Today's Papers

Terror Firma?

The leads at USA Today, the  New York Times, and Los Angeles Times cover much the same ground: that the U.S. has shown NATO officials evidence linking the Sept. 11 attacks to Osama Bin Laden and that armed with this information, Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday gave a tough speech warning the Taliban regime of Afghanistan that if it doesn’t surrender the terrorists living under its control, it faces military defeat. The Washington Post fronts these developments but leads instead with a story shedding some light on Clinton administration efforts against Bin Laden. The headline “U.S. WAS FOILED MULTIPLE TIMES IN EFFORTS TO CAPTURE BIN LADEN OR HAVE HIM KILLED” seems an oversell because the story itself only specifies one plan that was actually carried out–the well-known August 1998 failed cruise missile attack. The only real news of the piece is a Clinton-approved plan to train 60 Pakistani commandos to enter Afghanistan and hunt down Bin Laden in return for the lifting of U.S. sanctions on Pakistan, an operation that was called off after the coup there.

The papers say that the Bin Laden evidence being shared is compelling, though short of what’s required in a legal case. The LAT says it includes evidence of financial transactions and, according to one unnamed European diplomat, “people talking about having done the job.” The NYT says the NATO briefings were “oral, without slides or documents.” But the LAT says the evidence included transcripts of intercepted communications. The papers also explain that the U.S. has shared evidence with Pakistan’s president in the form of a brief from the U.S. ambassador. The NYT quotes a Pakistani spokesman saying that this did not provide conclusive proof. The papers also include a late-breaking request by the Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan for evidence of Bin Laden’s involvement, which might support the Taliban’s turning him over to a third country. But President Bush is quoted widely saying that “there are no negotiations” forthcoming with the Taliban.

The WP’s off-lead is far newsier than its lead–it’s a detailed account of Sudan’s 1996 offer to arrest Bin Laden, who was living there at the time, and place him in Saudi Arabian custody. The story says U.S. officials preferred this to trying to get him deported to the U.S. because at the time there was no legal case linking Bin Laden to the deaths of any Americans, while, on the other hand, it was thought that perhaps the Saudis would (under what Clinton NSC head Sandy Berger is quoted as calling their “more streamlined” justice system) behead him. But the plan fell apart mainly because the Saudi regime feared a backlash from its domestic fundamentalist opponents. So Bin Laden ended up flying from Sudan to Afghanistan, apparently taking his money with him.

The NYT lead has the most on NATO’s likely role in the emerging counterterror campaign. Since, with the exception of Britain, none of the alliance’s other countries have much to offer for a fight this far from its home bases, and since introducing a NATO command structure would only gunk up decision-making, the paper says the U.S. will probably opt for fashioning the “moral authority of an international coalition without having to deal with the problems of the whole alliance.”

A NYT fronter reports a change in the Pentagon’s basing strategy for any upcoming military action–because of fears of growing anti-American sentiment in Pakistan, the U.S. military is now planning, says the paper, “a much more modest use” of installations in that country than it did originally. And this means the hunt is on for other in-theater locations that could fill the same bill, which, the paper suggests, is the purpose of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s current trip to Saudi Arabia, Oman, Egypt, and Uzbekistan.

A USAT insider says that a key part of the emerging anti-terror campaign in Afghanistan will be psychological operations–in military jargon, “psyops.” Among the units already deployed (probably to Uzbekistan or Tajikistan), says the story, is an Air National Guard squadron that flies planes configured as airborne broadcast stations. It is expected that much of the message will be pitched to appeal to Muslim beliefs. There will be, one expert is quoted saying, photographs distributed of dead women and children juxtaposed with the question, “Is this what Allah teaches?”

Everybody fronts yesterday’s rate cut from the Fed, which, notes the Wall Street Journal, brings short-term interest rates down to levels not seen since JFK was president.

So dominant is terror news that an apparently earth-shattering revelation from the debrief of confessed FBI spy Robert Hanssen only makes the LAT’s bottom-front. Hanssen has, says the story, said that in 1980 he fingered for the KGB a top Soviet military officer who was spying for the U.S. The man was executed in 1988. The story explains that before now, the U.S. had thought he was fingered much later by one or the other of two CIA turncoats and that now American intelligence agents have to worry that it got eight years worth of disinformation from the Soviet officer (fed to him by a tipped-off KGB), disinformation that’s still distorting U.S. assessments of Russia. The story doesn’t even mention another possibility, however: that Hanssen is lying to get credit that has previously been going to those other two spies.

The WP’s “The Reliable Source” reports that Bill Clinton will have a valuable memory aid as he turns to the task of writing his memoir–about 80 audio tapes he recorded throughout his two terms. The never-before-mentioned tapes would seem to have been within the purview of the various subpoenas Ken Starr issued during his investigations of assorted White House goings-on. Or to put the matter a bit less formally, as one former Starr staffer did for the Post: “Are you [bleeping] me?”