United Nations atomic weapons inspectors said yesterday that Iran, contrary to its past assertions, has been concealing blueprints for a centrifuge capable of quickly creating bomb-quality uranium, according to the lead stories in the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. The discovery indicates an apparent breach of Iran's commitment last October to come clean about its entire nuke program. The New York Times stuffs the Iran revelation and leads instead with a scoop: The Bush administration may support an Israeli proposal for a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, in what would represent a major shift in U.S. policy on the Middle East, which has in the past relied on reciprocal concessions achieved through negotiation. The Wall Street Journal tops its World-Wide news box with an Iraq round-up, including a U.N. envoy's endorsement of direct elections, a story the WP fronts and everyone else runs inside. USA Today leads with its own exclusive on a classified 2002 intelligence study that warned banned Iraqi weapons might never be found after an invasion because of the potential for postwar chaos. Of course, the paper reminds us that, at the time, administration officials were singing a very different tune.
Until yesterday, Tehran had denied the existence of the centrifuge blueprints and only copped to them when confronted with "unassailable" evidence by International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, according to the WP. The LAT reports that there are three weeks until the IAEA's board of governors meets in Vienna and a U.S. State Dept. spokesman said the time-frame represents window for negotiations. "I can't say we're going to charge in and go to the Security Council," the spokesman said, "but that's always a possibility if the behavior of the Iranians isn't demonstrating respect for the I.A.E.A.'s authority."
Israel's proposed Gaza withdrawal is part of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's larger plan to unilaterally sever ties with the occupied territories without negotiating a final settlement or giving Palestinians nearly the amount of land they want. According to the NYT, the U.S. hopes to use its endorsement of the Gaza withdrawal as an incentive push for the eventual resumption of negotiations and some changes to the route of the Israeli security fence that cuts deeply into the West Bank. In related news reported inside the LAT and NYT, Israel announced yesterday that it would not defend the controversial barrier before the International Court of Justice because it does not recognize the court's jurisdiction.
The LAT off-leads and the WP stuffs the Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee's decision yesterday to expand its prewar intel probe to include charges that the White House exaggerated the Iraq threat and pressured analysts to provide evidence that would bolster the case for war. The vote was unanimous and the LAT reports that it appeared some Republican members—including Sen. Chuck Nagel—were prepared to side with the Democrats. According to the WP, however, the decision was a compromise: The probe will not have subpoena power and will be limited to a review of the administration's public statements, reports, and testimony. No date has been set for findings, "but Democrats are likely to push to get the information released well before the November elections," the LAT writes.
The announcement comes at a bad time for President Bush, as the WP fronts its own poll that shows a majority of Americans believe he exaggerated or lied about prewar intelligence in order to make a case for the invasion of Iraq, and only 48 percent still believe the war was worth fighting. The poll also shows that Bush's approval rating has dropped 8 points since January to 50 percent, the lowest level of his presidency. In a hypothetical match-up, Sen. John Kerry beat Bush 52 percent to 43 percent—although Kerry's support was much softer than Bush's.
USAT slugs its intelligence lead, "PREWAR STUDY PREDICTED SEARCH COULD BE FRUITLESS," but the piece isn't quite as damning as that might sound. From the small portions the piece quotes (TP wonders: Why not put everything the sources leaked online?), it becomes clear that the document didn't question the existence of the weapons. Rather, it warned how hard it would be "trying to find multiple needles in a haystack ... against the background of not knowing how many needles have been hidden."
The Financial Times scoops the U.S. papers with the revelation of a confidential U.S. report claiming that the security situation in Iraq is deteriorating badly and threatens the "Balkanization" of the country. "January has the highest rate of violence since September 2003," the report said, citing statistics that showed increases in every category of attack. "The violence continues despite the expansion of the Iraqi security services and increased arrests by coalition forces in December and January."
The U.N. envoy sent to Iraq to evaluate Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's call for immediate direct elections said yesterday that he supported the idea but did not think elections were possible until the security situation improves. After meeting with the ayatollah, the envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, said, "We are with him on this 100 percent because elections are the best means to enable any people to set up a state that serves their interest." The WP, NYT, and LAT's headline writers interpret that statement as backing for the powerful cleric, but USAT paints the possibility of delay the opposite way: "U.N. ENVOY ECHOES U.S. OBJECTION TO EARLY IRAQ VOTE."
The 9/11 investigation commission has finally decided, according to the NYT and LAT, to seek Bush's testimony—as well as that of Dick Cheney, Bill Clinton, and Al Gore. So far, only Al Gore has publicly agreed, but the commission's vice chairman told the NYT that the commission had already "initiated contacts or was in the process of initiating contacts with the two presidents and the two vice presidents, and I believe we are making progress in setting up meetings with them."
The Senate approved a $318 billion transportation bill yesterday—$62 billion more than Bush requested in his proposed budget, according to the WP, NYT, and LAT. The papers, which all run the story inside, report that Bush has threatened to kill the bill despite the veto-proof 72 votes it received. His reasoning? Fiscal conservatism. Without any hint of irony, White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters, "We urge Congress to hold the line on spending."
Broken record … The controversy over whether Bush actually served in the 187th Tactical Reconnaissance Group of the Alabama Air National Guard in 1972 and 1973 marches on as the papers start to track down former guardsmen (and report on the White House's latest batch of embarrassing document disclosures). The NYT goes inside with a piece for which it interviewed 16 retired officers of the unit—the closest anyone comes to confirming Bush's presence is saying, "I remember the name passing in front of me some way." The WP does one better: At the behest of a "Republican close to Bush," the Post talked via telephone with a former officer of the 187th who remembers Bush pulling duty (albeit by reading "magazines and flight manuals") during the time in question. Still, doubts remain. Today's Memphis Flyer quotes other fellow-officers who say they knew a prominent Texan had requested a transfer to their unit and were eager to meet him. "There's no way we wouldn't have noticed a strange rooster in the henhouse, especially since we were looking for him," one officer said, adding that he had always assumed Bush had decided to complete his service at another base.