The Washington Post leads with word that the CIA, four months before President Bush's State of the Union address, asked the British government to drop claims from its intelligence dossier that Iraq attempted to buy uranium in Africa. According to the paper, which quotes a "senior administration official," the Brits refused, citing their own intelligence. USA Today's lead picks up on Secretary of State Colin Powell's defense of Bush's use of the Africa claim and cites a source that says the CIA "was so leery" of the intel that it asked that it be credited solely to British intelligence. The New York Times leads with the set-up of Iraq's postwar government, expected to commence this weekend. The "governing council" will be made of at least 21 members and will include Kurds, Shiites, Sunnis, Christians and Turkmen. The Los Angeles Times' top story says that the U.S. may pledge some of Iraq's future oil and gas revenue to secure reconstruction loans for the country—even before a new government is in place to sign off on the deal.
Powell's comments yesterday—delivered at a press conference that was originally meant to highlight U.S. initiatives in Africa—marked the Bush administration's first lengthy defense since admitting the uranium allegation was false. But as USAT notes, Powell's comments not surprisingly raised more questions than answers about the intelligence failure.
According to the WP, the CIA considered the Africa report to be "sketchy." Furthermore, administration officials have never been provided with the source of Britain's information, which apparently was provided by an unidentified "third country." Early drafts of Bush's speech, however, included a mention of the uranium claim but did not initially source the British government for the information.
While USAT says the CIA successfully pressed for the Brits to be sourced, CBS News takes that one step further, noting that CIA analysts specifically warned the administration that the claim was false and shouldn't be included in Bush's speech. Citing "senior administration officials," CBS says the White House argued that as long as the statement was attributed to the Brits, it was factually accurate.
While everybody has different versions of what exactly happened, today's write-ups are a good scorecard on how the blame game will work. The WP's piece seems to suggest the White House's plan will be to blame Britain for the screw-up. USAT, meanwhile, blatantly notes "an emerging White House strategy of suggesting that the CIA, which was shown Iraq-related portions of Bush's speech, could have objected to the uranium charge." Whether or not the CIA did object depends on which unnamed source you believe today, it seems.
Meanwhile, the NYT goes inside with word from across the pond that senior aides to British Prime Minister Tony Blair now doubt that weapons of mass destruction will be found in Iraq. The story, which sources a BBC report, says the British government believes the weapons once existed, but were "dismantled or hidden beyond discovery before allied troops entered Iraq in March."
According to the NYT, the appointment of an interim Iraqi government was put on the fast track because of increased postwar hostilities against U.S. soldiers in the country. In an attempt to deflect criticism over the slow pace of reconstruction, the group will have more power than first envisioned, the WP says. Yet ultimate authority will still rest with the U.S. and the Brits until a government is elected. When that will happen is anyone's guess, the papers note.
The LAT's lead says the proposal to essentially "mortgage" Iraq's oil to pay for rebuilding the country has about a 50-50 chance of being approved. The plan--proposed by the Export-Import Bank and endorsed by companies like Halliburton, who want to cash in on rebuilding—has drawn opposition from a wide swath of interests, including the State and Treasury departments, who worry that should Iraq not make future payments on what it could borrow, U.S. taxpayers might end up holding the bag. Others, meanwhile, worry about the effect on already fragile Iraqi-U.S. relations.
In related word, two more U.S. soldiers were killed in Iraq yesterday, raising to 32 the number of GIs killed by hostile fire since May 1, when President Bush declared an end to major hostilities. * Meanwhile, Gen. Tommy Franks told members of Congress yesterday that U.S. forces might be in Iraq for years, the LAT reports.
Also on the Hill yesterday, congressional Republicans blocked Democratic attempts to block President Bush's controversial re-write of overtime rules. Under the proposed rules, anyone earning less than $22,100 a year would qualify for overtime if they worked more than 40 hours—an increase from the current level of $8,000. But businesses would also gain new authority to exempt those deemed to hold "positions of responsibility" from extra pay.
Ralph Nader tells the NYT that he might seek the presidency again in 2004, possibly as a candidate for the Green Party or as an independent. His decision will rest on the fortunes of Dennis Kucinich and Howard Dean, two Democratic contenders whose politics "closely resemble his own."
USAT fronts and everybody else stuffs details on a new federal study that says writing skills among elementary and high school students haven't shown great improvement. According to the study, only one in four high school seniors and fewer than one in three students in the fourth or eighth grades can write stories "proficiently." But some critics say the study's expectations are "too high," while others questioned the way the tests are graded. They are "scored by $7-an-hour temps who spend, at most, 30 seconds on an essay," one critic tells USAT.
Finally, the WP's Dana Milbank writes up some risky business that occurred on the president's motorcade safari tour of Africa yesterday. While President Bush and family looked on, a pair of elephants felt the urge to engage in what some natives might describe as some hot jungle lovin. First daughter Barbara Bush shielded her eyes, while President Bush turned to cameras and smiled sheepishly, Milbank reports, and when it was all said and done, the first family applauded the performance. Later, Colin Powell was asked if the pachyderms' behavior was in-sync with the administration's goals for the day. "The elephants were on message," Powell replied. "We were all on message."