The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal world-wide newsbox,and USA Today all lead with Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge's announcement that foreign flights into the U.S. that officials deem at risk will be required to have air marshals aboard. The plan, which includes cargo planes, is effective immediately and is apparently a first. "No country has ever tried to impose on other countries any measures of aviation security," an Israeli security expert told USAT. The Washington Post teases the air-marshal plan and leads with the top U.N. nuclear inspector's assessment that Libya's nukes effort had only been in the beginning stages. As the NYT emphasizes, Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei also said that after inspecting Libya's weapons program he was surprised how much technology the country had been able to buy through the black market. It was "an eye opener," he said.
An unnamed senior administration official told the NYT that the U.N. "missed the Libyan nuclear weapons program just like it missed so many others." According to the Post,the U.S. plans to carry out its own inspections. ElBaradei responded, "Low-level programs like this are difficult to detect. They can be run in a garage." He added, "We're doing a lot of soul searching" and called for countries to make tighter restrictions on nukes technology exports.
In the impressive first installment of a two-part series, the LAT says that documents found in Iraq show that Syria was Iraq's main conduit for weapons before the war. In the spring, a Syrian company that has close ties to the government signed "more than 50 contracts to supply tens of millions of dollars' worth of arms" to Saddam. (The war started and he only got a few of the weapons.) The documents—which were corroborated by various interviews—also detail how companies from countries including Poland, Russia, and South Korea sold Iraq weapons or dual use material and used Syria as a middleman. (The South Korean company in question is currently in the running for a reconstruction contract.) In return for letting Iraq smuggle weapons and just about everything else, Syria got cheap, black-market oil. "Syria became the most important ally for Iraq in the region, and helped it come out of its global isolation," said one diplomat. "Damascus became the gateway for Iraq."
A front-page WP piece announces: "FLAWS SHOWING IN NEW IRAQI FORCES." Among other problems, the Iraqi police are often ill-equipped and have been less than fully vetted. "There are probably some people on the police force who shouldn't be there," said one U.S. officer. But that's all been widely reported. What's new, and gets played down in the piece, are hints that the situation may be improving a bit. For instance, Iraqi police now have an internal affairs unit, complete with nearly 200 investigators. If that's more than progress on paper, it deserves attention. (Correspondents in Iraq and others there are invited to write in with their assessments; TP will summarize the responses.)
The Journal goes high with Japan's announcement that it will forgive most of the $7 billion it's owed by Iraq. The move came after a visit by debt relief envoy James Baker.
The NYT off-leads word that Islamic militants have recently been targeting top Saudi officials. For instance, in an early December attack that the Saudis have tried to keep secret, militants shot and wounded the country's top counter-terrorism official. One note: The article refers to the militants as al-Qaida members. That may be correct, but as AQ expert Peter Bergen recently reminded in a WP op-ed, AQ itself has very few members and many attacks are carried out by local affiliates that aren't directly connected.
In a story buried on A17, the Post reports that an EPA-headed taskforce was set to recommend that coal power plants be required to cut as much mercury from their emission as possible, but the administration "abruptly disbanded" the group in April. Last month, the White House announced looser mercury regulations. "Just when we think we have a process in action to control mercury from every power plant, they walk away from it," said the former co-chairman of the panel. (Emphasis in original)
The WP continues to remind that top Republican congressmen appear to have tried to bribe a GOP legislator, Nick Smith, in a failed attempt to get his support for the Medicare bill: "Mr. Smith was subjected to intense—and quite possibly criminal—pressure to induce him to abandon his opposition." The editorial plays off a recent WP piece in which two Republican congressmen said Smith told them early on about the attempted bribe. The Post has had six stories on this. The NYT has had one—an editorial.
A piece inside the Post notices that federal officials issued an alert to police stating that "terrorist operatives may rely on almanacs to assist with target selection and pre-operational planning." The announcement was apparently made after investigators found a marked-up almanac in a suspected al-Qaida member's apartment. The books usually have some information about landmarks in them. The alert said that while "the use of almanacs or maps may be the product of legitimate recreational or commercial activities, the practice of researching potential targets is consistent with known methods of al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations." Responded one ticked off almanac editor, "The idea of using it for terrorism never even occurred to me. They certainly didn't need the almanac to locate the twin towers."