The New York Timesand Washington Postlead with President Bush's first news conference of the year, where he said Iranian operatives provided weapons to Iraqi militias to use against U.S. troops. But Bush backed away from claims made in a military briefing Sunday that the "highest levels" of Iran's government have been involved. The Los Angeles Timesleads with the changing argument and emphasizes that the chief military spokesman in Iraq also declared that the role of Iran's top leaders can't be confirmed. The Wall Street Journal tops its world-wide newsbox with Bush's statements on Iran, but it plays down the contradictions and states that "the president said there is no doubt Iran's government is providing armor-piercing IEDs to kill U.S. soldiers."
USA Todayleads with State Farm's decision that it will not issue any new home and commercial policies in Mississippi, which could lead to other insurers abandoning the state. Officials at State Farm said their decision was partly based on the large number of lawsuits since Hurricane Katrina. Some say the company wants local officials to fear other insurers will stop providing new policies if the cases aren't settled in their favor.
Facing a skeptical Washington press corps, Bush insisted it was "preposterous" to think the administration is making up the Iran connection and emphasized he's not using this as a "pretext for war." But he also emphasized there's no doubt that the Quds Force, an elite branch of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard, has provided weapons to Iraq's militia and placed particular emphasis on the lethal explosives that have allegedly killed at least 170 U.S. service members. "I do not know whether or not the Quds Force was ordered from the top echelons of the government. But my point is, what's worse, them ordering it and it happening, or them not ordering it and its happening?" Earlier in the week the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had said involvement of high-level Iranian officials couldn't be confirmed.
But wait, isn't there something strange going on here? After all, officials insisted that Sunday's briefing was delayed because the original draft made claims that couldn't be supported. And now we're meant to believe that after this (supposed) careful vetting the claim of involvement from the "highest levels" of Iran's government just somehow got through? TP wonders whether this is why the briefers insisted so strongly on anonymity.
The NYT says intelligence officials have said they think Iran's leaders must have been involved "in part because the Quds Force has historically reported to the country's top religious leaders." But the administration is reluctant to make these kind of assertions without proof because of its past history with intelligence.The LAT points out this issue "revolves around the nature of wartime intelligence work" that often relies on making conclusions without "the type of evidence that could prove a court case." But in a separate story inside, the LAT looks into the Quds Force and says experts aren't sure whether the elite unit is actually controlled by Iran's government.
In a Page One piece, the Post notes that the way in which evidence later showed the administration was planning for a war in Iraq, even while it consistently denied it was doing so, has come back to haunt them with Iran. "Much as the Vietnam Syndrome dogged the foreign and military policies of a generation of U.S. presidents, the Iraq Syndrome has become an ever-present undercurrent in Washington."
Everybody notes that several House Republicans (11, say the WP and LAT, while the NYT says the number was 12)spoke out against President Bush's new plan for Iraq yesterday. The Post says GOP leaders have already recognized they are going to lose this fight, and one source tells the paper they expect 40 to 60 Republicans to vote with the Democrats. Republicans are now focusing on the upcoming debate over the war's funding, which they predict will unite their party and expose "deep fissures among the Democrats."
The Post fronts a look at the way in which the White House spent much of the day Wednesday trying to counter criticisms by conservatives over the North Korea nuclear deal. Among other things, many worry it could set a bad precedent for negotiations with Iran and the Palestinians. A Russian minister yesterday urged the United States to show "the same flexibility" toward Iran's nuclear program. The LAT says some analysts believe the deal with North Korea will probably "harden Iran's demands that it too should get tangible benefits as part of any agreement."
All the papers note defense lawyers for I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby rested their case. The decision not to put Libby on the stand led the judge to rule that the defense can't call on CIA employees who were going to testify about Libby's workload. Closing arguments are set to start on Tuesday, and the jury will probably begin deliberating on Wednesday.
The NYT is alone in pointing out a strange scene that took place in the courtroom yesterday when all but one of the jurors wore "red T-shirts with a white valentine heart over their clothes." The paper says the judge became "visibly anxious" as one juror rose to speak and wished a happy Valentine's Day to those in the court. (Slate's John Dickerson says this could be good news for Libby).
The NYT fronts a feature about the liberal site Firedoglake.com, where six people have been obsessively blogging the trial. Funded by donations, a group of people with different backgrounds went to Washington and rented an apartment for the duration of the trial. They call the apartment Plame House.