The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal worldwide news box, and USA Today lead with Attorney General Ashcroft's terror warnings. Citing "credible intelligence from multiple sources," Ashcroft, said "al-Qaida's specific intention is to hit the U.S. hard," probably in the next few months. The government did not go to orange. Ashcroft, appearing with the FBI director, also showed photos of six men and one woman who they believe might be connected to al-Qaida. As USAT says up high, the seven aren't linked to any specific threat and aren't believed to be working together. The Los Angeles Times goes above the fold with the alert but leads with a federal appeals court upholding Oregon's assisted suicide laws. In a harshly worded decision, the court shot down Ashcroft's attempts to punish doctors who prescribe lethal doses to terminally ill patients: "The Ashcroft directive not only lacks clear congressional authority, it also violates the plain language of the Controlled Substances Act, and fails to follow explicit instructions for revoking physician prescription privileges.'' The New York Times also leads with the court ruling but raises its eyebrows on the alert and just teases it on Page One.
A few FBI types did appear to back up Ashcroft's alarm bells. "There are some pretty credible threats, one in particular," one just-retired top lawman told the LAT. But some in the administration, notably Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge, suggested that the warnings were less driven by new information than by prudence. "A lot of the analysis points to the fact that al-Qaida is likely to be emboldened because of the Madrid rail bombing and the fact that event changed the election there," one G-man told the Journal.
"There's no real new intelligence, and a lot of this has been out there already," one "administration official" told the NYT. "There really is no significant change that would require us to change the alert level of the country."
The papers mention inside that three Marines were killed somewhere near Fallujah. (The Marines, as is their practice, released little information.) Everybody notes inside that U.S. forces arrested cleric Muqtada Sadr's top aide, who is wanted in connection with the murder of a cleric last year. There was also heavy fighting in Najaf, where GIs reportedly killed about 20 of Sadr's militiamen. According to the NYT, the military said GIs had 21 separate firefights with Sadr's militia in Baghdad alone. Still, there continue to be reports of an impending deal between Sadr and the U.S.
The NYT says the military hasn't gleaned much intelligence from prisoners at Abu Ghraib. "Most of our useful intelligence came from battlefield interrogations, and at the battalion, brigade and division-level interrogation facilities," said one intelligence officer. Apparently, it wasn't that prisoners were unwilling to talk; it's that they didn't have strategic information about the insurgency. Even so, prisoners languished. "There was a sense when someone was sent down there, they went into a black hole and never came out," said one current general. Another top officer explained, "No one wanted to be responsible for releasing the next Osama bin Laden."
The Post makes an important point, stuffed on Page A-14: The Pentagon's various abuse investigations are a patchwork, all limited in scope and none tasked with examining top commanders or Pentagon official's decisions. There are also potential conflicts of interest. For instance, the general charged with investigating military intelligence's possible role is also the Army's second ranking intellligence officer, meaning he is in the chain of command he's investigating. "I really doubt whether the Defense Department can investigate itself, because there's a possibility the secretary himself authorized certain actions," said a retired four-star Army general who once headed an inquiry. "This cries out for an outside commission to investigate."
In other Iraq news—culled from brief mentions inside the papers—the police chief of Baquba, north of Baghdad, was murdered, as were two Russian contractors and two Iraqis after gunmen fired on a bus. Another police chief north of Baghdad was also targeted by a roadside bomb. He survived, but five others were killed.
Everybody notes that the scientist expected to be named as Iraq's interim president has turned down the gig. It's unclear why.
The WP fronts word that the White House recently told government agencies that if President Bush is re-elected, they should prepare for budget cuts. As detailed in a White House memo, the proposed cuts don't add up to much—$2.3 billion—but hit a wide swath of programs, from nutrition to homeland security. The biggest proposed cut, $1.5 billion from the Department of Education, would all but erase an increase this year that the administration has widely touted.
The Post off-leads word that Sen. John Kerry popped his own trial balloon and will in fact formally accept his party's nomination during the Democratic convention. Kerry had thought about delaying the acceptance until the Republican convention because the candidates won't be allowed to continue raising money after they accept the nomination.
As the LAT's Ron Brownstein notes that Kerry is being squeezed on Iraq with Bush moving closer to him and Democrats away, the NYT off-leads some Dem operatives kvetching that Kerry won't take a strong stand. But there may be change on the horizon: Over the next 11 days, Kerry will give a series of bold speeches on national security and foreign policy. According to the Post, "none will deal directly with Iraq."