Today's Papers

Sanchez Trumped

Everybody leads with President Bush’s prime-time address, where he talked about the United States’ plan for Iraq, culminating in elections “no later than” January. He didn’t announce any significant policy changes. But he did promise to demolish Abu Ghraib if Iraqis agree and after a new maximum security prison has been built. USA Today’s subhead artfully captures the moment, “Occupation Will End Soon; Troops Remain Indefinitely.”

The first half of the New York Times’ speech story reads like a seventh-grade book report, with the first sentence of most paragraphs summarizing a point Bush made, followed by a lengthy quote from said speech. Make it to the 11th paragraph, and you’ll learn that there’s not much to learn: Bush’s speech consisted of reiterating “pre-existing policy.”

While the NYT’s treatment is particularly opaque, the other papers mostly have similar coverage. Take the LAT: “BUSH ANNOUNCES PLAN TO END CHAOS IN IRAQ.” So there you go: What do the papers do when a much-anticipated presidential speech turns out to be vacuous? They play it big and straight anyway—and in the process help mislead readers. For the exception, dig down to Page A-12 in the Post: “A SPEECH MEANT TO RALLY PUBLIC SUPPORT DOESN’T ANSWER KEY QUESTIONS.” 

The one hint of a policy shift, Bush’s suggestion that he’s open to elections being held sooner than January, doesn’t get attention in the papers. (Slate’s Mickey Kaus focuses on it.) The NYT’s Elisabeth Bumiller deserves a special shout-out. She didn’t ignore the elections hint; she got it completely backward, writing that Bush said there can be elections “as early [sic!] as next January.”

And what was the reaction in Baghdad? Who knows; when the president spoke it was 4 a.m. there.

While the president said Iraq will have “full sovereignty” come June 30, articles inside the papers say that the draft Security Council resolution the U.S. and Britain offered yesterday doesn’t give it. Most crucially, it doesn’t give the still unnamed temporary government the power to ask foreign troops to leave or to overrule missions. The Washington Postsays France, Germany, Russia, and China all “expressed misgivings” about the resolution. The Los Angeles Times suggests the opposite. The WP also notes that the proposed resolution doesn’t include any reference to Iraq’s interim constitution, the Transitional Administrative Law, which some Security Council members, as well as top cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, have objected to.

The papers report inside that two British civilians were killed in an attack in Baghdad. Also, one soldier was killed and four wounded in a rocket attack north of the capital. An Iraqi politician was assassinated in Kirkuk. And according to a late report in the LAT, a suspected car bombing outside a hotel in Baghdad wounded at least two people.

According to early morning reports, the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, the Shiites’ holiest site in Iraq, was damaged this morning by either rockets or mortar rounds. No details yet.

Citing unnamed Pentagon and administration officials, the LAT,NYT, and WP front word that the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, is being replaced, probably by a higher-ranking general. Pentagon officials said the move has long been planned, but the LAT pokes a hole in that, noting that Sanchez’s boss, Gen. John Abizaid, said a few months ago that he expected Sanchez to stay on well after June 30. The NYT also emphasizes that this is a less-than-normal rotation: Sanchez had been slated to be promoted, “but something happened in the past few days to derail that plan.” The promotion would have required congressional hearings, something the White House may have preferred to avoid.

The Times’ Dexter Filkins looks at the costs of the U.S. having resigned itself to militias in Iraq. For one thing, it will make elections harder. “We are not going to get sustainable democracy of any kind in Iraq unless we make some kind of progress in demobilizing these militias,” said Larry Diamond, a former top Coalition Provisional Authority adviser.

The Christian Science Monitor reports that a “Fallujah-like solution” is beginning to emerge with cleric Muqtada Sadr. Citing Sadr aides and an “official close to the talks,” the papersays the deal would let Sadr go free and integrate his militia into Iraqi national forces. The NYT says U.S. troops clashed with Sadr’s forces in Baghdad’s Sadr City, killing about 20 militiamen.

In the standard front-page article-cum-ad coverage given propriety polls, the Post goes Page One with a poll concluding that Bush’s support is continuing to drop, with the president now getting a 47 percent approval rating, the lowest the Post has ever recorded for Bush. Forty percent of respondents also said they want the U.S. to pull out of Iraq, up 7 percent from last month. The article, in a fine bit of reporting, doesn’t mention any non-Post polls. CBS had one yesterday that pegged Bush’s approval at 41 percent.

The LAT fronts an interview with a British man who had been held at Guantanamo Bay and who says he was beaten and he heard of sexual humiliation. He says when he was first detained in Afghanistan, he was held naked for a week and was later beaten at Gitmo, left in chains, and forced to urinate on himself. He has since been released, and no charges have been filed. The Pentagon said it will of course investigate any credible charges, which it said the prisoner’s weren’t.

The NYT says that some officers at Abu Ghraib were bothered enough by the CIA’s habit of keeping prisoners off the books and hidden from the Red Cross that the officers apparently penned an agreement with the CIA earlier this year to stop the practice. The Times says that the memorandum, found in a classified part of the Taguba report, was signed by a military officer and one “James Bond.” As the NYT reported over the weekend and the Journal reiterates today, top military lawyers in Iraq told the Red Cross in December that some detainees weren’t covered by the Geneva Conventions. Pentagon officials have recently said otherwise.

The Times also mentions the 2,000 pages of the Taguba report that are missing from the version given to Congress. The Pentagon has said it was an administrative oversight while the paper notes that among the missing pages was a document titled, “Draft Update for Secretary of Defense.” Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld has said he never read the report.