The Los Angeles Times leads with the White House's announcement that it has "specific intelligence" from multiple sources about a possible terrorist attack and is thus upgrading the nation's alert system one notch, to orange. The New York Timesleads with word that NASA has found what it calls a "significant" section of the Columbia's wings. It's not clear yet whether the section is from the left wing, which is where sensors indicated problems right before the shuttle broke up. The Washington Post leads with word that some U.S. officials—whose names the paper withholds "at the request of U.S. officials"—recently met with Iranian reps to talk about how the two countries might look out for each others interests during an invasion of Iraq. The U.S. wants Iran to promise that it will aid in any search-and-rescue missions for downed U.S. pilots and that it will not let any of Saddam's men seek refuge in Iran. In return, Iran wants their brethren in Iraq, the Shiite Muslims, to be included in the post-Saddam government.
Attorney General John Ashcroft and Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, who made the announcement about the security threat, said that while they didn't know a specific location, there are hints that an attack might happen during the Muslim hajj, a five-day pilgrimage festival that begins this Sunday. The Post says there was big debate within the intel community about whether to alert the public, with some arguing that it would just be a CYA move.
The LAT, in a piece that it off-leads, says that U.S. intelligence officials now believe that al-Qaida has the know-how to build a so-called "dirty bomb" and may have put one together. Reports of this have been percolating for a few days, including a brief mention in the NYT; and it's not clear just how solid the info is. The allegations that Osama actually has a dirty bomb—which, to remind, is not a nuclear weapon and would spread far more fear than death—comes from British intel agencies who, the LAT says, believe that AQ built one "using radioactive isotopes taken from medical equipment supplied by the former Taliban regime." (Skepticism alert: How many CAT scan machines do you think the Taliban had?)
The Post says that the Columbia's mid-flight reports that tried to assess damage caused to the shuttle by the flaked-off insulation made some dubious assumptions. One of the reports acknowledged that there was a "large uncertainty" about the danger presented by the foam and yet it still concluded, "safe return indicated." Said one analyst, "This looks like a case of people trying to fool themselves into not being worried."
Another shuttle-safety piece in the Post revolves around NASA's privatization of much of the program in the mid-1990s. The piece is pretty shallow, but it does have one important bit: NASA docks contractors' pay when they run into problems—safety-related or not—that delay the shuttle. Aborting a mission on the launching pad, for instance, would cost contractors $3 million.
The NYT off-leads a catch-all on Iraq saying that France and China both rebuffed President Bush's pitch to support a U.N. resolution authorizing an invasion. Bush phoned the leaders of both countries and both told him that they want to give inspectors more time.
The NYT notes that Hamas yesterday said its supporters should attack "Western interests" if the U.S. invades Iraq. Until now, Hamas has limited its attacks to Israel.
The Post fronts, and the others stuff, news that the Justice Department is considering introducing a sort of Patriot Act II that would expand the government's powers to investigate and detain suspected terrorists. If the proposals are implemented—and that's a long way off, considering they're not even in a bill yet—they would, among other things, allow the feds to strip suspected terrorists of their U.S. citizenship. A draft of the plan was leaked to the Center for Public Integrity, a government watchdog group.
A front-page piece in the Post says that despite Pakistan's promises, the country has stopped its crackdown on Muslim extremist groups and is again turning a blind-eye to their cross-border incursions into Kashmir.
Everybody reports that a bomb exploded in a nightclub in Bogotá, Colombia, killing at least 20 people. It's not clear yet who planted it.
A front-page NYT piece reports, "JOB MARKET SHOWS A RISE IN JANUARY." Unemployment fell from 6 percent to 5.7 percent, and 130,000 jobs were gained during the month. Thursday's NYT reported, "U.S. ECONOMY IN WORST HIRING SLUMP IN 20 YEARS." In fairness, today's piece does quote a number of economists as saying that the gain might just be a temporary post-New Year's bump. (Yesterday's Journal suggested the same thing.) Today's piece also takes a moment to employ the Bush doctrine and launch a pre-emptive, albeit defensive, attack, "The New York Times reported earlier this week, before the new data became available, that the loss of jobs since the last recession was the worst in almost 20 years. Even with the latest job figures factored in, that remains true."
Everybody notes inside that Britain acknowledged that much of its recent public intel report on Iraq—the one that Powell cited during his U.N. speech—was essentially plagiarized from magazines and academic journals. In one case, the report lifted almost nine pages of another report verbatim, complete with typos. That other report is 10 years old. "I am surprised, flattered as well, that this information got used in a U.K. government dossier," said the original report's author, Ibrahim al-Marashi, who at the time was a graduate student. "Had they consulted me, I could have provided them with more updated information."