Bottomless Pitt

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Nov. 1 2002 5:40 AM

Bottomless Pitt

The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal lead with the three separate investigations that have been launched into Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Harvey Pitt and his choice of William Webster to head up the SEC's new accounting board. (The WSJ tops its worldwide newsbox with a reefer to its front-page story.) Webster once served as a director on the auditing committee of a company that has been accused of fraud and poor accounting practices. He informed Pitt of that fact in advance of the SEC's vote last week to approve him as head of the new board, but Pitt didn't pass the information along to his fellow commissioners. The Washington Post leads with the murder charges filed against sniper suspects John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo in Baton Rouge, La. USA Today leads with a story the U.S. intelligence community's current thinking on al-Qaida and its threat to the U.S.: suicide operatives working in very small, independent groups.

Everybody says Harvey Pitt is in deep trouble. The NYT reported yesterday that Webster told Pitt that he had served on the auditing committee of U.S. Technologies, and that he had fired the company's outside accounting firm after it had expressed concerns about the company's "financial and accounting infrastructure." But Pitt withheld the information from his fellow commissioners, who voted last week to appoint Webster to head up the SEC's new accounting board, which was created in response to the wave of corporate accounting scandals (everybody gives the NYT credit for the scoop). Now the SEC's inspector general, the General Accounting Office, and the Senate Banking Committee are all launching inquiries into the debacle. The WSJ and NYT both report that Pitt's four fellow commissioners demanded an investigation when they read the story in the NYT, and that Pitt pre-empted them by issuing a statement calling for an investigation into himself (the release was later modified to reflect the fact that all the commissioners supported an investigation). Pitt says he didn't tell the commissioners about Webster's past because his staff looked into it and found nothing untoward. The WSJ—which, of all the papers, is hardest on Pitt—points out that similar accusations emerged against John Biggs, Webster's rival for the job, and that none of the commissioners were informed about those accusations, either.

The WP says prosecutors in John Allen Muhammad's hometown of Baton Rouge, La., have charged him and Malvo with the September murder of a Korean immigrant outside of the beauty parlor where she worked. Investigators there have matched a bullet used in the homicide to the Bushmaster rifle found in Muhammad's car when he and Malvo were arrested in Maryland. The prosecutors suggest that the motive for the murder was robbery. The NYT, which fronts the story, says prosecutors in Baton Rouge are also looking into Muhammad and Malvo as suspects in another late September shooting at a gas station—witnesses said that the shooter, who used a rifle, was accompanied by three other men. The NYT also says that the police are now investigating possible links between Muhammad and Malvo and unsolved shootings in seven states.

USAT, citing unnamed intelligence officials, says the next generation of al-Qaida attacks against the U.S. is likely to be relatively simple suicide attacks, rather than the elaborately orchestrated operations of Sept. 11. Officials say al-Qaida is more decentralized than ever and that operatives are likely to consist of groups of two or three acting independently. The story also says that U.S. agents are currently tracking more than 1,000 people in the U.S., including citizens, visitors and permanent residents, suspected of having links to terrorist groups, and that the FBI has increased its surveillance on mosques.

The LAT fronts Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's expected appointment of hard-liner Shaul Mofaz as his new defense minister. Mofaz, a former army chief of staff, would replace Labor Party leader Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who resigned earlier this week. The LAT says Mofaz takes "an even harder line toward Palestinians" than Sharon himself, citing a well-known incident in April when Mofaz was caught on an open microphone privately urging Sharon to expel Yasser Arafat. But the paper doesn't explain how that makes him more tough than Sharon, whose response to the entreaty was, "I know, I know."

The NYT fronts a detailed account of the capture of al-Qaida operative Ramzi Binalshibh in Karachi, Pakistan, last month. The piece says Karachi, a city of 14 million, has become a new base of operations for the terrorist group, which is taking advantage of both the anonymity the teeming city offers and the sympathy of many of its inhabitants. Binalshibh, the story says, didn't go without a fight: When Pakistani police officers raided his apartment, he and his compatriots threw grenades and fired rifles at them during a two hour stand-off. When his gun jammed, he threw kitchen knives, forks, and a pan at officers before finally surrendering.

The WSJ fronts its "Weekend Journal" with an in-depth investigation into the quality of water on airplanes. While most water served in flights is bottled, the tap water and lavatory water stored in tanks is often crawling with bacteria and even insect eggs—and when the bottled water runs out, flight attendants often serve tap. So, think twice before you brush your teeth in an airplane bathroom. The WSJ credits the investigation to a 13-year-old kid from California who decided to test airplane water as a science experiment. Watching the bacteria grow in petri dishes, he told the WSJ, "I got fairly grossed out."

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