Today's Papers

Niger Nonsense

The New York Times leads with word that seven key Iraqi political groups have settled on a compromise plan with the U.S. to create a “governing council” that will serve as the beginnings of self-government. The coming council will have more power than Iraq chief Paul Bremer envisioned, including oversight of at least some economic policies and a budget; it will also have the ability to name ambassadors. And, at least officially, the Iraqis themselves have decided who will be on the council—the NYT says it’s just a “fig leaf” and that Bremer had plenty of say in the appointments. The Washington Post leads with the CIA’s conclusion that it was “most likely” Saddam speaking on the recently released audiotape that exhorted Iraqis to rise up. “We can’t say absolutely because of the poor quality of the tape recording, but it is probably authentic,” said a CIA spokesman, who added that analysts aren’t sure when the tape was made. While the CIA hedged, the Post’s headline doesn’t: “CIA CALLS HUSSEIN RECORDING AUTHENTIC.” USA Today leads with departing Centcom commander Tommy Franks’ assertion yesterday that the U.S. has sufficient numbers of soldiers in Iraq. “The sense I have now is that it’s not time to send in additional troops,” said Franks. Despite the paper’s big play of those comments— “GENERAL: U.S. TROOP STRENGTH ADEQUATE”—they don’t really mean much since Franks is on the way out and, as the paper itself suggests, the Pentagon is actually considering sending more troops in. The Los Angeles Times leads with campaigners for the recall of California Gov. Gray Davis asserting that they now have enough signatures to bring the issue to a vote. If they’re right, a special election will be held either in the fall or next March.

Unlike the NYT, the LAT isn’t convinced that the Iraqi council will have significant power—the paper even wraps quotes around the “concessions” Iraqis believe they’ve won. But the paper also adds that, judging by the meeting to create the council, the process to create a government is going to be “far more transparent and pluralistic” than anything Iraqis have known. Also yesterday, Bremer announced a series of economic measures, including a new currency (replacing the one that features Saddam’s face), the approval of a 2003 budget, and the creation of an independent central bank—though the NYT notices that American officials suggested that they’ll retain veto power over the bank’s decisions.

The Post and NYT both front the White House’s acknowledgement that President Bush’s State of the Union assertion that Iraq was seeking uranium from Africa was based on sketchy or downright bogus intel. The White House has long admitted that one specific bit of intel—a report that Saddam was seeking uranium from Niger—was wrong. But until yesterday it had also asserted that Bush’s claims were legit since they based on other bits of intel as well, namely from the British. Yesterday a UK parliamentary report concluded that that country’s intel on the supposed uranium purchases was weak. “Knowing all that we know now, the reference to Iraq’s attempt to acquire uranium from Africa should not have been included in the State of the Union speech,” a “senior Bush administration official” told the Post. (Presumably, the official is unnamed because the administration wanted to lend the message an institutional-type voice—though that doesn’t seem like a compelling reason.)

The NYT’s David Sanger gets feisty and notes that early in the day White House spokesman Ari Fleischer defended the SOTU uranium reference, only to flip-flop hours later. And judging from the press briefing transcript, a reporter named David asked Fleischer—nine times—whether the president’s SOTU statement was still accurate.

The NYT’s piece on the Saddam tape briefly revisits that still-murky raid near the border with Syria in which the U.S. attacked a convoy of suspected Iraqi officials. The paper notes American officials’ acknowledgement that they now have “no reason to believe any senior Iraqi leader was in the convoy.” So, who was in it? Early reports suggested the U.S. might have killed some sheep-smugglers. How about a follow-up?

Most of the papers off-lead NASA investigators’ declaration that falling foam did indeed doom the shuttle Columbia. Attempting to replicate what happened during Columbia’s liftoff, investigators Monday shot a piece of foam at a shuttle wing panel, and it left a gaping hole, actually larger than had been expected. “We have found the smoking gun,” the lead investigator said. “It is the kind of damage that must have occurred to bring down the orbiter.”Here’s a video of the test  

A Page One piece in the Wall Street Journal delves into complaints that the Bush administration is railroading the commission investigating 9/11 intelligence issues. For instance, the White House had until recently blocked the commission’s access to the classified congressional report on 9/11. The administration insists it’s not stalling and says it just wants to make sure that no classified information gets out. “Our concern is that enemies who hate America do not get information which could help them attack America,” said a White House spokesperson.

The WP reports on a grad student whose dissertation—based on publicly available material—mapped out the U.S.’s entire fiberoptic cable network and each business it’s connected to. That kind of info is very helpful for those folks trying to secure the nation’s infrastructure—and for those trying to destroy it. When he made a presentation about his project to some telecom officials, some at the meeting said he shouldn’t be allowed to leave with his computer—or at least should classify his findings. “Classify my dissertation? Crap,” said the student. “Does this mean I have to redo my PhD?”