Today's Papers

Backchannel Backstory Blackout

USA Today leads with President Bush’s signature of a bill banning what critics call “partial birth abortions.” Hours later, a federal judge partially blocked the new law, saying it appeared to be unconstitutional because it doesn’t have an explicit exemption for cases involving the health of the pregnant woman (though there is one to protect her life). The judge limited his ruling to the four doctors who brought the case. The New York Times leads with—and others stuff—the EPA’s decision to drop investigations into 50 power plants, in light of one of the agency’s recently loosened regulations. The WP, which goes inside with the news, says 70 power plants are affected. The Los Angeles Times leads with the NYSE overhaul plan presented by the board’s interim chairman, John Reed. Reed effectively fired most of the current board and proposed that new members shouldn’t be connected to the companies they’re ultimately overseeing. The LAT says up high that reform advocates complained that the changes don’t go far enough. The NYT, which puts the story on its business front, has a more positive take and waits until the 21st paragraph to note concerns with the proposal. The Washington Post leads with presidential contender Howard Dean urging, or perhaps telling, supporters to OK the notion that he should forgo public funding and thus spending limits. Dean, who once said he supported the public financing system but has since raised wads of cash without it, has said he’ll go with whatever supporters choose in an online poll.

A story inside the NYT explains the exact procedure the abortion law is meant to ban, “intact dilatation and extraction”—which is only used rarely. Last month, Slate’s Will Saletan argued that calling the procedure a “partial birth abortion” is misleading. “The procedure,” he wrote, “doesn’t take place anywhere near the appointed hour of birth.”

The papers all note inside that guerrilla attacks in northern Iraq killed at least thee Iraqi civilians and wounded at least five GIs.

The NYT, alone among the papers, fronts word that the Pentagon told 43,000 National Guard troops to get ready to head off to Iraq. The Pentagon is also ordering about 20,000 Marines into the fray—Marines historically haven’t been used for such longterm deployments. The Pentagon also said it’s planning, or hoping, to significantly reduce the number of troops in Iraq by the middle of next year. 

As USAT teases on Page One, Sen. John McCain said the U.S. needs to send in 15,000 more troops, and that not doing so would risk “the most serious American defeat on the global stage since Vietnam.”

A piece inside yesterday’s USAT (that TP didn’t notice until today), says that guerrillas are getting first-rate intel: “U.S. military, intelligence and law enforcement officials say that after six months of intensifying guerrilla warfare, Iraqi insurgents know more about the U.S. and allied forces—their style of operations, convoy routes and vulnerable targets—than the coalition forces know about them.”

A story inside the LAT says that the Bush administration has drafted a rule that would significantly reduce the number of streams and wetlands protected under the Clean Water Act.

An op-ed in the Post, by a Clinton-era procurement official who suggests he didn’t support the war in Iraq, pummels the recent watchdog report that alleged that rebuilding contracts had been awarded through cronyism: “One would be hard-pressed to discover anyone with a working knowledge of how federal contracts are awarded who doesn’t regard these allegations as being somewhere between highly improbable and utterly absurd.” (A recent article in Slate also questioned the report.)

In a double-column off-lead, the NYT has what seemsto be a giant story: According to e-mails and named sources, in February Saddam tried to convey through back channels that he was willing to do just about anything—including holding U.N.-supervised elections and letting U.S. investigators roam around Iraq looking for banned weapons—to avoid an invasion. Approached by intermediaries about the potential offer, White House adviser Richard Perle told the Times that, though he was “dubious,” he dutifully passed the offer up the chain of command at which point he was told the bosses weren’t interested: “The message was, ‘Tell them that we will see them in Baghdad.’ ” (ABC News and Newsweekalso have similar reports.)

Before you get too excited: The WP, which plays follow-up and files a short dispatch, essentially dismisses the alleged back channel. It avoids any spicy quotes from Perle (see above) and instead suggests that Perle agreed with the White House’s decision. “I had doubts about whether there was a real offer, because the Iraqis had a lot of ways to get in touch with the U.S.,” Perle told the Post.

Meanwhile, the Times’ case that the back channel offer was a serious missed opportunity relies heavily—in fact, almost exclusively—on the intermediary who approached Perle, a Lebanese-American businessman named Imad Hage. Hage details the various meetings he had with top Iraqi officials and how they were begging to do anything to avoid war. “At least [the administration] could have talked to them,” says Hage, in the last line of the article. 

Despite the reliance on Hage, the Times doesn’t tell readers what might be motivating his decision to tell his story, seven months after the invasion. Blogger/journalist Josh Marshall, meanwhile, has a solid theory, namely that Hage is trying to make himself and particularly one of his co-intermediaries look like angels. And though the Times doesn’t mention it, Hage might have another job apart from his gig as Mr. Give Peace a Chance. According to an August Knight Ridder story, Hage is “under federal investigation for possible involvement in a gun-running scheme to Liberia.”