Today's Papers

What He Knew

The front pages of all the major papers are dominated by reports of White House damage control in the wake of revelations that the Bush administration had been forewarned of the risk of an al-Qaida airline hijacking. The Los Angeles Timessays the administration is “on the defensive for the first time over Sept. 11.” The Washington Postclaims President Bush’s “aura of invincibility” has “received a sharp jolt,” and the New York Timesreports that “bipartisan unity” over how the war has been conducted “appeared to be dissolving” yesterday. The White House’s official response to the allegations that it had inappropriately ignored the CIA’s warning about the hijacking threat was given by national security adviser Condoleezza Rice in a detailed briefing yesterday afternoon. She argued that the nature of the threat, which was conveyed to the president in an Aug. 6 security briefing, was simply too vague to issue a specific advisory and that doing so would have “risked shutting down the American civil aviation system.”

The NYT reports that the hijacking warning was “based on 1998 intelligence data drawn from a single British source.” The intelligence mentioned nothing about flying planes into buildings, though if it had been paired up with other reports circulating in the intelligence community, an extremely perceptive government official may have been able to deduce the Sept. 11 plot.

Due to the insufficiency and speculative nature of the information Bush was given, all the papers seem inclined to let him off the hook for now and instead to blame government bureaucracies for not properly sharing all their intelligence. “The tempest seems overblown,” says a WP editorial. “Far more troubling are growing indications that isolated components of the federal government had insights into the plot, insights that were never merged or pushed up the administrative ladder.” The NYT editorswrite, “The country will have to live with the much messier and no less disturbing fact that the government as a whole dropped the ball and even now is not doing nearly enough to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.”

Congressional Democrats were quick to call for investigations yesterday. Republicans predictably shot back that Democrats are inappropriately politicizing a national security issue during a time of war.

Each of the major papers contributes to a more complete chronology of what and when various branches of the government knew about an impending terrorist attack. The WP’s lead does the best job chronicling the early summer months when intelligence reports began to filter in that a major al-Qaida attack was in the works. Director of the CIA George Tenet is described as being “nearly frantic” from June 22 on. On July 5, a meeting was held in the White House Situation Room at which it was decided to put the government on its highest state of alert against an imminent terrorist attack. By Aug. 6, when Bush received his briefing on the hijacking threat, the government had already begun to stand down from its state of vigilance.

USA Today is alone in reporting polling data that shows that 68 percent of Americans believe that the Bush administration should have disclosed its information about a forewarning earlier. Hinting at how this scandal may pull down Bush’s approval ratings, 32 percent of Americans say they view the president less favorably in light of his non-disclosure.

Buried in the 14th graph of a WP front-pager is this intriguing sentence not reported by any of the other papers: “Members of congressional committees investigating the pre-Sept. 11 warnings said yesterday that there is far more damaging information that has not yet been disclosed about the government’s knowledge of and inaction over events leading up to Sept. 11.” Does this mean more banner headlines are in store? Or does it simply mean the congressmen suspect that to be the case?

The WP and NYT both report on yesterday’s virtually party-line vote in the House to extend and revise the 1996 welfare reform law. According to the WP, “The legislation contains every major idea the GOP has advanced this year for revising the welfare system.” The bill denies welfare to legal immigrants, subsidizes programs that encourage marriage and pre-marital abstinence, and hands over much control of the welfare system to governors. It also sets stricter rules on the number of hours welfare recipients are required to work. The Senate is currently considering its own bipartisan welfare legislation, which looks like it will be far more moderate than the House’s bill. “An eventual compromise between the two chambers may prove difficult,” reports the WP.

A piece fronted by the WP heralds the resuscitation of Iraq’s once flagging economy and reads like an admonishment against a U.S.-backed ouster of Saddam Hussein. Thanks to billions of dollars of petroleum sold legally under the U.N.’s food-for-oil program and billions more smuggled out illegally, Iraq’s gross domestic product grew about 15 percent in 2000. Because Iraq now possesses once out-of-reach amenities like consumer electronics flowing into the country and a per-capita income double that of Egypt, the article reports that content Iraqis may be growing less and less likely to turn on Saddam. After noting that many Hussein opponents are queasy about the prospect of regime change, the article points out that a group of moderate pragmatists seems to be gaining the ear of Iraq’s ruling Baath party. When added to the fact that Iraq has reopened talks on the possible return of U.N. weapons inspectors, the article seems to have an implicit message that regime change is both infeasible and unnecessary.

A prom season WP front pager blows a whistle on the “sexually provocative dance craze” sweeping Washington area high schools, which makes “the lambada look like the hokeypokey.” The ever-prudish WP asks us to imagine sweaty tuxedoed boys “putting their hands on their dates’ hips to pull them in closer still—then farther away, then closer still.” Do you get the picture? Today’s Papers, who was himself a frisky Washington high-school student not too many years ago, can attest to the fact that this sort of thing has been going on for quite some time.  But then, when was the last time a “sexually provocative dance craze” wasn’t sweeping the nation? Just one more reason why newspapers need a junior ombudsman—preferably someone under the age of 18—to alert fogeyish editors to how silly and out of touch they sound when they trumpet the arrival of new teen fads—invariably several months or years late.