The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times lead with the latest embarrassment to come out of the Zacarias Moussaoui trial: Yesterday an FBI agent testified that his superiors repeatedly obstructed attempts to investigate Moussaoui's terrorist connections before 9/11, in a series of decisions he later characterized as "criminal negligence." The New York Times leads with a federal appeals court's decision to overturn the 2004 obstruction-of-justice conviction of investment banker Frank Quattrone, a disgraced star of the dot-com era. The Wall Street Journal tops its world-wide newsbox with President Bush's speech in Cleveland yesterday, where he argued that Iraq is improving. USA Todayleads with record-high tax refunds, which result from "overwithholding," as taxpayers fail to account for new credits and expanded deductions.
Prosecutors had called Harry Samit, an agent in the FBI's Minneapolis field office, to bolster their contention that Moussaoui deserves the death penalty because had he confessed when first arrested, "the FBI would have raised 'alarm bells' and could have stopped the Sept. 11 attacks," the WP says. On cross-examination, Samit admitted that even though Moussaoui wouldn't talk, he was sure the Moroccan was working with others to hijack a plane—there was even a suggestion that one might be flown into the World Trade Center, according to the NYT—and said that he raised the possibility to his superiors more than 70 times. Samit says his bosses didn't care and just wanted to "run out the clock" and deport Moussaoui. Samit was a key prosecution witness, but his testimony "might have backfired on the government," the LAT says, putting it a mildly. (Slate'sDahlia Lithwick and Robert Weisberg wrote a prescient critique of the government's case at the opening of the trial.)
The NYT points out that the broad outlines of the FBI's dilatory response have been known for some time. (Perhaps that's why it stuffs the story.) Former agency lawyer Coleen Rowley said much the same thing in 2002, and the Justice Department's inspector general released a report critical of the handling of the Moussaoui case in 2005, though it was heavily redacted. Yesterday's court hearing revealed new and damaging details from that report, including Samit's criticisms:
"You thought a terrorist attack was coming, and you were being obstructed, right?" a defense attorney asked at one point.
"Yes, sir," Samit answered.
It was a bad day for prosecutors all around. A three-judge federal appeals court panel found that there was ample evidence that Frank Quattrone, a financial high-flyer who oversaw the initial public offerings of companies like Amazon.com and once pulled down $120 million in one year, had obstructed justice when he urged employees to "clean up" files related to a criminal inquiry. But the panel overturned the conviction anyway, finding that the trial judge erred in giving his instructions to the jury. They took the unusual step of referring the case back to a new judge for a possible retrial, saying that the first one had made "certain comments" that called his impartiality into question. Prosecutors have yet to decide whether they'll have another go.
In the Cleveland speech, according to the WSJ, Bush said he understood "people being disheartened" about Iraq but maintained that the situation was far from hopeless. "The strategy is working," he said, citing the case of improvements in the western town of Tal Afar. The WP does some reality-checking and finds that things are still pretty scary in Tal Afar, with insurgents running amok. It also notes that Bush "consistently mispronounced Tal Afar in his remarks."
Taxpayers are playing it safe with their withholding, USAT says, and relishing a big refund. What they're not taking into account is that by initially overpaying, they're giving the government an interest-free loan. Last year such overpayments amounted to $10 billion, or about $100 per tax return, the paper says. Since it's that time of year, the WSJ also has a tax story, a profile of the national taxpayer advocate, an IRS employee who plays good cop to IRS Commissioner Mark Everson's bad cop.
The LAT fronts a story about the "murky relationship" between Iran and al-Qaida. Some American intelligence officials believe that much of the terrorist organization's remaining leadership is based out of Iran, where some elements of the regime are willing to turn a blind eye, or maybe even lend a hand. The evidence, however, is decidedly sketchy, and some spooks are doubtful about a link, citing the Sunni-Shiite split. The fact is no one really has a clue. "It blows me away the lack of intelligence that's out there," one counterterrorism official tells the paper. Though that's not stopping some anonymous saber-rattlers from leaking vague assertions. Sound familiar?
Only the WP fronts the aftermath of the presidential elections in Belarus, where strongman Alexander Lukashenko was re-elected with 82.6 percent of the vote, according to official returns. No one is buying it, except for the Russians, who immediately congratulated Lukashenko on his victory. The polls were marred by "arrests and beatings and fraud," said Bush spokesman Scott McClellan, who added that that the U.S. "does not accept the results of the election." Sanctions could be in the works; Lukashenko says he doesn't care. A few thousand opposition supporters gathered in a public square to protest, but there's no sign of a mass movement like the one that reversed a disputed election result in neighboring Ukraine. At a victory press conference, Lukashenko denounced the protesters as "children" and didn't exactly recant a prior threat to "wring the necks" of his opponents.
USAT fronts an interesting news feature on a new trend in, ahem, law enforcement: States are now passing laws that grant immunity from prosecution to crime victims who retaliate against their attackers with deadly force. The laws, championed by the NRA, are meant to deter carjackers, muggers, and the like. Critics say they are a license for vigilantism, since it's hard to define what constitutes an attack. Case in point: A tow-truck operator who shot a man for driving his car away without paying a fee is invoking the defense, saying the driver could have run him down.
The NYT fronts a feature from Venezuela, which has lately become a mecca for lefty tourists, who go there to see Hugo Chavez's revolution in action. Visitors range from celebrities like Danny Glover and Harry Belafonte to American birkenstockers who pay $1,300 for a two-week package tour of the barrios.
Political panda-ring … The LAT has a hilarious "Column One" feature today about China's panda diplomacy. Ever since Richard Nixon went to China and came back with a pair—and, actually, for centuries before—the Chinese have been using the lovable animals to melt the hearts of their enemies. Now the country is engaged in a typically shrill fight with neighbor Taiwan, which won't accept a couple of cuddly creatures. "The pandas are a trick, just like the Trojan horse," anti-panda lawmaker Huang Shi-cho tells the paper, explaining that it's all part of China's plan to gobble up the island. "Pandas are cute, but they are meant to destroy Taiwan's psychological defenses."