Coalition of the Willies

Coalition of the Willies

Coalition of the Willies

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
March 17 2004 5:43 AM

Coalition of the Willies

The Los Angeles Times leads with President Bush's limited success in urging countries that have troops in Iraq not to drop out. Honduras, whose soldiers in Iraq rely on Spain for logistical support, announced it will pull its 370 troops by this summer. The Times says El Salvador and Guatemala, which also lean on Spain for support, might do the same. Bush also met with the Dutch prime minister and tried in vain to get him to promise not to withdraw his country's force. USA Today leads with another two civilians killed in Iraq—Europeans engineers—and highlights the shift in attacks toward civilians. Two Iraqis traveling with the engineers were also killed. Also yesterday, an Iraqi translator and three policemen were killed in separate attacks. The New York Times leads with a catch-all on President Bush's campaign, noting that he's focusing on war and terror this week. The Washington Post's top non-local story says that with various GOP-centered ethics scandals percolating in Congress, good-government types are bemoaning and some Democrats are seriously regretting the deal they made with Republicans back in the 1990s not to launch ethics probes against each other. The House ethics committee has essentially been mothballed by the informal agreement. "The ethics oversight process in the House is completely paralyzed," said one Republican who now heads a nonpartisan watchdog group. The Democratic House leadership has opposed reinvigorating the ethics committee.

The LAT says that with Spain's change, and with the impending transition of sovereignty in Iraq (for which a plan has yet to be completely mapped out), the administration has in "recent days" warmed up again to the idea of getting the U.N. more involved. "That's one area where we're hoping to get progress that would make people feel under less pressure," said an unnamed administration official.

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A Page One piece in the NYT details the U.S. military's practice of paying civilians and their families who've been wounded or killed by American forces in Iraq. And how many civilians have been killed or wounded? "We don't keep a list," said a Pentagon spokeswoman. "It's just not policy."

A tough front-page piece in the Post says Spain's outgoing government was "at least selective in releasing information" about which group it thought was to blame for the Madrid bombings. Immediately after the blasts, the government began insisting that Basque terrorists were behind it. "There is no doubt that ETA is responsible," said a government minister at the time. Prime Minister Aznar had called top journalists repeating that line. He "courteously cautioned me not to be mistaken, ETA was responsible," said one editor. The Post waits until the sixth paragraph to drop the bomb: "Sources familiar with Spanish intelligence services said the CNI, the National Intelligence Center, had suspected al Qaeda from the beginning." Yesterday's NYT noted that top European officials "felt misled" by Aznar and others. Meanwhile, Spanish TV stations appear to have reported that some intel officials threatened to resign because of the spinning.

The NYT, meanwhile, goes inside with the conventional wisdom, "SPAIN GRAPPLES WITH NOTION THAT TERRORISM TRUMPED DEMOCRACY." Except the story itself doesn't support it: In "interviews with scores of Spaniards of both parties" people said they voted Aznar out "not so much out of fear of terror as out of anger against a government they saw as increasingly authoritarian, arrogant and stubborn. The government, they said, mishandled the crisis."

On the investigation front, officials confirmed El País' report that they're looking for five Moroccan men in connection with the attacks. And the Wall Street Journal says investigators are focusing on a preacher who may have inspired the attackers. Mohamed al-Fazazi is already serving a 30-year stint for having incited the men behind last year's attacks in Casablanca. A German investigator described him as "a spiritual arsonist."

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Everybody reports that Pakistani troops operating near the border with Afghanistan got into a firefight with Islamic militants. According to Pakistani officials, at least eight soldiers were killed along with an estimated 24 militants. While most of the papers leave it at that, the NYT digs deeper and suggests things were much worse than the official story, with 18 soldiers missing. According to the Times, there was a six-hour fight after troops tried to arrest some suspected al-Qaida men and instead found themselves surrounded by about 500 well-organized militants. "Their level of training and resilience has surprised us all," said one local official. Compare that to the near-press-release coverage in the Post's wire story. Too bad the Times didn't even tease this story on Page One.

USAT teases above-the-fold and others go inside with a non-partisan poll suggesting that the view of the U.S. abroad continues to go down. "We've never seen ratings as low as this for America," said the poll's director, who has been conducting similar surveys for 20 years. The poll also found increased support in many Muslim countries for suicide bombings. Eighty-two percent of Jordanians, 40 percent of Moroccans, and 41 percent of Pakistanis said such attacks could be justified.

The LAT and WP front news that the Department of Health and Human Services inspector general will investigate allegations that back when the drug bill was being debated last year the then-head of Medicare threatened to fire the agency's top actuary if he disclosed analyses that had projected costs much higher than the publicly available numbers. HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson ordered the investigation and said it will look into both the allegations about the threatened firing and whether any numbers were withheld. Judging from the papers, both allegations are at least partially true: The LAT says at least one higher estimate was in fact "not shared with Congress." And the Post says that the former head of Medicare acknowledges that he told the actuary (in jest, he explains) that the actuary might be canned if he shared the higher numbers.

Even the WSJ editorial page gets huffy about the apparent Medicare numbers game: "We ought to have the right to expect our officials to argue in good faith." Slate's Tim Noah details this and other examples of the administration's "war against empiricism." 

Meanwhile, the only reason the Medicare threat and info withholding have become an issue is that Knight Ridder detailed them. Yesterday, the chain struck a different target: the media. KR unearthed a summer 2002 letter from Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress that listed 108 news stories in which the exile group placed their now almost completely debunked defector tales. Though the defectors' tips were "hotly disputed by intelligence professionals at the CIA, the Defense Department and the State Department," just about every major news outlet ran with them, including, as the KR story notes, some Knight Ridder papers. Given the New York Times' past penchant for INC snuff, the Times might want to ponder the merits of that kind of self-investigation.