Atta Sight, Atta Mind?
The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal world-wide newsbox, and USA Today all lead with Iran finally following through on its threats and taking the first steps toward firing up its nuclear program again. That violates a deal Tehran had with European countries who earlier warned that such a move would cause what in the diplomatic world qualifies as swift and harsh retribution: a referral to the Security Council. The Washington Post leads with a former procurement officer for the Iraq oil-for-food program pleading guilty to fraud. Though his extracurricular activities weren't limited to the oil-for-food program, he is the first official to face criminal charges related to that scandal. The official's misdeeds were detailed in a report issued yesterday by the independent panel investigating the program. The panel also concluded that the program's former head did indeed accept kickbacks, worth 150 Gs. The U.N. will likely revoke that official's diplomatic immunity, and the Manhattan District Attorney's office is already gearing up, or least investigating the case.
The WP surprisingly stuffs the Iran development. But it's not a nutty decision. For one thing, unnamed European diplomats told the WP—and the other papers—that despite their previous tough talk, they aren't actually planning to head to the Security Council soon and are hoping to coax Iran back to negotiations. Moreover Iran, which can legally go forward with development, is still a step away from actually enriching uranium—the key for weapons development.
As one U.S. nonproliferation expert told USAT, Iran was engaging in "salami slicing." He explained, "They're testing the international community. If they get a strong reaction, they can stop; if not, they can continue salami slicing." It's not just the deli reference that's good—USAT's piece does a nice job of clearly and quickly laying out the stakes. The LAT also gives a sense of the wedge Iran is trying to drive between the U.S. and Europe.
The Post stuffs a federal judge nailing the administration for having overturned a Clinton-era rule that required the addition of a bittering agent to rat poison so children won't ingest it. "In short," the judge wrote, "the EPA lacked even the proverbial 'scintilla of evidence' justifying its reversal of the requirement it had imposed."
Relying on Representative Curt Weldon, R-Pa., and a "former defense intelligence official," the NYT says above the fold on Page Onethat a secret Pentagon program actually pegged four of the 9/11 hijackers—including Mohamed Atta—as al-Qaida men back in 2000. The secret program, which used data-mining, was called "Able Danger." Again, according to Weldon and the other source, program officials wanted to pass along the tips to the FBI but were overruled by Pentagon lawyers concerned that the military would be overstepping its authority. "We knew these were bad guys, and we wanted to do something about them," the former unnamed DoD official said. That source also charged that the 9/11 commission was told about the scoop but never followed up.
Now to the wrinkles in the NYT's piece: This is the first time the story has hit the big time, but it's been around for at least a few months. As the Times mentions, Weldon actually spoke about the whole deal publicly back in June in a "speech on the House floor." The allegations were picked up only in Weldon's local paper and then recently in more depth by an industry magazine. Presumably, there are only two explanations for this: 1) Other reporters just blew it and didn't notice. 2) They did notice but didn't buy it.
Which brings us to the next wrinkle: As the Times mentions in passing, Weldon has a reputation for relying on iffy sources. He recently wrote a much-panned book alleging all sorts of Iranian plots, including that Tehran is hosting Bin Laden. The book relied on one source—a source one CIA official told the Times "was a waste of my time and resources." A "fabricator" recalled another former spook. (The American Prospect has more on Weldon's source troubles.)
As for the former unnamed defense official, he talked to the NYT while "in Mr. Weldon's office." And given the allegations being made, the Times offers a loopy explanation for why the former official isn't named: "He did not want to jeopardize political support and the possible financing for future data-mining operations by speaking publicly." (If his accusations are true, how would his being named undercut future data-mining efforts?)
So, what we have in the NYT are allegations by a congressman known to make wildly dubious claims, and one former defense official who backs up the congressman but for some reason declines to put his good name to the ... facts. On the other side, you have—as the Times mentions up high but only details in, oh, the 29th paragraph—the 9/11 commission insisting that they did look into the program and found nothing.
Eric Umansky, previously the "Today's Papers" columnist for Slate, is currently a Gordon Grey Fellow at Columbia University's School of Journalism.