Everybody leads with the beheading of American contractor Friday by a group of militants in Saudi Arabia calling itself al-Qaida of the Arabian Peninsula. Hours later, Saudi security forces reported they had fatally shot the leader of the radicals and at least two others. The three were all well-known terrorists, according to the Arab satellite channel Al Arabiya. The group, who had kidnapped the American, Paul Johnson, six days earlier, posted three graphic photos of his decapitated corpse on the Internet. A statement accompanying the pictures threatened all Americans. President Bush denounced the killers while traveling in Fort Lewis, Wash. “America will not be intimidated by these kind of extremist thugs,” he vowed. None of the papers file from Saudi Arabia. The Los Angeles Times and New York Times have Cairo datelines while the Washington Post’s story is out of Berlin.
A front-page NYT story reveals the Sept. 11 commission’s major correction to a widely held belief in Washington that Saudi officials funded al-Qaida. In 2002, a congressional committee reportedly conducted a study that reached the opposite conclusion. The new report, based on 19 months of interviews and broader reviews of classified documents, concludes there is “no evidence” the Saudi government gave money to Osama Bin Laden’s group. But it does note that Bin Laden “found fertile fund-raising ground” in Saudi Arabia.
The Post fronts the International Atomic Energy Agency’s formal rebuke of Iran yesterday, criticizing the government for failing to cooperate with investigators looking into its nuclear program. The United Nations agency’s statement was critically worded, but it does not suggest penalties or deadlines.
Everybody fronts details from former President Bill Clinton’s highly anticipated autobiography, My Life, which won’t be released until Tuesday. The papers say the former leader is frank about his personal faults, including those related to his affair with Monica Lewinsky. The NYT got a copy from an unnamed bookstore and provides the most specifics about the book’s contents, calling it “sprawling, undisciplined and idiosyncratic in its choice of emphasis.” The WP cites “advisers who have read the book” while the LAT relies on details revealed during a recent public appearance by the author. Clinton’s publisher, Knopf, has vigorously tried to stop leaks from the memoir, going so far as to send a letter to the Associated Press—who also obtained an advance copy and reported on it yesterday—contending that the wire service had violated copyright laws.
The NYT, alone among the papers, fronts Roman Catholic bishops’ approval of a statement Friday that classifies politicians supporting abortion rights as “cooperating in evil.” Though the bishops didn’t explicitly say that such legislators should be denied Communion, the option of withholding the sacrament was left available.
The NYT reports that the heads of the Sept. 11 commission asked Vice President Dick Cheney Friday to provide evidence to back up the administration’s claims that Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida had a close relationship. This followed a Thursday interview Cheney gave to CNBC where he acknowledged he may know things about the alleged connection that the panel doesn’t know. In its lead editorial, the NYT chimes in: “Show Us the Proof.”
The Sept. 11 panel also said Friday that it plans to privately question CIA Director George J. Tenet and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice again before assembling its final report on the attacks, due next month.
Everybody mentions Russian President Putin’s statement Friday that Russia gave the White House reports indicating that Saddam Hussein was readying terrorist attacks against Americans—but Reuters is reporting that State Department officials have never heard of these reports. The Post finds a senior U.S. intelligence official who’s also unaware of “any specific threat information.” A Russian political analyst said the timing of the statement was likely meant to help Bush win re-election: “We’ve always had good relations with Republicans. We dislike Democrats, because Democrats always care about democracy in Russia,” she told the LAT.
The NYT scores an interview with Shimon Peres, Israel’s Labor Party leader, who set conditions under which his party would join Prime Minister Sharon’s government. Noting he would be more specific with Sharon than with the media, Peres did say the country’s evacuation of the Gaza Strip must be negotiated with the Palestinians, a time table must set for the move, and the West Bank’s future must be resolved immediately.
Putting their differences aside (at least for the moment), Bush and Sen. John McCain made two public appearances together yesterday to play up their unity and cool rumors that the Arizona senator will become Sen. John Kerry’s running mate.
Also in campaign news, Kerry called for raising the federal minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7 an hour by 2007, a 36 percent increase.
The White House confirmed that counsel Alberto Gonzales testified yesterday before the federal grand jury looking into the Valerie Plame leak, according to the WP.
The Post fronts an explanation for the evacuation of the U.S. Capitol on June 9: A “communication failure” between Federal Aviation Administration officials and air defense officials tracking a plane taking the governor of Kentucky to Ronald Reagan’s funeral caused the chaos. Homeland Security and Defense officials ordered two fighter jets and a Blackhawk helicopter to intercept the plane because they didn’t know the FAA controllers had been in touch with the plane for at least 40 minutes after having determined it was not dangerous. The Capitol Police called for an evacuation, which resulted in a “frantic exodus.”