Semper Bye

Semper Bye

Semper Bye

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
April 21 2003 4:59 AM

Semper Bye

The Washington Post leads with word that China acknowledged that it has vastly underreported the number of SARS cases. Officials said Beijing itself has 340 confirmed cases of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, ten times what has previously been admitted to. Top officials, looking for someone to blame, effectively sacked the minister of health and the mayor of Beijing, stripping them of their Communist Party posts. The Wall Street Journal, which goes high with the story, says there are another 400 suspected cases in the capital. The Los Angeles Times leads with President Bush's soothing words to Syria. "It seems like they're beginning to get the message," he said. The administration recently and repeatedly accused Syria of letting former Iraqi officials in. But in the past week, Syria's president has promised to keep an eye out for any such officials and has begun to crack down on illegal entries. The New York Times leads with word that the Marines have completed their pullout from Baghdad, leaving control of the city to the Army, which is keeping "a much lower profile" and hasn't done much civic-affairs work yet. The Post, which goes inside with the withdrawal, says that the pullout "sharply reduces" the number of troops in Baghdad. USA Today leads with the surrender of one of Saddam's sons-in-law and the capture of the former minister of higher education and scientific research; the men were ranked 40th and 54th respectively on the U.S.'s list of wanted Iraqi officials.

The Post calls yesterday's layoffs and admission of a cover-up China's "most significant political shake-up" in more than a decade. "This is the spark many of us have been waiting for," said one dissidentlike official.  But the Post and other papers also say that the two are just scapegoats. The WP says that both the president and premier of China "approved the cover-up."

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A front-page piece in the Post says the Shiite clerics who want the U.S. to get out of Iraq quickly have some new intellectual bed-partners: unnamed senior administration officials. The State Department and Treasury want the U.S. to stick around in some form or another for years so that it can transform Iraq into a free-market, democratic nation. But others, mainly in the Pentagon, think that the U.S. should just try to patch things up and skedaddle."It's not because we're doing it on the cheap," explained one anonymous official, "but because we don't want to have an overbearing presence there that can damage the longer-term view of the United States in the Arab street."

In a curious, but potentially big-impact piece, the NYT's Judith Miller reports on Page One that an Iraqi scientist has told a U.S. military WMD-hunting team that Iraq had plenty of chemical and biological weapons, but destroyed them a few days before the war. The scientist, who Miller wasn't allowed to interview but was allowed to see at a distance (he was "clad in nondescript clothes and a baseball cap") showed the team where a bunch of barrels filled with what "proved to be precursors for a toxic agent that is banned by chemical weapons treaties." Citing military sources, the article also says up high that the scientist contended that Iraq was in fact cooperating with al-Qaida. (Much farther down, Miller says "it's not clear" how the guy would have known that.)

As part of the deal to report on the chemical-hunting unit, Miller agreed to submit a draft of her article "for a check by military officials." Miller says the officials, trying to protect the unnamed scientist from retribution from Saddam leftovers, requested that the names of the actual chemicals uncovered be stricken from the piece. The NYT agreed. That may have been the right move, but it's potentially an important omission: Aren't pre-cursors to some chemical weapons also the basic ingredients for things that have commercial applications? Also, while most of the article forwards some officers' contentions that they've found a smoking gun, the last paragraph quotes the division commander on the scene saying, "work must still be done to validate the information."

A front-page piece in the NYT says that, now that the war in Iraq is over, administration officials are getting back to other much-neglected business, like arguing about how to deal with North Korea. Secretary of State Powell, with the apparent support of President Bush, wants to use aid, or the threat of cutting it off, to convince Pyongyang to stop fooling around with nukes. But a leaked Pentagon memo—which may or may not have been endorsed by SecDef Rumsfeld—suggests trying to team up with China to bring down, by non-violent means, the Dear Leader and his government. 

The Post gives the second and final installment of its Page One above-the-fold mini-series on the potential proliferation problems of South Africa's abandoned bio-weapons program. As Today's Papers mentioned yesterday, the series  is underwhelming. It does show that those who dismantled the program didn't keep track of everything, but then, the weapons themselves don't really seem to constitute much of a threat. This morning's article, "BIOTOXINS FALL INTO PRIVATE HANDS, Global Risk Seen In S. African Poisons" says in its lead that the head of the now-extinct program warned the U.S. about all sorts of crazy cocktails whose development he oversaw, most importantly a kind of "stealth" anthrax that he claimed could fool detection tests. It's not until the 31st paragraph that we learn that, surprise surprise, the dude is shady: He "told extraordinary tales that later turned out to be either fabricated or unverifiable." As for the B2-like anthrax, it exists, but experts say (right up there in the 35th paragraph) that it would actually be detected by the more advanced tests common in the U.S. Nor would the sneaky stuff exactly be a doomsday weapon. "It might make a few goats sick," said one scientist, "but it wouldn't do very well at killing people."

Eric Umansky, previously the "Today's Papers" columnist for Slate, is currently a Gordon Grey Fellow at Columbia University's School of Journalism.