Today's Papers

Vouching for Victory

The Los Angeles Times’ top non-local story reports that U.S. warplanes may have mistakenly bombed a wedding party in Afghanistan, killing up to 40 people. The New York Times leads with news that President Bush said that last week’s Supreme Court decision in support of school vouchers was “just as historic” as the court’s 1954 ruling against school segregation. The Times points out that until yesterday, the president had largely avoided the “explosive” issue of vouchers. The Washington Post  leads with word that Congress, with a nod from the White House, has decided to postpone plans to revamp the FBI and CIA until after it nails down details on the new Department of Homeland Security, which may not happen “until at least next year.” Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who’s overseeing the security legislation, said that re-engineering the two agencies will be controversial and that legislators don’t want it to get in the way of creating the new department. The Wall Street Journal tops its world-wide newsbox with news that a Russian passenger jet collided with a cargo plane over Germany, killing all 71 people aboard the planes. Swiss air-traffic controllers said they repeatedly told the Russian plane to lower its altitude, but the airliner never responded. USA Today leads with word that Nasdaq, spurred on by WorldCom’s fast slide and continuing worries about other accounting scandals, tumbled four percent yesterday and closed at its lowest level since June 1997.

As everybody notes, details are fuzzy on the bombing in Afghanistan and there are conflicting reports. But the papers all explain that U.S. special operations troops called for air support after, the soldiers said, they came under fire. When a close-air-support plane approached, it fired after pilots saw what appeared to be anti-aircraft fire but what in retrospect may have been people at a wedding party firing their guns in celebration.

Also, U.S. officials said that in the same area, a B-52 plane was dropping bombs on suspected al-Qaida caves when one of the bombs went off target and may have in fact been responsible for the wedding party bombing. The Post’s frontpage piece emphasizes this incident, which it says caused an “unknown number of casualties.” The paper headlines, “ERRANT U.S. BOMB HITS CIVILIANS.”

Meanwhile, of all the majors, the NYT is the most wary of concluding that the U.S. messed up. It headlines, “AFGHANS LINK CIVILIAN DEATHS TO U.S. BOMB.” Also, the Times article, datelined “Washington,” states as fact that a U.S. warplane was “suddenly fired upon by anti-aircraft artillery.” Given that that fact is in dispute, the paper should have hedged by citing a source for it.

Except for the NYT, the papers all quote a U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan who said, very carefully, “We understand that there were some civilian casualties in the operation, but we do not yet know how many or how they occurred. We extend our deepest sympathies to those who may have lost loved ones as a result of this incident.” USAT reads that as an admission of responsibility. Its headline states, “U.S. APOLOGIZES FOR AIRSTRIKE.” Meanwhile, the Post points out that a statement from the Pentagon itself “omitted any statement of regret or sympathy.”

Everybody notes that WorldCom told the SEC that it may have overstated profits by $1 billion more than previously stated. (Yesterday’s WSJ suggested was going to happen.) The company made the disclosure in SEC filings that the NYT says “provided little additional information.” The SEC’s chairman, Harvey Pitt, called the filings “wholly inadequate.”

The WP fronts (and the NYT seems to skip) news that a U.S. district judge struck down the federal death penalty, saying that it’s so devoid of safeguards that it amounts to “foreseeable, state-sponsored murder of innocent human beings.” The judge pointed, for example, to the fact that federal juries can convict based on “the uncorroborated testimony of an accomplice.” The Justice Dept. said it will likely appeal. There are 27 convicted murderers on federal death row.

The NYT goes inside with a peek at a new U.N.-sponsored report on development in Arab countries that concludes that the region is suffering from economic and political stagnation as well as cultural isolation. For example, the report states, “The whole Arab world translates about 330 books annually, one-fifth the number that Greece translates.” The Times emphasizes that the survey was written by Arab intellectuals and experts.

The WSJ,for the second time in the past year, says it has got its hands on an al-Qaida computer. This time, the result is a fascinating background story on al-Qaida’s second-in-command, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahri. The bad doctor apparently united with Osama Bin Laden in the late-1990s, largely because al-Zawahri’s own organization, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, was cash-strapped and paralyzed by infighting. In one message to an underling, al-Zawahri wrote, “Why did you buy a new fax machine for $470? Stop all expenses unless it is an emergency.” The operative responded, “The first step to implement this advice is my immediate resignation.”  

NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof puts on his Sherlock Holmes hat and fingers an American bioweapons scientist who, Kristof says, is believed by some scientists to be the person responsible for the anthrax attacks. Kristof, who calls the guy “Mr. Z”, complains that the FBI hasn’t put the scientist under surveillance or had experts look at his handwriting. “It’s time for the F.B.I. to make a move,” says Kristof. “Either it should go after him more aggressively, or it should seek to exculpate him.”

Everybody notes inside that Rep. J.C. Watts, the House’s fourth-ranking Republican and its only African-American Republican, announced he will not seek re-election. Watts said he wants to spend more time with his family in Oklahoma. The Post says that both Republicans and Democrats had urged Watts to stay. So did civil rights activist Rosa Parks: “If you can, please remain as a pioneer on the Republican side until others come to assist you. I am glad I stayed in my seat.”