Today's Papers

Summary of all Fears

Everybody leads with Secretary of State Powell’s Security Council presentation during which he offered up satellite photos, audio intercepts, and reports from human sources to support charges that: 1) Iraq has been hiding chemical and biological weapons from inspectors; 2) Iraq is still trying to develop nukes; 3) al-Qaida is operating in Baghdad.

Most of the papers agree that Powell’s strongest case lay in the first charge: He showed satellite photos of what was allegedly a chemical weapons bunker, complete with emergency decontamination truck. Then he showed another photo of the site a month later, just before inspectors arrived. The bunker had been razed, and according to Powell even the top soil was cleared. He also released audio tapes of Iraqis playing hide ‘n’ seek: In one conversation recorded a few weeks ago, an officer tells a subordinate, “Remove, ‘nerve agents’ wherever it comes up in the wireless instructions.” Double-checking, the underling repeats the instructions. His boss’s response: “Stop talking about it. They are listening to us. Don’t give any evidence that we have these horrible agents.”

Powell’s allegations about AQ-Iraq connections were the most detailed yet. He said that last summer, after the now famous AQ operative Abu Musab Zarqawi went to Iraq for medical attention, “nearly two dozen extremists converged on Baghdad and established a base of operations there.” Powell said it was this cell that was responsible for the assassination in October of American diplomat Laurence Foley.

The New York Times gives the biggest play to the alleged AQ-Saddam connection, no doubt because the paper has some juicy background: According to unnamed intel officials, the U.S. recently captured one of Zarqawi’s deputies, and now he’s started talking. The Times quotes other officials saying that it wasn’t until the new info came in that Powell was comfortable playing up the alleged links. (Keep in mind, a NYTimes piece earlier this week said the FBI and CIA were skeptical of the Zarqawi connection. Today’s piece ignores that story and doesn’t say whether the agencies have reconsidered.) The other papers have somewhat conflicting coverage. The Los Angeles Times and Washington Post both have stand-alone pieces on the allegations, which—and the WP is the worse offender here—read like Cliffs Notes from Powell’s speech. Meanwhile, the Post’s larger overview piece  sniffs, “The Iraq-Zarqawi-al Qaeda nexus appeared to have been carefully drawn to imply more than it actually said.” Finally, in a bit that the Wall Street Journal flags, the BBC yesterday uncovered a recent classified British report that concluded that Saddam and al-Qaida once considered developing links, but that nothing ever came of it. 

Powell also said that AQ has set up a training base in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. The NYT’s Bill Safire, in the course of celebrating the solid case against Saddam, asks a good question about the alleged base: “Why haven’t we obliterated it?”

Everybody mentions Powell’s claim that Iraq has imported specially designed aluminum tubes to help develop nukes. The most credulous coverage on this comes from the NYT, which says that Powell “buttressed”  his argument by pointing out that the tubes have been manufactured in a way that would be needed only for nuclear development. But as Slate’s Fred Kaplan has noted, many CIA analysts have heard that argument and don’t buy it. (TP also heard former inspector David Albright  shoot it down on CNN.)

USA Today goes highest with foreign feedback, running above-the-fold excerpts from the Security Council responses of Britain, France, China, and Russia. The only problem with that is, as most of the papers mention, the speeches were all written before Powell gave his talk, so what are they a reaction to?

The NYT, meanwhile, sees signs that France is about to give in. The country’s foreign minister said that there are “indications” that Iraq is still producing nerve gas and he added that France hasn’t ruled out war. 

France isn’t the only one. Powell’s case has even the NYT’s editorial page nodding in agreement. “It may not have produced a ‘smoking gun,’ ” said the paper. “But it left little question that Mr. Hussein had tried hard to conceal one.”

The papers go inside with the prime minister of Turkey saying he’ll support a war against Iraq and that he is OK with the U.S. using his country as a launching pad. This is big and on most days would be on Page One.

In another development that everybody stuffs, North Korea announced that it has restarted its once mothballed nuclear reactor. Pyongyang said it was only flipping the switch in order to generate electricity. But as everybody notes, the plant doesn’t generate significant power and is better at making fuel for nukes. Meanwhile, the WSJ has an op-ed from three former Clinton officials arguing that while the Bush administration focuses on Iraq, it is doing “nothing as a potentially larger disaster unfolds in North Korea—loose nukes.” They say Bush should start talking.

Everybody goes high with news that NASA is now pretty sure that the insulating foam that fell off during takeoff is notthe root of the crash. Yesterday’s LAT suggested as much. Ron Dittemore, the shuttle program manager, explained that NASA has gone over the numbers and is now confident that the foam was too light to cause major damage: “It’s got to be something else we don’t know about.” Dittemore also shot down the theory—played up in yesterday’s NYT—that the foam had become waterlogged and thus dangerously heavy. Dittemore said the stuff is waterproof.