appearance yesterday at Chicago’s O’Hare airport–which also tops the Wall Street Journal’s front-page business news box–during which he emphasized the economic and even psychological need for Americans to return to the skies and announced his administration’s plan to provide them with more security when they do so. The main features of that plan–an ambitious ramp-up of the federal air marshal program and fortifying airliner cockpits–had been previously announced, but Bush put out some new proposals, too, including making federal money available to put National Guard troops in airports around the country and for research into a system that would allow a pilot on the ground to take control of a plane away from a hijacker at the cockpit controls. The coverage suggests a looming sticking point with all this: that many in Congress want the federal government to take over all airport security, whereas Bush’s plan views the feds as merely working with the private sector. The WP notes that Bush’s “get on board” speech did not mention that Washington’s Reagan National Airport is still closed.

The USAT lead, filed by Jack Kelley in Pakistan, says that teams of three to five commandos, among them U.S. Green Berets and SEALs and British Special Air Services troops, have been inside Afghanistan “the past two weeks” searching caves and bunkers in the southwest, where Bin Laden has been known to operate, but are having difficulty locating him and therefore the call has gone out to other countries for intelligence help. The story implies the teams came in by helicopter from Pakistan. The soldiers’ orders, says the paper, are to capture or kill Bin Laden or at least pin him down until U.S. air strikes can be launched against him. The Pentagon declined comment on all this, but USAT says the basics have been reported in Pakistani newspapers.

The LAT front-page “Column One” contexts this news with a review of similar past U.S. or U.S.-assisted commando dragnets: the hunts for Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid (unsuccessful), for Manuel Noriega (successful after 5 days), Pablo Escobar (successful after 15 months), and for Mir Aimal Kasi, who killed two CIA employees right in front of agency headquarters (successful after four years). The story has experts speculating that the search for Bin Laden will emphasize surveillance of his associates and the use of informants.

The WP top-fronts a scooplet from Bob Woodward: details about the five-page Arabic document found in hijacker Mohamed Atta’s luggage (which didn’t make the flight he crashed into the World Trade Center). The manual offers both spiritual exhortation (“Purify your heart and clean it from all earthly matters. The time of fun and waste has gone. The time of judgment has arrived.”) and an operational checklist (“Check all of your items–your bag, your clothes, knives, your will, your IDs, your passport, all your papers. Check your safety before you leave. … Make sure that nobody is following you.”) The FBI, says the Post, found “essentially the same document” in the wreckage of the plane that crashed into a field in rural Pennsylvania.

The papers report that the Taliban, after previously saying that they had lost contact with Osama Bin Laden, now have delivered a request to him by courier that asks, but does not order, him to leave Afghanistan. Additionally, the coverage reports that Pakistani Muslims and Jesse Jackson may possibly act as mediators in the matter. The Taliban seems to be explicitly back in the harboring game, judging from the widely quoted comment of its ambassador to Pakistan: “We have not lost Osama, but he is out of sight of the people.”

The USAT front reports that according to a snap poll of economists, the U.S. is now in a recession. The only real debate among them, says the paper, is how long it will last.

The LAT reports that yesterday afternoon, when an Iranian passenger on an Air Canada flight who was caught smoking in the bathroom responded by threatening to kill Americans, the plane returned to Los Angeles under the escort of Air Force fighters and the man was extracted by police after they boarded the aircraft with guns drawn.

The NYT reports on tough marketing choices ahead for the owner of a café in the soldier-intensive town of Fort Bragg, N.C. The name of the establishment? “Osama’s Place.”