Today's Papers

Held Hostage

The Washington Post leads with the news that Islamic extremists affiliated with al-Qaida are responsible for the kidnapping of an American in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, according to a statement released by the group. Strangely, the New York Times and Los Angeles Times both stuff the story, with the NYT, at least online, running only a wire service report. The NYT leads with an exclusive report revealing that during the opening weeks of the Iraq war, the U.S. launched 50 airstrikes on a wide range of Iraqi leaders, far more than had previously been acknowledged. And the LAT leads with its own exclusive, breaking the news that a group of 26 former diplomats and military officials will release a statement later this week calling for the defeat of President Bush.

The WP reports, ominously, that the Riyadh kidnappers’ statement referred to the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and warned that, “We have our legal right to treat [American hostages] the same way they treat our people.” In addition to the kidnapping, whose victim is Paul Johnson, a 49-year-old Lockheed Martin employee, the group also took responsibility for killing another American. The WP says it’s unclear whether that referred to yesterday’s murder of an American defense contractor, or to a similar attack earlier in the week, though the LAT and the Associated Press story in the NYTboth assume the former.

The NYT attributes to “senior military and intelligence officials” the admission that many more airstrikes than previously thought were carried out against high-level Iraqi targets in March and April of last year. All were unsuccessful, and some are now believed to have caused significant civilian casualties. The strikes used precision-guided missiles against at least 13 Iraqi leaders, including Saddam’s No. 2, Gen. Izzat Ibrahim. Poor intelligence is blamed for the failures.

The group of former military and diplomatic officials who signed the anti-Bush statement doesn’t include any household names, but many were appointed by Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush. The officials believe that the current administration has damaged America’s national security, says the LAT, by alienating allies and by neglecting the war on terrorism for the war in Iraq. The paper, in what seems like an understatement, says, “It is unusual for so many high-level military and career diplomatic alumni to issue such an overtly political message during an election campaign.” But the paper also gives prominent play to the views of an unnamed “Republican strategist” who, predictably, downplays the statement’s significance.

The WP goes high with a series of Defense Department memos, written at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, which shed light on the treatment of prisoners by U.S. troops. That treatment appears to have ranged from the needlessly officious—when prisoners asked for tea with more sugar, the response was, “Not now. However we will reconsider in the future”—to the outright inhumane: Military officers briefly allowed their captives to believe they were being taken to their deaths, in order to “keep them scared.” (The prisoners were ultimately reassured that they had not been sentenced to die.) When a Red Cross official criticized U.S. interrogation techniques, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, who commanded detention operations at the prison (and later recommended that Abu Ghraib be “Gitmo-ized”), replied that methods of interrogation should not fall under the Red Cross’s purview. The Red Cross now says, “Some of our concerns have been addressed, and others have not.”

In its second prominently placed presidential campaign front-pager, the LAT reports on the religious divide that’s shaping up as a key factor in this year’s race: Those who attend religious services regularly are more likely to vote Republican, while those who don’t tend to favor Democrats. The LAT found churchgoers in Edina, Minn., to be generally supportive of the president, though some are troubled by the Iraq war. By contrast, voters who spent their Sunday morning in a local coffeehouse—some drinking “complicated lattes”—tend to view him more skeptically, in particular his public professions of faith. Most voters seem to know little about John Kerry, which leads the LAT to conclude that, “this election above all is a referendum on [the] president.” But that notion is belied by the ads being run by both campaigns, which focus primarily on defining Kerry for voters.

The NYT picks up on the “John-Kerry-isn’t-known-very-well” theme, and fronts, below the fold, some interesting glimpses into the senator’s personal style. Kerry is, among other things, “restless,” “a relentless polisher,” “a diligent greeter,” “an avid and able athlete,” and “chronically and unapologetically late.” One veteran aide, entertainingly, details the habits of various presidential candidates during plane flights: Dukakis read policy papers; Clinton told stories; John Glenn, a former astronaut, flew the plane. Kerry? He talks on the phone.

The NYT also reports on opposition to a Texas law, passed in 1997, that guarantees college admission to the top 10 percent of the graduating class of any public or private high school. The law, which was an attempt to avoid a race-based system, and which spurred similar measures in California and Florida, is being attacked by some wealthy parents whose children have been denied acceptance to the University of Texas at Austin. Opponents of the law argue that some high schools are better than others, and students who finish in the top 25 percent at a high-performing school are more deserving than those who finish in the top 10 percent at a lower-performing one. It seems likely that the law will be changed, since many—including Gov. Rick Perry and the president of UT Austin—don’t think it has worked as intended. But it’s far from clear what kind of alternative would satisfy everyone.

And in the NYT Book Review, novelist Jonathan Lethem considers “Dylan’s Visions of Sin,” in which Oxford Professor of Poetry Christopher Ricks argues that the man who gave us “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” belongs in the company of Blake, Whitman, Tennyson, and Eliot. Lethem thinks Ricks has “set, almost single-handedly, the course for the future of ‘Dylan Studies.’ ” His largely positive review is well worth checking out, even for NYT readers who caught the paper’s profile of Ricks earlier in the week, which covered much of the same ground.