Mixed Grill

Mixed Grill

Mixed Grill

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
March 24 2004 4:42 AM

Mixed Grill

Everybody leads with the public testimony from Clinton-era and Bush White House officials in front of the 9/11 commission, which also issued "staff" reports criticizing both administrations' efforts against al-Qaida.

The reports accused the Clinton administration of having pulled its punches against al-Qaida.  Multiple military plans to try to take down Bin Laden and Co. had been axed for being too aggressive. In one instance, officials scratched a planned cruise missile assassination attempt of Bin Laden after hearing that a United Arab Emirates' prince was also hanging around at the Afghan camp to be hit.

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Most of the papers also portray the reports as backing up former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke's assertions that the Bush administration wasn't focused on AQ before 9/11. According to one of the panel's reports, SecDef Rumsfeld and his staff were "not especially interested in the counterterrorism agenda." That despite the fact that one commission member who has seen the president's 2001 daily intel reports said they show "an extraordinary spike" of intelligence warning about al-Qaida attacks during 2001 and that "it plateaued at a spike level for months." (Here's a Slatearticle urging Bush to share those briefings more widely with the commission.) Soon after taking office, the White House began a review of the Clinton-era approach to AQ and came up with a new policy seven months later, just before 9/11.

Both Clinton and Bush officials bristled at the panel's Monday morning QBing. Explaining why the U.S. hadn't made a move against AQ-before 9/11, say invading Afghanistan, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said, "Diplomatic backing would have been virtually nonexistent." Current Secretary of State Powell agreed. "To put it mildly," he said, "the situation was delicate and dangerous."

The New York Times emphasizes that Rummy came in for particularly pointed questioning. "What made you think, even when you took over and got these first briefings, given the history of al-Qaida and its successful attacks on Americans, that we had the luxury even of seven months before we could make any kind of response?" asked one Republican panel member.  

Everybody notes inside that at least 11 Iraqi police and trainees were killed in two attacks in northern and southern Iraq. Also, Baghdad's Sheraton hotel, home to many journalists and contractors inside the protected Green Zone, was hit by a rocket. Nobody was injured, and there was only minor damage. But a piece inside the Los Angeles Times notices that an increasing number of attacks inside the Green Zone are causing casualties. "When you put it all together, it's a little startling," said one unnamed coalition official. "In the past, people would just joke about the attacks because they never hit anything." The Times adds that in a previously undisclosed attack, an Iraqi electrician was killed in a mortar attack inside the Green Zone last Thursday.

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The LAT and NYT front Hamas' naming of one if its biggest hardliners to replace the assassinated Sheik Yassin."In agroup defined by its extreme positions," the NYT says Dr. Abdel Aziz Rantisi "is known as the leader who makes the most vitriolic statements and opposes any compromise." Rantisi objected last year when Hamas declared a cease-fire.

The Washington Post says inside that President Bush seemed to back away from the State Department's criticism of the assassination. The paper emphasizes Bush's comment that Israel has a "right to defend herself from terror." Bush also said the "attacks were troubling." Note the plural.

The WP off-leads and others front a report from Medicare trustees concluding that the program is set to run out of money in 15 years—seven years sooner than last year's projection. The trustees blamed soaring health care costs as well as the White House-endorsed prescription drug bill Congress passed last year. The outlook for Social Security remained essentially unchanged. The report was prepared by the government actuary who an administration official threatened to fire if he released his cost estimates on the pill bill.

Citing an advocacy group's latest annual study on gays in the military, the NYT announces inside, "STUDY SAYS DISCHARGES CONTINUE UNDER 'DON'T ASK, DON'T TELL.' " That buries the lead: As the third paragraph mentions, the military had the lowest number of such discharges in nine years. The WP gets it: " 'DON'T ASK' DISMISSALS DROP IN WARTIME."

The Wall Street Journal's Capital Journal columnist Gerald Seib says the Richard Clarke-fueled debate about the White House's approach to Iraq and AQ is too fuzzy: "The issue isn't whether President Bush was secretly plotting to invade Iraq even before terrorists struck on Sept. 11, 2001. He almost certainly wasn't, as a look back at the time indicates. The real issue is the Bush turn to war against Iraq some time after Sept. 11. Confusing the two scrambles what should be the most serious debate of this election year." As Seib notes, whatever Bush said in the hallways in the days after 9/11, the White House had actually adopted a go-slow approach to Iraq before attacks (to the frustration of neo-cons). And of course, immediately after Sept. 11 Bush invaded ... Afghanistan. Seib continues:

So Iraq came later. And that's where the real debate ought to begin. Was it a mistake after 9/11 to devote the nation's treasure and blood to Iraq when al-Qaida seemed the bigger threat? Was it honest to link Iraq to the war on terrorism at all? Or were the real reasons for going after Saddam Hussein a belief that he was a thug and a destabilizing force in the region—reasons that should have been debated more openly?