Today's Papers

A Stranger in Faris

The New York Times and USA Today lead with word that an Ohio truck driver has admitted to being an al-Qaida operative and to having once considered a plan to try to topple the Brooklyn Bridge. The Washington Post’s top non-local story goes with GIs’ complaints that they’ve been in Iraq too long and are ill-equipped to serve as cops and peacekeepers. “Saddam isn’t in power anymore. The locals want us to leave. Why are we still here?” wondered one soldier. The Los Angeles Times leads with a narrow, state-focused story: Reading test scores for fourth graders in California have held steady over the past decade.

Iyman Faris, who Attorney General Ashcroft described as leading a “secret double life,” has been in custody for a few months and has turned states’ evidence in return for slightly lesser charges: providing “material support” to terrorists. He faces up to 20 years in jail, though USAT says he might go into the witness protection program. According to the feds, Faris, who is from Kashmir and is a naturalized U.S. citizen, went to Afghanistan in 2000 and met with Osama and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. In early 2002, he reportedly talked with Mohammed about planning another round of simultaneous attacks on Washington, D.C., and New York. Faris’ big plan was to take a blow torch to the Brooklyn Bridge’s suspension cables. He eventually sent a message to Mohammed saying that it wouldn’t work—the bridge was too strong (and there was too much security). Was he right? Probably, says the NYT.

The papers say that it’s not clear how the feds nabbed Faris. But Newsweek and CNN, which are currently the go-to spots for the case, both say that Mohammed eventually fingered him. CNN adds that upon hearing that the feds were after him, Faris turned himself in.

In an undercurrent to the Faris coverage that only the NYT draws out, it’s not clear just how serious or far along Faris was in his plans. “Obviously he had contacts with people at al-Qaida so he has to be considered somewhat important, but to say whether he really could have accomplished this or not, we’re still not sure,” said one FBI official.

Everybody mentions either inside or folded into more general pieces that a U.S. medic was killed yesterday in Iraq when somebody fired a rocket-propelled grenade at an America ambulance. He was the third GI killed there within the past four days. Two other soldiers were wounded in the attack. In another incident, two GIs were injured when somebody threw a grenade at their checkpoint.

The NYT fronts a dispatch from Washington saying that intel officials have intercepted communications suggesting that—no big surprise—Saddam is still alive and still in Iraq. The paper says that special ops forces just last night launched a new operation going after him. Officials are now realizing that nailing Saddam is important to getting the guerrilla attacks to let up. “These guys are growing in resistance, and they’re still being troublesome, and you have to ask what’s motivating them,” said one defense official.

Many residents in Saddam’s former stronghold don’t seem keen to rat him out. “Congratulations on your birthday, sir, despite the new situation,” reads one bit of graffiti in Tikrit that the LAT noticed. The WP mentions inside that when Saddam’s top aide was caught earlier this week, he was essentially couch-surfing—bumming a spot on a friend’s living room floor.

The NYT stuffs word that the White House has decided to focus rebuilding efforts on the little things, like repairing power lines. “You won’t see a lot of new buildings,” said one U.S official. The Times notes that that approach contrasts with the more grand British plans in southern Iraq. The U.S.’s total aid package to Iraq this year is set at $2.4 billion. The Wall Street Journal says that with growing concern about the cost of rebuilding, the White House is tossing around the idea of helping to pay for it by issuing Iraqi securities (aka debt) backed by future Iraqi oil revenues.

The NYT, alone among the papers, fronts word of the breakdown in talks between the U.S. and the E.U. to open up Europe to genetically modified foods. American officials said they’ll bring their case to the World Trade Organization.

The WP goes inside with the Treasury Department’s release of the current federal deficit: As expected, it was $292 billion for the first eight months of fiscal 2003. That surpasses the record for a full year—$290 billion in 1992. As a percentage of GNP, which is really the more important figure, this year’s total deficit will be about 4 percent of the U.S. economy.

The Post says inside that after facing aggressive domestic reporting on SARS, China has begun a media crackdown, shutting down one paper and ordering others to stop reporting on some touchy topics.

NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof, traveling in central Iraq, adds some new bits to the Jessica Lynch story. First he says what’s already widely known, that much of the initial Pentagon-fed, reports were bogus: “I deeply resent my government trying to spin me like a Ping-Pong ball.” Then Kristof says that according to a few hospital employees, the Iraqi army came close to executing Lynch. Apparently the assigned executioner got cold feet and deserted. The next day U.S. troops arrived. He also mentions one source who says that another, handcuffed POW was executed. Kristof mentions that he’s included more info at There are all sorts of juicy goodies there—including more questions about the Iraqi lawyer who’s been hailed as hero. Kristof also uses the space to answer reader feedback. It’s a nice use of the Web—check it out, especially if you’re a columnist.