New details on the bombing plot

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Aug. 28 2006 5:42 AM

London Fog

The Washington Post and USA Today lead with yesterday's plane crash in Lexington, Ky., in which 49 people—everyone aboard except the co-pilot—died. The Los Angeles Times, extrapolating from morgue statistics, leads with a purported sharp drop in violence in Baghdad this month. The Wall Street Journal tops its world-wide newsbox with word that a contingent of French soldiers arrived in Lebanon, even as Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah told an interviewer that, if he'd known what was going to happen, he wouldn't have had those two Israeli soldiers kidnapped. The New York Times leads with an analytical piece on wage stagnation, while off-leading the day's big scoop: an in-depth description of "a trove of evidence" that British police have collected against the suspects arrested earlier this month for allegedly plotting to bomb airliners with liquid explosives.

The NYT's piece on the bombing investigation includes previously undisclosed details about the "martyrdom" videotapes and bomb-making materials that, as has been widely reported, British police allegedly found when they arrested 21 people on Aug. 10. It also suggests that, for all the talk of "mass murder on an unimaginable scale," the plot, if it existed, was not that close to execution. "In retrospect," one American counterterrorism expert tells the paper, "there may have been too much hyperventilating going on."

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The story, based largely on interviews with "senior British officials," was not posted online as of TP's press time. According to an accompanying editor's note, while the story is being printed in the physical paper, its online publication is being "delayed temporarily on the advice of legal counsel" because of "British laws that prohibit publication of information that could be deemed prejudicial to defendants charged with a crime." So, if you want all the details, you'll have to get your fingers inky.

[Update, 4:30 PM EST: The NYT has now posted the story online. Here are a few highlights. On Aug. 9, the day before police moved in, two of the suspects recorded tapes in which they justified their planned actions, saying, in the words of one: "As you bomb, you will be bombed." One of the suspects kept "a handwritten diary that appears to sketch out elements of a plot," which contained "a reminder to select a date." In one of the apartments they raided, police found "a plastic bin filled with liquid, batteries, nearly a dozen empty drink bottles, rubber gloves, digital scales and a disposable camera that was leaking liquid" that "might have been a prototype for a device to smuggle chemicals on the plane."

On the other hand, the story notes, the suspects hadn't bought tickets for any flights, and two of them didn't even have passports, though they "had applied for expedited approval." British investigators have evidence that some of the suspects had attempted to make a hydrogen peroxide-based explosive, but it is unclear, in the words of one chemist who is part of the inquiry, whether they "had the brights to pull it off." Also, MI5 was apparently monitoring the apartment that served as the headquarters of the alleged terrorist cell with "hidden video and audio equipment."]

Flight 5191, a commuter jet operated by regional carrier Comair and bound for Atlanta, crashed shortly after takeoff from the Lexington airport, plunging into a field just beyond the runway and exploding into flames. Early signs appear to point to human error as the cause. The jet seems to have turned onto the wrong runway before takeoff, a "a narrow, 3,400-foot stretch of pavement known as Runway 26 that was not intended for jets, only smaller prop planes," according to the WP's lead story. The plane seems to have been unable to get airborne off the shorter runway. It clipped a fence and broke apart. According to the Lexington Herald-Leader, most of the victims did not die in the initial crash but rather burned to death.

Everyone notes that there have been remarkably few plane crashes in the United States over the last few years—yesterday's was the worst since an American Airlines jet crashed in Queens in 2001, killing 265 people. Question for Day 2: Has air travel become safer, or were we just on a lucky streak?

The LAT lead story says that, amid a much-ballyhooed crackdown on lawlessness, the Baghdad morgue is having a slow month. It's on a pace to take in "less than a quarter" of July's record-total of 1,800 bodies. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, citing the Baghdad public safety campaign, told CNN yesterday: "In "Iraq, we'll never be in civil war. What you see is an atmosphere of reconciliation."

The NYT lead says that the median hourly wage for American workers has fallen 2 percent in the last three years once inflation is factored in—which is surprising, considering that the economy has been strong overall and the average worker's productivity has increased. Benefits are also shrinking. "Although the economy continues to add jobs, global trade, immigration, layoffs and technology—as well as the insecurity caused by them—appear to have eroded workers' bargaining power," the story says. Political analysts suggest that growing income inequality could create a favorable electoral climate for Democrats.

On a not-unrelated note, the WSJ, in a story on the labor movement's plans to get out the vote for the midterm elections, notes that the proportion of union members in the private sector has fallen "to 7.8% last year from 15% 20 years ago."

The WP off-leads an investigation of how the military justice system has dealt with cases of alleged American war crimes in Iraq. Only "39 service members were formally accused in connection with the deaths of 20 Iraqis from 2003 to early this year," the story says, and only 12 of them have "ultimately served prison time for any offense." Defenders of the military say that's because American soldiers are very well-disciplined. Some soldiers say it's because offenses go unreported and uninvestigated. One quibble: There's little historical context in the story—has the military ever policed itself vigilantly?—and one brief mention of Vietnam suggests that the number of prosecutions during that conflict were roughly comparable or even proportionally smaller.