Today's Papers

Hell, No, They Won’t Let Go

According to early morning reports, there was a massive bombing at an Iraqi Army recruiting center in Baghdad, killing dozens and wounding more than 100. Also, three soldiers were killed and about 20 wounded in a rocket attack 50 miles north of Baghdad.

Everybody leads with the 9/11 commission endorsing some conclusions that have mostly been previously reported: The Los Angeles Timesand Washington Postheadline the commission’s finding that al-Qaida originally considered a more ambitious series of attacks using 10 planes, but Osama scaled it back, deciding it was too complex. The New York Timesand USA Todaygive more weight to the panel’s conclusion that while Saddam’s agents did meet with al-Qaida at least once, in the mid-1990s, the two sides don’t appear to have worked together.

According to the commission’s staff reports, the Sudanese government, wanting to suck up to Saddam, arranged a meeting in 1994. At the time, Bin Laden actually supported an anti-Saddam Islamist group. Osama stopped his support for that group and, according to the report, “is said to have requested space to establish training camps, as well as assistance in procuring weapons, but Iraq apparently never responded.” The papers don’t really get into that Sudanese connection, and if you have a few minutes, read the two staff reports themselves. They’re remarkably short and well-written. 

As the NYT notes, the administration response strategy was to “deny any real differences with the commission.” Officials insisted, creatively, that the commission only shot down the theory that Saddam was involved in 9/11. The staff reports state that while there “have been reports of contacts between Iraq and Bin Laden … they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship.”

Most of the papers point out right up high that earlier this week, Vice President Cheney said Iraq had “long-established ties with al-Qaida,” an assertion President Bush defended. Asked by Reuters whether Cheney will recant, one unnamed administration official responded, “Hell no!

According to a recent poll mentioned by NYT, 57 percent of Americans believe that Saddam gave substantial support to al-Qaida.

The commission also tried to kill the never-say-no theory that Mohammed Atta met an Iraqi spy in Prague. As the staff reports note, a few days before the supposed meeting, Atta was caught on a security camera in the U.S., and his cell phone was used in the U.S. right before, during, and after it. For those keeping score, this is the same meeting Times columnist Bill Safire once termed, “an undisputed fact.”

The Post goes up high with the hands-on role the commission says Osama played. He purportedly picked all 19 hijackers. But the NYT says some government agents doubt that story and think it’s coming from al-Qaida detainees who, afraid of torture, are trying pin things on their boss. The Wall Street Journal notes the panel said its conclusions aren’t definitive, partly because the administration won’t let them interview al-Qaida detainees.

Among other tidbits mentioned in the report: As the Journal flags, al-Qaida appears to have worked with Hezbollah and might even have collaborated with them on the 1996 attack on the Saudi Khobar Towers. Also, some Taliban officials as well as al-Qaida commanders were against the attacks, fearing that the U.S. would invade Afghanistan. And there was apparently infighting among the hijackers, and one of them—who liked to party—came close to pulling out.

Yesterday’s TP noted the lack of coverage over the disclosure that top Iraq commander Ricardo Sanchez ordered a suspected top guerrilla hidden from the Red Cross. Now the NYT off-leads and others say inside that the order didn’t originate with Sanchez; it came from one Donald Rumsfeld, at the request of CIA Chief George Tenet. The Army’s Taguba report called hiding prisoners “deceptive, contrary to Army doctrine, and in violation of international law.” The papers note that soon after the prisoner was hidden, the Army lost track of him for months. (The Rummy connection was broken by NBC News.)

The NYT teases on Page One Muqtada Sadr formally ordering his fighters to stand down. Sadr has been invited into the political fold, and the U.S. now seems OK with the idea. 

The LAT goes high with a piece detailing just how screwed up the prewar intelligence was. There are more instances of the CIA relying on spies it never vetted. And then there are the photo analysts who repeatedly mistook poultry sheds for Scud sites. “We inspected a lot of chicken farms,” said one former inspector, who noted that his team recently made memorial T-shirts: “Ballistic Chicken Farm Inspection Team.” The multi-hydra piece also notes that top weapons searcher David Kay wasn’t exactly welcomed when he arrived at CIA headquarters in December saying there wasn’t anything to find: He was put in “a tiny office far from the executive suites, without a working computer,” says the Times. “I heard about meetings after the fact,” said Kay. “It was like a bad novel.”

Most of the papers mention President Clinton’s coming 60 Minutes interview. Asked how he felt about the impeachment, Clinton said, “I stood up to it and beat it back. The whole battle was a badge of honor. I don’t see it as a stain.” He means …