The New York Timesand Los Angeles Times lead with the Justice Department's terrorist roundup in Oregon -- four native-born U.S. citizens were arrested yesterday (one in Michigan), accused of plotting to assist al-Qaida in the aftermath of Sept. 11. The arrests, along with yesterday's guilty plea from shoe bomber Richard Reid and sentencing of John Walker Lindh (both stories folded into the LAT lead), prompted John Ashcroft to label Friday, "A defining day in America's war against terrorism." The Washington Post, which off-leads the Oregon arrests, leads with the latest on the sniper attacks in the D.C.-area. Yesterday, a ballistics report confirmed that the gun that killed a man in downtown Washington D.C. Thursday night was the same one used in a series of long-range executions that started in Maryland the night before.
The papers run through the complicated case against the Oregon group, which also includes two yet-to-be-found accomplices. According to the indictment, the six began paramilitary exercises in the summer of 2001, but didn't get any specific ideas until after Sept. 11. A month after the attacks, five of the six headed to Asia, apparently with the idea of crossing into Afghanistan, while the lone woman in the group stayed behind to coordinate. Evidence suggests none of them made it across the border into Afghanistan, and in recent months at least three (now in custody) returned to United States. The FBI is still looking for the other two, an American-born citizen and a Jordanian thought to be overseas.
The NYT starts to chip away at the significance of the "Oregon 6" in its ninth paragraph, reporting that "even some law in law enforcement" doubt that the group posed a serious threat. Later in the story, a law professor expresses concern that these arrests – like other recent Justice Department busts – rely on guilt by association, the assumption that an association with al-Qaida is equivalent to terrorist activity. A Justice Department official reminds the paper that in this case, that's a fairly safe assumption.
The WP lead reports that authorities are now investigating a possible connection between the Maryland and D.C. killings and a woman shot at long range yesterday outside a Virginia shopping mall. If connected, the Virginia incident would represent a troubling expansion in the stalking area of the gunman. The shootings began Wednesday when a bullet missed a store clerk in Wheaton, Maryland, presaging five separate single-shot killings in a 24 hour-period.
The NYT reports that so far, the only evidence that ties in the Virginia case is its "seeming randomness." And the WP says it's too early to tell whether the bullet recovered is in good enough condition to be matched. With little to go on right now, the D.C police are left to tell the papers that the person or (less likely, authorities say) people responsible could grow more careless in future attacks.
The NYT stuffs (and everyone else fronts) a Los Angeles jury's decision that Philip Morris has to pay $28 billion in punitive damages to a 64-year-old woman with lung and liver caner. The award, which surpasses the previous record for an individual plaintiff nine times over, will almost certainly be reduced on appeal and is just as certainly bad news for the tobacco industry. One silver lining for Philip Morris: A law professor tells the LAT that the absurdity of the sum may end up working in the industry's favor, forcing Congress to step in and address the "lottery quality" of recent tobacco lawsuits.
"As far as the factual basis is concerned, I done this," Reid told a judge in open court on Friday. The LAT reports that Reid readily acknowledged his plot to blow up an airplane, disputing the charges against him only once. When told his plea covered using a destructive device during a crime of violence, Reid corrected, ""I admit I used a destructive device in an act of war," to which the judge replied, "very well." Reid's plea was not part of a deal with prosecutors – he surprised them with it this week -- and it remains to be seen whether he will cooperate with investigators.
In contrast to the "surreal" (LAT) nonchalance at the Reid trial, John Walker Lindh wept all throughout the 14-minute speech he made at his sentencing hearing, where he received 20 years in prison as part of a deal made with federal prosecutors. The NYT write-up says in its first graph that Lindh, "stopped short of apologizing for anything other than causing his family so much pain," while the WP and LAT see fit to call his speech "an apology." Lindh may not necessarily have been sincere, but his language was hardly Clintonian: "I have never supported terrorism in any form, and I never will. . . . I made a mistake by joining the Taliban. Had I realized then what I know now, I would never have joined them."
All three papers front news on Iraq. After meeting with White House officials, the chief U.N. weapons inspector stated that inspections should not resume until Iraq has made "a clear declaration of what they have." He also lobbied for stern consequences if Iraq fails to comply. The move, explains the NYT, places significant added pressure not only on Iraq, but on France and Russia – the permanent Security Council members most anxious about U.S. plans for war.
The WP goes inside with Trent Lott's statement that the nomination of Miguel Estrada is "virtually dead." Congress is set to adjourn without a hearing on Estrada, whose conservative credentials have put him at the center of controversy since his nomination 17 months ago.
And finally, the WP's "White House Journal" comes to the rescue of Presidential diction. At a fundraiser yesterday, Bush explained, "When your economy is, kind of, ooching along, it's important to let people have more of their own money (emphasis added)." Nothing wrong there. Ooching, the paper informs the unseaworthy among us, is a sailing term: It refers to an ungraceful but handy maneuver to put a stopped boat back in motion.