The New York Times leads with a scoop: a classified National Intelligence Estimate prepared for President Bush in late July says that Iraq could descend into civil war by the end of next year—a far more pessimistic outlook than the Bush administration has been pushing publicly. USA Today and the Washington Post lead with—and everyone else fronts—Hurricane Ivan, whose eye made landfall just east of Mobile, Ala., early this morning, killing at least seven people, after forcing the evacuation of more than 2 million. Although hurricane-force winds extended 105 miles from the storm's center, New Orleans was spared a catastrophic direct hit as citizens hunkered down in the Superdome. The Wall Street Journal tops its world-wide newsbox with Sen. John Kerry's new attacks on President Bush's credibility, in which he brandished a new rhetorical barb: the "excuse presidency." And the Los Angeles Times leads with "human errors" and a major software glitch that caused a Southern California air-traffic radio system to shut down for several hours Tuesday, leading to major airborne havoc and five midair close calls.
Although the Iraqi intelligence estimate in the NYT lead was officially approved by the interim CIA director and other intel chiefs during a July meeting, a NSC spokesman shamelessly tried to dismiss it. "In the past, including before the war to liberate Iraq, there were many different scenarios that were possible, including the outbreak of civil war," he told the Times. "It hasn't happened. The Iraqi people continue to defy the predictions of pundits and others." Of course, he probably meant to say: pundits, intel agency directors, and others.
Meanwhile, in Iraq itself, a recent tide of violence continued to swell, with the NYT and LAT reporting that U.S. soldiers discovered three decapitated bodies on a highway north of Baghdad yesterday, their heads strapped to their backs. While reports say the men were Arab, both Timeses mentions the grotesque fact that at least one of the bodies was covered in tattoos. As the LAT points out, Arabs rarely sport tattoos. Elsewhere in the country: Early morning wire reports say that gunmen seized two Americans and a Briton as hostages; a suicide car bomb killed two outside an Iraqi National Guard post south of Baghdad yesterday; fighting continued to rage in the Sunni stronghold of Ramadi, to the west, where eight civilians died; and the American military announced that two Marines have been killed in action since Tuesday.
An American general took journalists on an overnight tour of the kinder, gentler Abu Ghraib, and the NYT dutifully serves up a sunny piece on the U.S. effort to clean up operations there. "You would be surprised at how far a can of orange soda would go," said the officer who oversees interrogations. The paper also mentions that prisoners have been moved from the old cell blocks to two newly constructed encampments: Camp Liberty and Camp Redemption. (Note to Pentagon: Absurdly heavy-handed naming conventions are not helping your image problem.)
The WP reports that the chief prosecutor in the military trials of alleged al-Qaida fighters at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has—in an unexpected turn—joined defense lawyers in asking the tribunals' presiding officer to step down because of conflicts of interest. "From the beginning, the [Pentagon] prosecutors have said, wait till we get there [to the tribunals] and you'll see how fair it all is," said the lawyer for Osama Bin Laden's alleged chauffeur. "In retrospect, they've realized it wasn't fair."
In Afghanistan, the LAT, NYT, and WP all note that an Afghan court sentenced three Americans to as many as 10 years in prison for allegedly running a private jail and torturing their inmates. The Americans, however, claim they were merely freelancing for the Pentagon and were abandoned after the Abu Ghraib revelations made them a political liability. "I [expletive] apologize for helping to save" Afghanistan, one defendant told the packed courtroom. "We should have let the Taliban murder every [expletive] one of them."
The WSJ fronts an interesting piece on Shamil Basayev, the Chechen warlord thought to have orchestrated the violent hostage massacre in Beslan, Russia, earlier this month. Apparently, he didn't always wear a green headband, pray five times a day, or call himself "Allah's slave." According to a former KGB informant who worked with Basayev, he "was a Communist Youth member and a romantic." His idol was Che Guevara. The paper says that the evolution of the Chechen cause is a sign of a disturbing trend: "Radical Islam has mutated into something akin to communism in the past—a convenient, off-the-shelf ideology that can clothe complex local conflicts that few would care about otherwise." (Subscription required.)
The CBS/Dan Rather docu-drama (or memo-wreck?) rolls on! The papers all report that Rather now admits that some of the memos might be forgeries, but reiterates that the substance of the story is true. Some say Rather's days are numbered; the Post's story reads almost like an obit. Meanwhile, the Post and NYT speculate that the memos in question may have been leaked by retired Texas National Guard officer Bill Burkett, who lives just 21 miles from the Kinko's where one of them was supposedly photocopied.
The NYT reports that there's not been much of a surge in demand for formerly banned assault weapons since they became legal again on Monday (although one man in Utah bought all 15 Colt M-4 rifles stocked by the Totally Awesome Guns and Range). The main effect, gun-store owners say, has been the reduction of prices, as they anticipate a growing supply. "I've got a gun at home I paid $1,600 for," one man told the Times. "It's worth $800 now, thank you very much."
And the papers all front or reefer Martha Stewart's surprise announcement yesterday that she'd like to start serving her five-month sentence ASAP, rather than waiting for her appeal to wind its way through court. One colleague, told about Stewart's intentions a few days ago, asked her why. "She said, 'Well,' and then she counted on her fingers and said, 'I could be back in time for planting season.'"