The New York Times, USA Today, and Los Angeles Times lead with the hurry-up scheduling of the first court-martial against an American soldier in connection with the torture scandal at the Abu Ghraib prison. The trial begins May 19. The Wall Street Journal tops its world-wide news box with an Iraq catchall that emphasizes both the court-martial and the Bush administration's "circling the wagons" around Donald Rumsfeld. The Washington Post stuffs the court-martial, fronts a couple pieces on the still-spiraling prison torture scandal, and leads instead with the assassination of the pro-Russian president of Chechnya. A powerful explosion tore a gaping hole in the bleachers of Grozny's Dynamo Stadium, killing the president and at least seven others, according to stories the NYT off-leads and the LAT and USAT front.
Courts-martial are rarely secret, the NYT informs us, but the U.S. aims to make this one a major media moment, staging it inside the "cavernous" Baghdad Convention Center and actively soliciting the Arab press. The LAT points out, however, that some Iraqis are already "outraged" that the accused will not face an Iraqi court.
The papers all note that Army Spc. Jeremy Sivits—one of seven soldiers charged with abuse so far—will face only a special court-martial, which means he'll be exposed to less harsh penalties than if he were facing a general court-martial. "Some slack is being cut here," an outside military law expert explains in the Post. "It may be," the same random guy continues in the NYT, "that they are going to use him as a witness and use him to hammer other people." The WP also notes that a special court-martial can be set up more quickly than a general one, leaving the reader to deduce that PR considerations might be at play, too.
As with other accused soldiers, Sivits' friends and neighbors say the "well-liked" 24-year-old is a scapegoat and was ordered to participate in the abuse. That line of defense gains credibility, however, in this must-read article from yesterday's Baltimore Sun, the first TP has read in which military intelligence officers have actually come forward to say their colleagues more or less instructed MPs like Sivits to torture inmates. "I have an obligation to the Army, and I have an obligation to follow my orders," one of the anonymous whistle-blowers said, referring to written orders not to speak to the press. "I also have an obligation to be a decent person and do what's right and to do what I can to get the truth out." (None of the papers pick up the Sun piece today, but TP sincerely hopes they'll give the story its due in coming days.)
Regardless of the source, the "systemic-problem" meme is gaining momentum on the "bad-apples" one in the papers' abuse coverage. For example, the WP fronts the reaction to a disturbing new series of photographs in which military German shepherds attack a naked and visibly terrified inmate at Abu Ghraib. The photos, which all the papers mention, were first turned over to The New Yorker's Sy Hersh, who describes the lot in his second nausea-inducing feature in as many weeks. Hersh also reports that military intelligence officers wearing "sterile" uniforms (no ID or insignia) systematically encouraged abuse. In response, the WP quotes Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., saying on NBC's Meet the Press, "[I]t's clear to me that we had systemic failure," and, "[W]e just don't want a bunch of privates and sergeants to be the scapegoats here."
The search for a pattern also leads both the WP and USAT to front Abu Ghraib-bag stories on the history of abuse at the infamous prison. (The Post's is the second in a three-part series; the NYT ran its 4,000-word prison backgrounder yesterday.) To its credit, USAT's piece has some great details buried in it: As the WP reported yesterday, SecDef Rumsfeld set up a system after 9/11 requiring Pentagon authorization, and sometimes personal approval, for the, ahem, "coercive interrogation" of high-value prisoners. USAT talked to two civilian Pentagon officials, a high-ranking military officer, and a U.S. intelligence official before concluding, despite Pentagon denials yesterday, that this system "continues to be followed in Iraq, indicating a level of hands-on control of what was going on in the field far beyond what Rumsfeld has publicly described."
Tony Blair apologized yesterday for the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by British soldiers, and promised an inquiry. Even so, the WP reports that a growing chorus is demanding that Blair release a Red Cross report detailing British abuses. The NYT and LAT say some members of the Labour party are even asking for Blair's resignation over the unpopular war, and details from the Red Cross again land on the WSJ's front page (subscription required).
The papers' Chechnya stories are all filed from Moscow, so the accounts are boringly similar: The assassination is a blow to Vladimir Putin, who hand-picked the Chechen autocrat and then helped him win office last October with a farcical 80 percent of the vote. The killing leaves a deadly power vacuum in the country, which is already torn by rival clans, separatist guerrillas, and a citizenry disgruntled about Moscow's failure to deliver peace or prosperity. After Putin announced that the Chechen Prime Minister would temporarily assume the presidency, the Post says the new prez went on TV but was so freaked that he could hardly breathe.
The WP, alone, fronts word that Moqtada Sadr's black-clad Madhi Army seized Baghdad's massive Sadr city slum yesterday morning, attacking a police station, blocking traffic, and setting up checkpoints. Meanwhile, the NYT goes inside with a new Fallujah-like plan for Shiite leaders to recruit a civil-defense force for southern Iraqi cities like Najaf and Karbala. The paper also reports that that Fallujah is calming down—there hasn't been a violation of the cease-fire there for days. The leader of the Fallujah Brigade ventures that the foreign jihadis have left. One Marine agreed: "The big dogs are gone," he said.
European cryptographers have figured out what intelligence service was blacked out of the Aug. 6, 2001, PDB: Egypt's. By determining the font of the PDB (Arial) and then counting the number of pixels in the blacked-out passages, scientists were able determine what words could possibly have been written in that exact space. Among seven possible matches, cryptographers ruled out "Ukranian" and "Ugandan" as implausible.
Download no evil ... Although the Taguba report on the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib is publicly available all over the internet, it still remains officially classified, much to the consternation of Senate staffers who rushed to download it last week, only to be told they were not allowed to do so, according to the WP. A staffwide e-mail to the Senate Armed Services Committee tried vainly to put the cat back in the bag:
Mike asks that if you have downloaded a copy of the classified report from the NPR website, please call OSS and advise them, and they will come by your office and pick it up.