Everybody leads with President Bush's interview on Meet the Press, where he defended his tax cuts, economic policies, the decision to invade Iraq, his National Guard service, and intel chief George Tenet. USA Today headlines Bush's reference to the invasion as a "war of necessity." The Los Angeles Times goes with Bush's comment that prewar intel might not have been spot-on after all. The Washington Post emphasizes Bush's apparent surprise at that fact.
After interviewer Tim Russert said it "apparently is not the case" that Iraq had banned weapons, the president said, "Correct." Bush added that Saddam may have moved them, hidden them, or destroyed them just before the war. And anyway, the president added, "Saddam had the capacity to make a weapon and then let that weapon fall into the hands of a shadowy terrorist network." Writing inside the Post, Walter Pincus fact-checks Bush's assertions, noting that former weapons searcher David Kay has said that not only did Saddam likely not have the weapons but at least some of his programs were effectively kaput and had been since the mid-1990s.
Regarding Bush's apparent absence during some of his National Guard service, the president said he did attend and promised to release whatever records still exist, adding that he authorized their release during his 2000 campaign. The Post's Dana Milbank notes, "No such information has been released." (Tip to journalists and the obsessed: Here's a newly posted document that mightshed more light on the issue.)
Apart from the Post's efforts, the interview stories stay in the safe zone and avoid offering (potentially politically touchy) facts that would contextualize misleading comments the president made. Unfortunately, USA Today has a weak sequel to the nice fact-checking feature it did during the SOTU.
The coverage falls into two categories: Quote-laden leads—essentially gussied-up transcripts mixed in with thoughts about the interview's political ramifications—and follow-up analyses that for the most part are as insightful as a Wolf Blitzer column. The New York Times analysis begins: "George W. Bush's goal in stepping down from his presidential pedestal and into the political hothouse of Meet the Press was to frame the election on his capacity to make the tough, unpopular decisions that he thinks are in the best interests of the national security and economic health of the United States."
The LAT's Ronald Brownstein, in a typically sharper take, essentially says that Bush's rigidity isn't going to go over well with voters.
Among the interview items TP didn't see in the coverage: While Bush referred to the "extraordinary cooperation" the White House has given the 9/11 inquiry, commission members have actually fought with the administration over access. According to the upcoming issue of Newsweek: "Commission sources [say] that panel members are fed up with what one calls 'maddening' restrictions by White House lawyers on their access to key documents."
Slate's Will Saletan says the president's performance showed "Bush's Platonic reality"— "if the evidence doesn't fit the conclusion, throw out the evidence."
The Post fronts word from U.S. officials that the White House plans to launch a Helsinki Accord-like bid to promote democracy in Arab and South Asian countries. The Post says details haven't been settled yet, but the plan will probably consist of offering carrots—increased aid, membership in the WTO, etc.—in return for democratic reforms. The Post says European officials are skeptical and hesitant to cooperate. "We've been trying for a while, and efforts at modernization don't easily seep through to politics," said one unnamed European diplomat.
The NYT fronts what seems to be a strategy memo to top al-Qaida officials from an Islamic militant in Iraq, perhaps Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The author complains that Iraqis aren't excited about the whole foreign fighters thing and says U.S. intel has been improving. ("By God, this is suffocation!" he writes.) He then proposes launching attacks against Shiites for which Sunnis might then retaliate: "If we succeed in dragging them into a sectarian war, this will awaken the sleepy Sunnis who are fearful of destruction and death at the hands" of Shiites. The LAT, meanwhile, fronts excerpts from what seems to be a foreign foot-soldier's diary.
The papers mention inside that one GI was killed and three wounded in an attack 20 miles south of Baghdad.
The NYT says on Page One that Iraqi militia groups are stalling on the U.S.'s call to disarm. The Times says that the groups might try to codify the militias' existence in the interim constitution due at the end of the month.
Everybody notes Sen. Kerry's latest win: He took Maine's caucus, with about 46 percent of the delegates; Howard Dean was second with 26 percent. (The numbers are based on 50 percent of the state's caucuses reporting.)
According to the NYT, Israel said it's going to make "minor adjustments" to its planned security barrier, building it closer to the border with the West Bank. Israeli officials are going to present the changed path to the U.S. later this week.
The Times notices inside that one of President Vladimir Putin's challengers in the upcoming elections has disappeared. In the past 18 months, two parliamentarians from the challenger's party have been killed while the party's major patron is in self-imposed exile to escape fraud charges. The piece deals only glancingly with the larger trend: Putin has been undermining many of Russia's democratic institutions. The Post fronted that in December. And in this week's New Republic [sub. required], Masha Gessen reports that the U.S. press has largely missed the story.
Getting the Bird ... The Post's Howard Kurtz reports that Pentagon managers have ordered some negative articles not to be included in the military's daily clipping service, the Early Bird. Downbeat Newsweek and Time stories about SecDef Rumsfeld were both excluded. "It comes down to the fact that they don't like these magazine articles," said one unhappy Pentagon official. (A military spokesman responded that it's just a question of space.) Meanwhile, the clip compilers have been told to actually include some slightly softer articles, such as a Pentagon-penned piece about a soirée for returning vets hosted by Deputy SecDef Paul Wolfowitz.