What will it take to win the war on terrorism?

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Sept. 10 2006 6:48 AM

Intelligence Breach Birth

The New York Times leads with an investigation into the controversial birth of the CIA's "alternative" interrogation techniques. The Los Angeles Times leads with a pessimistic assessment of the U.S. fight against terrorism, arguing that for all America's short-term successes, the nation is still losing the larger conflict. The Washington Postleads with a report warning that the GOP is prepared to go the limit with personal attack ads this fall.

The NYT reports the decision to hold terrorism suspects abroad in secret CIA prisons wasn't reached amicably. Despite getting executive authorization in the week following 9/11 to conduct interrogations of terror suspects, the CIA was decidedly uncomfortable in its new role: Few guidelines were established, its legal authority lay untested, and conflict with the FBI was assured. The NYT reconstructs the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, the first al-Qaida operative questioned after the attacks, showing that what the White House is now portraying as a natural extension of intelligence field work was at the time highly contentious. The trouble with the story is, naturally, that it relies almost entirely on unnamed sources. The paper even acknowledges that many sources disagree about the finer points of the arguments—whether Zubaydah was cooperating with standard FBI interrogators or not, for example. Without sourcing, it's hard to tell which version of events is most credible, and most importantly, it's impossible to tell if the NYT is cherry-picking its sources, favoring malcontents just to make the story spicier.

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On a side note: After President Bush admitted last week that alternative interrogation methods were used in these secret prisons, there was a fair amount of discussion about what "alternative" meant. Well, the NYT has the scoop: It involves locking someone in a freezer and blasting Red Hot Chili Peppers as loudly as possible. TP cannot overstate how disappointed it is that no one thought to ask RHCP how it feels to know their music is used to break people.

Are we winning the war on terrorism? The LAT says: "short answer yes with an IF; long answer no with a BUT." No one has attacked America in the past five years, if that can be used as a measure of victory. On the other hand, many terrorism experts believe American foreign policy is only breeding more terrorists with more diffuse organization—which can only hurt us in the long run. The story's sources tend to favor the more long-winded, pessimistic answer. The sources are mostly academics, however, with little more to offer than educated guesses. The paper seems to acknowledge that the question is rhetorical, freely admitting that both arguments rely on conjecture. Perhaps most pointedly, the paper doesn't bother with trying to define what "winning" the war would actually mean. The paper also fronts two 9/11 feature stories: one on normalcy in New York and one on conspiracy theorists trying to capitalize on the anniversary of the attacks.

The National Republican Congressional Committee will spend 90 percent of its ad budget on negative ads this fall, reports the WP. The paper says that challengers are often more vulnerable to negative ads, since they lack a definitive public image and can be easily branded by the incumbent. The idea of a party resorting to negative ads is nothing new, but what the GOP hopes to obtain with these tactics is newsworthy: "GOP officials said internal polling shows Republicans could limit losses to six to 10 House seats and two or three Senate seats," if the ads do their job. With one cursory exception however, the piece ignores Democratic campaign tactics entirely. The paper says that much of the Dems' research budget is spent digging up dirt on their own guys—so they can be ready for whatever the GOP throws at them. Are we supposed to be believe that the attack ads this fall are going to be that one-sided?

The WP reports that not only does the government not know where Osama Bin Laden is, but they've run out ways to hunt for him. Much of the trouble is laid at the feet of the Pakistani government's limited willingness to help with the search, combined with the unflagging loyalty of Bin Laden's inner circle. The paper argues that despite the White House's insistence that efforts to capture Osama be redoubled, it's unclear if there's anything more the intelligence community can do, now that the trail has lain cold for so long.

The NYT records Vice President Dick Cheney's slow decline in influence within the White House. Very few people are willing to go on the record saying so, but with the exit of "Scooter" Libby and with the public increasingly weary of the war Cheney championed, the VP is less well-informed and less influential, particularly with members of Congress. Of course, Condi Rice is willing to come out and say Cheney's as powerful as ever, but the paper makes a decent case for believing that other lips whisper in Bush's ear these days.

The unusual campaign news just keeps coming inside the WP, as the GOP admits that if Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., loses his primary to right-wing challenger Stephen Laffey, the Democrats will take over the seat in November. The paper reports that while Chafee often breaks with his party on key issues, the party machinery has conceded that electing a hard-line conservative like Laffey in a left-leaning state like Rhode Island simply ain't gonna happen.

It's labeled "News Analsysis," and to be sure, there's plenty of anti-war bias built in, but the LAT's front-page editorial on reporting on civilian casualties in Iraq speaks to the difficulties of maintaining a free press in a culture where disclosing any scrap of information, no matter how basic, can be considered giving aid to the enemy. Look past the rhetoric and there's some solid (and unbelievably depressing) reporting going on.

The NYT reports that as the African Union peacekeeping troops prepare to leave Sudan with no U.N. force to replace them, it looks certain that genocide will once again descend on Darfur, leaving already destitute refugees with a choice between making a run for the border with Chad or staying to be slaughtered by militia.

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