Thursday's must-reads

By Geraldine Sealey

Published May 27, 2004 1:40PM (EDT)

Timing of threat warning questioned
Why, if al-Qaida is poised to strike the United States "hard," has the terror threat level not been raised? Why has the president not changed his schedule? Why have administration officials told the New York Times "there's no real new intelligence"?

Perhaps John Ashcroft and company are just being really cautious and proactive. Or maybe, as some administration critics suggest, the Bush team is trying to stage a distraction from his nose-diving in the polls.

From the Times: "Attorney General John Ashcroft said at a news conference that intelligence reports and public statements by people associated with Al Qaeda suggested that the terrorist group was 'almost ready to attack the United States' and harbored a 'specific intention to hit the United States hard.' But some intelligence officials, terrorism experts -- and to some extent even Mr. Ashcroft's own F.B.I. director, Robert S. Mueller III -- offered a more tempered assessment, saying, 'For the next few weeks we have reason to believe there is a heightened threat to the U.S. interests around the world.' And some opponents of President Bush, including police and firefighter union leaders aligned with Senator John Kerry, the expected Democratic presidential candidate, said the timing of the announcement appeared intended in part to distract attention from Mr. Bush's sagging poll numbers and problems in Iraq."

"' ... There's no real new intelligence, and a lot of this has been out there already,' said one administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. 'There really is no significant change that would require us to change the alert level of the country.'"

White House scales back plan to spread democracy
Bush's plan to "promote democracy" in Iraq has gone so poorly, with the continued crisis so all-consuming, that the White House will scale back its grand plans to promote democracy throughout the Middle East region, the USA Today reports.

"Instead of an aggressive campaign to foster democracy in the region from Morocco to Pakistan, the latest draft of the proposal says 'change should not and cannot be imposed from the outside.' A copy of the proposal, to be unveiled June 9 at a summit of the 'Group of Eight' industrial nations, was obtained Wednesday by USA TODAY."

"President Bush has pressed for the initiative by arguing that a lack of freedom in the region produces frustration that leads to terrorism. But the proposal makes so few demands of incumbent regimes that it is unlikely to spark dramatic change in autocracies such as those in Egypt or Saudi Arabia. It comes at a time when the Bush administration is focused on Iraq and would find it difficult to promote radical change in other countries."

Blair blindsided by, wanted to block, WMD probe
The Guardian newspaper reports that Tony Blair tried to block the White House from forming a commission to look into the failure to uncover weapons of mass destruction in Iraq because Tony Blair was in "denial" about the issue.

"The disclosure of private Anglo-American tensions is made by the journalist John Kampfner in an updated version of his book, Blair's Wars, serialised in today's Guardian. Kampfner, political editor of the New Statesman, writes that Downing Street was largely kept in the dark about the inquiry, first hinted at by President Bush on January 30. The author, who was told by British officials that the prime minister was in 'denial' over the failure to uncover WMDs, writes: '[Sir Nigel Sheinwald, Blair's senior foreign affairs adviser] contacted Condoleezza Rice to find out what was going on. She told him they were minded to hold an inquiry but had not finally decided. The British were miffed that the Americans had not bothered to tell them."

"Sheinwald put in a second call to Rice [on February 1], asking her to think again ... Rice replied tartly to his last-minute appeal, suggesting the British had been a little slow on the uptake: 'You have your politics, we have ours,' she told him. For all the supposed camaraderie, Bush had carried out a u-turn without giving Blair's concerns so much as a second thought.'"

Kerry's Iraq squeeze?
Los Angeles Times' Ron Brownstein reports on John Kerry's "stark new challenge" over Iraq as President Bush moves toward Kerry's position and the Democratic Party moves away from it.

"From one side, Kerry confronts calls from growing numbers of Democrats to establish a deadline for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq. That idea will receive a major boost today when Win Without War, a coalition of 42 liberal groups, launches a campaign urging the U.S. to set a date for ending its military presence in Iraq."

"From the other direction, Bush has come much closer to Kerry's view that the U.S. should rely more on the United Nations to oversee the transition from occupation to a sovereign Iraqi government, thus blurring the contrast between the two men. In the long run, these shifts in Democratic attitudes and Bush's strategy may pressure Kerry to break more sharply from the administration on Iraq, a step he has firmly resisted. More immediately, the squeeze is encouraging Kerry to subtly shift his critique of Bush on the war. In his response to Bush's speech on Iraq on Monday night, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee focused less on criticizing the president's policies than on questioning whether he could provide the international leadership to implement them."

"'That is the principal difference at this point in time,' said Rand Beers, the Kerry camp's national security coordinator. But as Kerry begins an 11-day focus on national security with a speech in Seattle today, his shrinking differences with Bush over Iraq could revive the problem that plagued him during the Democratic primaries: conflict with his party base over the war."

Torture yielded little information
The New York Times reports that the "questioning of hundreds of Iraqi prisoners last fall in the newly established interrogation center at Abu Ghraib prison yielded very little valuable intelligence, according to civilian and military officials."

"The interrogation center was set up in September to obtain better information about an insurgency in Iraq that was killing American soldiers almost every day by last fall. The insurgency was better organized and more vigorous than the United States had expected, prompting concern among generals and Pentagon officials who were unhappy with the flow of intelligence to combat units and to higher headquarters."

"But civilian and military intelligence officials, as well as top commanders with access to intelligence reports, now say they learned little about the insurgency from questioning inmates at the prison. Most of the prisoners held in the special cellblock that became the setting for the worst abuses at Abu Ghraib apparently were not linked to the insurgency, they said."

Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at

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