Commission: Failure

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
July 23 2004 6:24 AM

Commission: Failure

Exhaustive coverage of the 9/11 commission's long-awaited final report dominates the front pages of the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today. The WP devotes all its space above the fold to the 567-page report. The NYT'sfive-column-wide photograph of the bipartisan panel is about as large as front-page art gets. The report also tops the Wall Street Journal's world-wide news box.

The 9/11 report assails the government for its failure to combat the al-Qaida threat and recommends what the WP calls "perhaps the most dramatic restructuring of U.S. government in half a century." Much of the content of the report had been dribbled out in leaks over the last week and many of its findings (such as the lack of evidence for a link between Iraq and al-Qaida) had been foreshadowed in earlier interim reports. The panel's most major recommendations—the creation of a Cabinet-level national intelligence czar and a national counterterrorism center—had already been broadly outlined by the newspapers. However, the document still held a number of surprises.

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Each of the papers plays up a different previously unknown detail. A front-page piece in the LAT highlights new information about the role played by Khalid Sheik Mohammed in dreaming up the 9/11 attacks. Apparently Mohammed, who is in U.S. custody, wanted to pilot one of the planes himself and land it somewhere in the U.S., where he would then kill all the men on board and make a speech about American Middle East policy (presumably to the women). Bin Laden vetoed that part of the plan. Another revelation, which the WP picks up: Mohammed might have canceled the 9/11 attacks had he learned of "20th hijacker" Zacarias Moussaoui's arrest a month earlier.

The report also details what exactly went down in the cockpit of United Flight 93  just before it crashed into an empty field in Pennsylvania. The cockpit voice recording suggests that the hijackers purposefully piloted the plane into the ground, having judged that the passengers were only seconds away from overtaking them. According to the NYT, the now famous rallying cry "Let's roll!" may have actually been "Roll it!"—a reference to a food cart that was used as a battering ram against the cockpit door.

The WP's lead says that for the sake of bipartisan unanimity the panel ducked some tough questions, like whether the Bush or Clinton administration was more blameworthy and whether the war in Iraq has made the U.S. safer. The report spreads the blame for 9/11 around pretty evenly, citing failures by just about every government agency that had anything to do with terrorism.

One of the WP's two analysis pieces reads like a book review, praising the report as "a document of historic sweep and almost unprecedented detail" with "the meaty feeling of a history that will endure." The NYT also comments on the report's unusual tone for a government document, noting that the "dramatic, often gripping narrative style" in places "resembled a paperback thriller."

The NYT's front-page analysis piece predicts that the report is unlikely to bring about rapid reforms in Washington. Too many interests—the Pentagon, the CIA, Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge—have vocally opposed the report's sweeping intelligence reforms. "Some of the initial political and bureaucratic response to the commission's findings and recommendations sounded suspiciously like business as usual," reports the NYT.  Meanwhile, Sens. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and John McCain, R-Ariz., say they will propose legislation to enact the panel's recommendations.

The LAT's analysis focuses on the commission's decision not to disband but rather to spend the next year traveling the country in bipartisan pairs urging the enactment of their proposed reforms. The article suggests the roving commission members will be a "new and unpredictable factor" on the election year political landscape. Who benefits? Kerry has supported a national intelligence director, and Bush, at least until now, hasn't. So, according to the LAT, advantage: Kerry.

Everyone fronts yesterday's release of the Army inspector general's report on prisoner abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan. The report blames 94 alleged cases of abuse on the unauthorized action of a few "aberrant" individuals and concludes that the incidents were not indicative of any widespread problems. The NYT is quick to note that the report's conclusion, which essentially absolves the Army of systematic failures, is contradicted by a number of issues raised in the report, including the insufficient training of prison guards, the shortage of experienced interrogators, and a "less than ideal command climate." All the papers point out that the report was presented to the Senate Armed Services Committee at a hastily scheduled hearing. While the WP doesn't dwell on this fact, the NYT and LAT report that some Democrats believe the Army may have been trying to bury the report beneath news of the 9/11 commission's findings.

The NYT and USAT front (and the WP reefers) yesterday's announcement that Ma Bell is retiring from the consumer long-distance business and no longer plans to market its services to residential customers. Though it won't leave its current costumers off the hook, AT&T says it will now turn its efforts to winning over corporate users.

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