Third Act Trouble

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Oct. 27 2002 5:01 AM

Third Act Trouble

The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times lead with the dramatic end to the standoff in Moscow, where Chechen rebels had been holding 750 Russian theatergoers hostage. Russian troops gassed the theater, killing almost all of the rebels and many of the hostages. The New York Times leads with the battle for control of the Senate. Many key races are too close to call, and the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., has intensified the uncertainty.

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The accounts of the Russian raid are horrifying: At dawn on Saturday morning, Russian troops pumped an unidentified incapacitating gas into the theater, blew a hole through a wall with explosives, and stormed the room. Everybody says that many, if not most, of the civilian casualties were caused by the gas; several hostages choked to death on their own vomit. The precise death toll is still unclear: The NYT says at least 67 of the hostages died, while the LAT and the WP both say at least 90. As for the terrorists, everybody says 50 were killed; the NYT suggests that four were captured alive. The LAT says one Russian official blamed the high death count among the hostages not on the gas, but on "heart conditions, stress, depression, hunger" and other factors. Only the WP reports what seems like a crucial detail: At least some of the militants were shot and killed after the gas had rendered them unconscious.

The LAT and the WP both break out separate stories on the gas. The WP says it was probably an aerosol form of Valium or a Cold War-era sleeping gas (developed by the United States) called BX. Either way, the WP says, the gas used is in all likelihood banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Russia signed in 1997, and which experts say outlaws any gas that is incapacitating for extended periods of time. The LAT favors a nerve gas like Sarin or VX as the culprit, citing an unnamed U.S. government scientist who says the Russians probably thought, incorrectly, that they could deliver a nonlethal dose.

The NYT leads with a story that's hair-raising in its own right: The two major parties, anticipating razor-thin victory margins in several key Senate races across the nation, have begun assembling teams of election lawyers and preparing for a post-election battle that could determine control of the Senate. One Republican lawyer tells the NYT that many states could have outcomes that are, like Florida's in 2000, within the margin of error. The Democrats are planning to dispatch 10,000 lawyers to key states to monitor polling places for irregularities. The NYT story notes, as does the WP, that former Vice President Walter Mondale will likely take Wellstone's place on the ballot.

The NYT off-leads with a lengthy tick-tock of the sniper investigation. The story offers little new information, but it does answer one burning question: Why did Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose cancel his scheduled press briefing on the evening that the alleged culprits were identified, and why did he then wait for hours after the news networks had broadcast the names of suspects John Muhammad and John Lee Malvo before confirming the information to the press? It turns out that Moose had been planning to announce the names at 6 p.m. that evening, but delays in securing the arrest warrant prevented him from doing so. The story also refers to the note left by the sniper near the Ponderosa Steak House shooting scene (the NYT says it was four pages long; it was, in fact, three pages), and says that, though the note asked authorities to contact the sniper at a telephone number at 6 a.m. the next morning, they didn't do so because there was "a problem with the number that had been provided." If you read the note itself, though, it's clear that the sniper wasn't asking the police to call him—he was instructing the police to go to a pay phone at a Virginia Ponderosa and await his phone call.

The WP fronts a bio piece on John Muhammad that buries the lead—twice. The piece recounts Muhammad's troubled life, waiting until the 50th paragraph to reveal that, in October 2001, the Rev. Al Archer, who ran a homeless shelter where Muhammad lived in Bellingham, Wash., called the FBI to tell them that he was concerned that Muhammad was a terrorist. Muhammad's frequent air travel, which Archer found odd for a homeless man, raised his suspicions. But that's not all: Forty-five paragraphs later, the WP tells us that in June 2002, yet another acquaintance of Muhammad's, Harjeet Singh, told a local police officer in Bellingham that Muhammad had made statements approving the Sept. 11 attacks and talked about blowing up a gas tanker on the highway. The officer returned with an FBI agent, but Singh says the men didn't believe him.

The WP goes inside with President Bush's frustration over his current diplomatic efforts to get authorization for war against Iraq and to isolate North Korea until it abandons its nuclear program. The White House is beginning to acknowledge the possibility that the U.N. might not authorize force against Iraq—the NYT reports that France is prepared to offer its own resolution that doesn't do so—and the president is irritated that Japan, China, and South Korea have not condemned North Korea as strongly as he had hoped for pursuing nukes. Bush is showing signs of the strain—the WP says that, at a press conference in Mexico, where he is attending an economic summit, Bush "glowered" at the press and "looked annoyed," and became infuriated when someone's cell phone rang.

The WP fronts its "Style" section with a profile of James Bunosky, the campaign manager for former Rep. James Traficant. Traficant, who was convicted in April of racketeering and bribery and was expelled from the House in July, is serving an 8-year sentence in federal prison. And he's running for his old seat in Ohio. His incarceration, stunningly, doesn't necessarily disqualify him from serving. Bunofsky, a substitute teacher who's never met Traficant aside from a 30-second phone call from prison, says the media focuses too much on the negative when it comes to his candidate. Traficant, who's running as an independent, is polling at between 10 and 15 percent right now. One local journalist, though, says Traficant could do better: "He never polls well because no one admits they're going to vote for him."