Everyone leads with what little news could be wrung from President Bush’s 53-minute presser yesterday morning, in which he gave an uncharacteristically frank assessment of the situation in Iraq, a characteristically upbeat assessment of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and sidestepped many other questions.
The papers’ news conference lead stories are pretty much interchangeable, down to the use of the word “sober” to describe Bush’s Iraq comments. Everyone notes his shocker admission that progress there is “mixed” when it comes to training Iraqi troops. “They’ve got some generals in place and they’ve got foot soldiers in place, but the whole command structure necessary to have a viable military is not in place,” Bush said. “No one can predict every turn in the months ahead, and I certainly don’t expect the process to be trouble-free. Yet I’m confident of the result. I’m confident the terrorists will fail, the elections will go forward.”
Both USA Today and the Washington Post tout their own polls showing that a majority of the American public doesn’t exactly share that confidence: 51 percent told USAT’s Gallup poll that they now disapprove of the decision to go to war and 56 percent told the WP/ABC survey that the war was not worth fighting. In addition, both surveys say 52 percent of Americans think Rumsfeld should resign.
But, as everyone notes, Bush at least temporarily halted the Rumsfall, declaring his strong support for the SecDef and defending his general goodness. “You know, sometimes perhaps his demeanor is rough and gruff, but beneath that rough and gruff, no-nonsense demeanor is a good human being who cares deeply about the military and deeply about the grief that war causes.” (Rummy, for his part, defends himself in a USAT op-ed.)
The best account of the conference comes inside the WP, from Dana Milbank, who focuses on Bush’s amusing rationale for refusing to answer substantive questions about his proposal to privatize Social Security. “Now the temptation is going to be … as we run up to the issue, to get me to negotiate with myself in public,” Bush explained. And when the LAT’s Ed Chen later tried to get some details by pointing out that Bush had already, ahem, negotiated with himself by ruling out benefit cuts for retirees and near retirees, Bush was unmoved. “Yeah, well, that’s going to fall in the negotiating-with-myself category,” he said.
Milbank also notices an interesting trend: This marks two news conferences for Bush in as many months. Is he finally warming to the task?
The Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and WP all front some nice investigative reporting … by the ACLU, which has FOIA’d its way into yet another cache of documents describing the torture of military detainees at Gitmo and in Iraq. (The ACLU also scooped the papers on Dec. 8, when it released an earlier set of torture memos, yielding stories in the WP and NYT.)
In this case, FBI memos and e-mails running through August of this year offer first-hand accounts of the torture—including, the WP points out, the use of growling dogs to intimidate Gitmo prisoners, despite Pentagon denials of such treatment there. One FBI “Urgent Report” from June gives a witness’s account of “serious physical abuses” of prisoners in Iraq, including “strangulation, beatings, placement of lit cigarettes into the detainees’ ear openings and unauthorized interrogations.” In July, an agent told his superiors that interrogations he had witnessed were “not only aggressive, but personally very upsetting.”
Citing only “officials,” the Post says at least some of the FBI memos were written after agency headquarters requested first-hand accounts of abuses. The motive, naturally, was CYA; some of the documents allege that military interrogators were impersonating FBI agents. “DOD interrogators will not be held accountable because these torture techniques were done [by] the ‘FBI’ interrogators,” an agent moans in one e-mail. “The FBI will be left holding the bag before the public.”
In other torture news, the WP buries a short AP wire piece noting that a Navy SEAL was acquitted of charges that, in November 2003, he beat a hooded and handcuffed Iraqi prisoner, Manadel Jamadi, who later died in Abu Ghraib from his injuries.
Everyone picks up news that another anti-inflammatory painkiller—this time one that’s sold over-the-counter as Aleve—could increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Following similar revelations for Vioxx and Celebrex, federal drug officials did a quick review of an ongoing NIH study of the drug’s benefits for Alzheimer’s disease and discovered, to their surprise, that it increased the risk of heart attack or stroke by 50 percent over those who took placebos. Now, officials aren’t ruling anything out; other common anti-inflammatory drugs, like Advil, might have similar affects.
The WP notes that, for the eighth year in a row, the Congressional organ formerly known as the General Accounting Office (now, the Government Accountability Office!) found the U.S. government’s record keeping so abysmal that it could not verify whether it meets generally accepted accounting practices.
Now that the intel bill has passed, the former members of the 9/11 Commission plan to start their uphill-to-vertical battle lobbying Congress to reform itself, according to the NYT. They’re urging legislators to streamline their now tortured oversight of intelligence and homeland security. The commission’s report notes, for example, that 412 of 435 House members and all 100 senators have some kind of jurisdiction over the Homeland Security Department.
Wack-job … A botched security drill at an enriched uranium stockpile in Tennessee almost led to fatalities, the NYT reports, after a “shadow” security team with loaded guns rushed “intruders” carrying laser tag equipment. “For two minutes, it was mass confusion,” said one of the guards on duty that night. “People asked several times, ‘Is this a drill?’ Nobody would clarify.” It’s not the only lapse there either: Drills were suspended a couple of weeks later when guards who were practicing loading and firing their weapons using blanks accidentally discharged a live round through a wall and into a refrigerator in the next room. Although the stockpile is a government facility, its security is provided by a private contractor, Wackenhut, which the paper says is responsible for security at about half of the country’s nuclear power plants.