The New York Times leads with Israeli Prime Minister Sharon's rejection of President Bush's request that Israel stop building a security fence enclosing the West Bank. The Washington Post leads with, and the Wall Street Journal goes high with, President Bush's rejection of Saudi Arabia's request to declassify the 9/11 congressional report's 28-blanked-out pages, which reportedly refer to the kingdom's potential connections to al-Qaida. USA Today leads with statements from the Pentagon and State Department that the military is "closing in" on Saddam. Officials told the paper they think Saddam is traveling around in disguise with a few bodyguards—look for a guy with beard, say intel officials. The Los Angeles Times leads with the California's Assembly approval of a compromise budget, ending a month-long deadlock. As the LAT emphasizes, the deal, which the state's Senate passed a few days ago, doesn't really solve the state's massive deficit. Instead it relies heavily on borrowing and rolls over at least $8 billion of the deficit until next year. According to the paper, the deal includes "neither the new taxes nor the deep reductions in government services that fiscal analysts had recommended."
Sharon and Bush met yesterday at the White House, after which Bush publicly expressed support for most of Sharon's moves, except for the fence, some sections of which divide towns and cut miles into the West Bank. The barrier has support in Israel across the political spectrum. The LAT says Bush was tougher during his meeting with Sharon. "The U.S. did not see eye to eye with Israel, neither on the fence, neither on the settlements," said one unnamed Israeli official. (That, of course, could be spin.)
Meanwhile, USAT's front-page teaser on the meeting headlines the surface spin: "SHARON, BUSH IN 'USEFUL' TALKS." Sure, the scare-quotes suggest skepticism, but why not just say what actually happened?
"PALESTINIANS DETER ATTACKS, OFFICIAL SAYS," according to a piece inside the NYT. And which official is claiming that Palestinian security forces are doing a good job? The head of Palestinian security forces. Perhaps the headline should have hinted at that.
President Bush said declassifying the 9/11 report's blanked-out section about Saudi Arabia would "reveal sources and methods" and thus "would help the enemy." As the papers all note, both Republican and Democratic legislators who've seen the report have said they don't buy that.
Everybody notes that during the White House meeting with Saudi officials, administration officials asked the Saudis to make available for questioning a government employee who had been hanging out with two of the 9/11 hijackers shortly before the attacks. None of the papers explore an obvious issue: The man's connection to the hijackers has been known for at least the better part of a year. Is this the first time that the White House has pushed the Saudis for access to the guy?
The very end of the NYT's Saudi piece—the 29th paragraph for the numbers-conscious—includes something that deserves more attention. According to the reference, "law enforcement officials" (active in the investigation?) back up the Saudis' complaints that the congressional report is, to borrow a phrase, sexed up. As the Times paraphrases the criticism, "It portrays the possible links between the hijacking plot and officials of Saudi Arabia as clearer and more direct than is actually known."
The NYT's Page One Iraq wrap-up says there were 60 or so raids by troops yesterday, netting 175 suspected Saddam supporters. (The LAT says there were only 29 detainees.) The LAT also says two more bodyguards were captured. According to a military spokesman, Saddam is "not staying in any one place more than a few hours at a time."
As the WP's Iraq wrap-up emphasizes, another tape apparently made by Saddam was broadcast yesterday, this one vowed revenge for the killing of Odai and Qusai—in other words, the tape acknowledged that the brothers are dead.
The Post also notes that the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council, after a "heated debate," elected a leadership committee yesterday of nine members. The WP emphasizes that all but one of those leaders is a former exile or Kurd. The Iraqi National Congress, led by the controversial Ahmad Chalabi, nabbed six of the seats. The LAT focuses on the council's divisions, noticing that they tried and failed to agree on a single leader. The NYT gives the council vote three sentences.
Everybody follows up on yesterday's stuffed Post report about a possible new hijacking plot. As the papers all note, officials aren't sure whether the threat is legit. The WP, which top-fronts its update today, adds some context, noting that the threat comes just as the Transportation Security Agency, facing a budget crunch, is laying off security screeners and other personnel. According to an e-mail the Post nabbed, one official TSA ordered some air marshals to skip some flights, due, he wrote, to "monetary considerations."
The Journal notes that Pakistan is backing down from its earlier suggestions that it would send troops to Iraq. It now says it wants a U.N. mandate or at least a request from an organization of Islamic states. Meanwhile the paper's editorial page crows, "THE COALITION GROWS." The WSJ also briefly mentions that Pakistan has been lobbying the U.S. to double the size of the international force in Afghanistan. No mention of the U.S. response.
The LAT says inside that plans for peacekeepers in Liberia has hit a snag over money. The U.S. is offering the West African force $10 million. But Nigeria, which is supposed to lead the troops, says the countries need more help.The Post mentions the money issue in passing. The papers say hundreds of Liberians have been killed in the past week as fighting has intensified.
The papers mention inside that the nominated Army chief of staff said yesterday that the Army needs to grow. "I'm going to take a little risk here and I'm going to tell you that, you know, intuitively I think we need more people," he said during confirmation hearings.
In the Department of Unsurprising Developments, the Pentagon announced yesterday that it's canceling plans to open a futures market that would have allowed bets on Mideast events. For those of you who dilly-dallied yesterday and didn't visit the project's Web site, too late, it's already down.
The Post's Al Kamen notes that security guards rushed to close the Department of Agriculture's cafeteria Friday. No, terrorist weren't threatening to hit the USDA. Mice already have. According to Kamen, the place was shut down after inspectors found abundant evidence of rodent operations: Droppings were found "in the dry storage room, by the salad bar, behind the ovens, near the serving line, and behind the soda machines."