The papers all lead with the growing firestorm over the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison. The New York Times and Los Angeles Times both headline President Bush’s apology yesterday, in which he called the abuses a “stain on our country’s honor.” The Wall Street Journal’s worldwide news box goes high with the apology, saying that Bush may be nearing a “crossroads in his prosecution of the war in Iraq.” USA Today’s top story focuses on the two high-stakes appearances Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld will make before Congress today, as he seeks shelter from vultures seen circling the Beltway. The Washington Post leads with a package on the widening scandal, bannering Rumsfeld’s increasingly precarious position. “If he says anything arrogant, it’s over,” one congressional GOP staffer predicts.
A day after avoiding it, Bush said the magic “s” word during a private Oval Office meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah II: “I told him I was sorry for the humiliation and suffering by the Iraqi prisoners, and the humiliations suffered by their families,” Bush said in statement delivered later in the Rose Garden. “I assured him that Americans like me didn’t appreciate what we saw, that it made us sick to our stomachs.”
According to the WP’s detailed apology piece, Bush was originally supposed to say sorry on Wednesday in his interviews with two Arabic news channels. “An apology had been recommended in the talking points Bush received from the State Department and elsewhere,” the paper writes. But when the president stopped short of delivering an actual apology, surprised “senior administration aides” pushed for him to go all the way yesterday.
Bush went on to defend his embattled defense secretary, saying, “he’ll stay in my Cabinet,” but he also blamed Rumsfeld for not informing him more quickly about the abuse investigations. “I should have known about the pictures and the report,” Bush said.
Despite that vote of confidence, the papers all say that Rumsfeld’s support among congressional Republicans and at the White House is equivocal at best. “This is not the end, but it’s the beginning of the end for Rumsfeld,” a senior Republican source “close to both congressional leaders and the White House” told the LAT. “Tomorrow, a bunch of Republican senators will go crazy on Rumsfeld,” the source continued. “There is no reservoir of goodwill. He’s looked down his nose and been arrogant toward them.”
According to Rummy’s spokesperson, the secretary of defense only asked to see the abuse photos around three or four weeks ago, but he may have difficulty claiming that he didn’t know what was going on well before that. The NYT and WSJ say the Red Cross announced yesterday that it repeatedly complained to the Bush administration about the treatment of Iraqi prisoners. The first report was sent in February and described the abuse as “systematic” and “tantamount to torture.” According to the WSJ’s front-page piece, that 24-page report contradicts administration statements that the incidents were isolated and not officially condoned (subscription required). The NYT cites legal experts who say the report could mean the U.S. is obligated to try soldiers for war crimes. “The evidence we have so far would clearly give probable cause to see whether these grave breaches rise to the level of crimes against humanity,” a Yale Law School professor said.
The Red Cross was not alone in sounding the alarm: In the WP, unnamed officials described Iraq proconsul L. Paul Bremer as “kicking and screaming” to Rumsfeld as early as last fall about abuses and the need to release thousands of uncharged prisoners. Those claims resonate further in a chilling story published in London’s Guardian today. According to a former U.S. interrogator at Abu Ghraib, many prisoners were innocent Iraqis picked up at random during raids.
Both USAT and the NYT dig into the background of the U.S. soldiers who appear, mugging and giving the thumbs-up, in many of the photographs. Amidst the banal biographical details, the stories pose an interesting explanation for the images, a possibility that the Pentagon is also investigating, according to the WSJ: The photos may have been staged under orders from the military intelligence unit running the prison. An attorney for one accused soldier told the WSJ that the images were then used as tools of psychological harassment to soften up subjects before interrogation.
The Post’s lead mentions that the director of the Information Security Oversight Office decided yesterday to open an investigation into why the internal Army report detailing these abuses was classified “Secret” in the first place. As TP mentioned yesterday, the government is prohibited from classifying documents solely to “conceal violations of law.”
The NYT off-leads and the WP fronts military developments in Iraq, where U.S. forces made their first thrust into Najaf since rebel cleric Muqtada Sadr took the city a month ago. Troops retook the governor’s office and installed a new leader without a fight, but Sadr’s militia soon retaliated, with Americans saying they killed 41 militants in nearby Kufa. An Iraqi reporter working for the NYT also said there was gunfire around a hospital inside Najaf. A U.S. general saidthat the operation would continue but clarified that “Najaf is not the target; Muqtada el-Sadr remains the target.”
The WP fronts, and everyone else stuffs, word that King Abdullah also managed to wrangle some rhetorical concessions from the president on Israel: Bush announced that he would “expand the dialogue” with Palestinians, sending a letter to the Palestinian prime minister reiterating the United States’ commitment to a “just peace.” As the LAT emphasizes, Bush made no mention of his recent hot-button endorsement of Israeli settlements or denial of Palestinian claims to a right of return. Instead, he mouthed the old party line: “All final-status issues must be negotiated between the parties. … [T]he United States will not prejudice the outcome of those negotiations.”
Unfortunately absent from USA Today’s front page: the paper’s scoop that somebody forgot to tell Colin Powell about the administration’s plan to ask for $25 billion in additional Iraq funding this week. Powell—who is described in June’s GQ as “Frustrated. Exhausted. Bitter“—had recently assured members of the Congressional Black Caucus that no such request was in the works.
The WP, LAT, and NYT all front the FBI’s arrest of an Oregon lawyer in connection with the March 11 terrorist attack in Madrid—a story broken yesterday by Newsweek. The lawyer, a U.S. citizen tangentially connected to the “Portland Seven,” was detained as a material witness, presumably because the case against him is still being built, but officials confirmed that his fingerprints were found on a bag that contained bomb material and had been discovered in the Madrid wreckage.
The WP, NYT, and LAT all front word that the FDA blocked the morning-after pill from being sold over the counter, ignoring the recommendation of its own advisory panel. The FDA says young girls may not know how to use the drug safely, but critics argue the body bowed inappropriately to lobbying by conservative groups.
In Nigeria, militants from a predominantly Christian tribe killed 500 people during two raids on a Muslim town, according to an AP story in the LAT and a short NYT dispatch. The AP says that attackers with jerry cans of kerosene burned cars, homes, mosques, and people. A charred corpse was still visible on the town’s main street yesterday.
And, despite Bush’s widely publicized contrition, not everyone agrees that apology is the best policy in the prison abuse case. Newt Gingrich takes up that winning cause, warning doe-eyed appeasers who may have accidentally wandered onto the Journal’s opinion page that “Appearing overly contrite or overly apologetic … will be a big mistake.”