Today's Papers

Death by Rocket

The Washington Post leads with the killing in Pakistan on Thursday of a senior al-Qaida leader. Pakistani intelligence sources say U.S. operatives killed Hamza Rabia and four others with a rocket fired by an unmanned Predator aircraft. The Los Angeles Times and New York Times reefer the Rabia killing, which they’re not sure was the work of the U.S. The LAT leads with a piece on private security contractors in Iraq. These guns-for-hire have been involved in scores of shootings but have faced no accountability. The NYT leads with the declining number of American children without health-care coverage.

American intelligence officials believe that the Egyptian-born Rabia may have ranked as high as No. 3 in al-Qaida’s hierarchy and would have been responsible for planning large-scale attacks in the United States and Europe. His death, says one U.S. official, is “a major blow” to al-Qaida. But the LAT’s experts are more cautious, arguing that “the killing probably would have a limited impact because al-Qaida has become less a hierarchical organization” since 9/11.

The LAT reports that not one private security contractor in Iraq has faced prosecution despite what it considers a troubling trail of wrongdoing. The Times notes that contractors function in a “legal gray area,” under the oversight of no particular agency and with immunity from Iraqi courts. The paper also paints an admittedly unsubstantiated picture of “chaos on Iraq’s roads,” where private guards often fire recklessly at civilian vehicles. Not until the tail end of the story does the Times tell us that, actually, “it is unclear how widespread the problem is”—military reports on incidents involving contractors “are of limited value because the Pentagon released only a sample.” But they were valuable enough to warrant a front-page story, right?

The NYT credits the “landmark” State Children’s Health Insurance Program (Schip), a federal initiative begun in 1997, along with additional measures taken by states, for the steady decline in uninsured children. The paper notes that states have finally come to the conclusion that covering children is “medically wise and politically smart.” But apparently the same isn’t true of adults—the overall number of uninsured has risen by 6 million since 2000.

The WP off-leads a long piece on a botched rendition carried out by the CIA. Khaled Masri, a German citizen, was abducted in Macedonia and held for five months in a ratty Afghan prison because the head of the CIA’s al-Qaida unit “had a hunch” he was someone else. The story of Masri is not new—he appeared on 60 Minutes back in March—but the Post report is still a compelling read. The paper explains how renditions take place: “Dressed head to toe in black, including masks, [officers] blindfold and cut the clothes off their new captives, then administer an enema and sleeping drugs.” And, more important, the report addresses the debate over whether the agency’s rendition policy is effective. One official tells the Post that there have been “about three dozen” erroneous renditions; others say the number is less.

In another compelling report that reads more like an episode of Prison Break, the NYT revisits the escape over the summer of four detainees from an American military prison in Afghanistan. It turns out that two of the escapees are major terrorists, something the military concealed when announcing the event in July. According to the Times, one of the suspects, Omar al-Faruq, had been labeled by the military as “Al Qaeda’s highest-ranking operative in Southeast Asia.” The Times tracks down a bevy of unnamed military officials to describe the elaborate escape, but it seems to have forgotten to ask them why the Pentagon covered up the severity of it.

The recent surge of attacks in Iraq continued Saturday. A joint patrol of U.S. and Iraqi forces was ambushed in Udhaim, 80 miles north of Baghdad, resulting in the death of 19 Iraqi soldiers. Two Iraqi policemen were also killed in the northern cities of Samarra and Kirkuk. The Post says, unsurprisingly, that the increase in violence threatens the tenuous political truce between the Shiites and Sunnis.

The NYT reports that National Security Council staffer Peter D. Feaver is the reason why the president’s new favorite word when it comes to Iraq is victory—Bush said it 15 times in his speech on Wednesday. In research he conducted while at Duke University, Feaver concluded that Americans would support a war with mounting casualties if they believed it would be successful.

The Times figured out that Feaver was the major player behind the president’s new strategy by examining the usually hidden technical properties of the Iraq strategy document posted on the White House Web site. The properties revealed that the document’s originator was “feaver-p.” How clever of them.

American and European diplomats say they have new evidence—including thousands of pages found on a laptop computer obtained by the U.S. last year—that proves Iran intends to build nuclear weapons.

The NYT and WP report on the release of thousands of documents detailing Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco’s response to Hurricane Katrina. “We need everything you’ve got,” Blanco told President Bush in a memo on Aug. 29, the day Katrina came ashore.

Flaccid sales … On its front page, the NYT reports that once-virile sales of popular impotence medicines have gone south, with the number of new prescriptions falling short of expectations. In an effort to stimulate the market, Pfizer, the maker of Viagra, is planning a new ad campaign featuring the line, “Yet one more reason to give thanks.” But remember, if your gratitude lasts for more than four hours, seek immediate medical help.