The Washington Postleads with word that a debate has broken out among U.S. officials on whether victory should be declared over al-Qaida in Iraq. Some in the U.S. military are advocating the move, saying al-Qaida in Iraq has been so badly decimated in recent months that there's little chance it could stage a comeback, but others warn the move might be premature and caution against making assumptions about a group that has "shown great resilience in the past." The New York Timesleads with a look at how acting or interim appointees fill top jobs at several agencies in the Bush administration, which is a situation that is likely to continue until the president leaves office.
USA Todayleads with a new study that reports cancer death rates declined an average of 2.1 percent each year from 2002 to 2004, which is nearly twice the annual decrease that was seen from 1993 to 2002. The Wall Street Journal leads with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warning Israel not to make any moves that could jeopardize the peace negotiations as she began a new round of diplomacy in the region. Rice was clear that she doesn't expect any major breakthroughs. The Los Angeles Timesleads locally and off-leads a look at how some are wondering whether security contractors could be considered unlawful combatants under international agreements.
Although there's little debate that al-Qaida in Iraq has "suffered major blows," as the Post puts it, there's disagreement over whether the trend will continue and some warn it might be too early to declare victory. Those arguing against a declaration, say AQI forces might simply be waiting for the United States to begin pulling out troops to make a comeback and warn that it only takes a few people to carry out a successful attack. Interestingly, the Post also notes that a declaration of victory might cause problems for the U.S. strategy, because it could be seen as acknowledgement that the Iraq conflict has become a civil war and foreign troops should not be involved. The WP spends little space explaining what the benefits of a declaration would be, but does note that some think it could discourage new recruits from joining al-Qaida in Iraq because it would be seen as a "lost cause."
Experts agree that it's normal for jobs to go unfilled near the end of a president's time in the White House, but there are more vacancies now than at similar points in recent administrations, although the paper acknowledges that it's difficult to come up with an exact comparison. "You've got more vacancies now than a hotel in hurricane season," Paul Light, a federal bureaucracy expert, said. This not only means that the Senate doesn't get a say in the appointments, but also that decisions aren't being made within the departments since those who are temporarily filling the jobs often don't have the same power as someone who went through the confirmation process. "Acting people are very shy about making decisions," Light said. Part of the reason why the administration is finding it difficult to fill these positions is that many Republicans believe the next president will be a Democrat so there's little motivation to leave a high-paying job for a government appointment that will be short-lived.
Under international agreements, people who are not part of a country's military can carry weapons and defend themselves. But some are wondering whether the legal status of security contractors is compromised because of the increasing number of reports that these private guards are actually involved in a significant amount of offensive operations. Besides bringing international scrutiny, this could turn out to be particularly embarrassing for the administration because it has said that those being held in Guantanamo are unlawful combatants since they aren't part of a nation's military. "If we hire people and direct them to perform activities that are direct participation in hostilities, then at least by the Guantanamo standard, that is a war crime," an expert said.
The Post notes on Page One that Saif Aldin, one of the Iraqi reporters in the paper's Baghdad bureau, was killed. He was shot at close range in the same neighborhood where an Iraqi reporter working for the NYT was also killed in July. At least 118 journalists have been killed in Iraq while on the job, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The NYT's Roger Cohen writes about a "low-profile trip" that a senior Pentagon official went on this month to ask for more international cooperation in Iraq. The trip took the deputy assistant secretary of defense for coalition affairs to the capitals of "little-known" countries that have a miniscule presence in Iraq. "The trip smacks of desperation," writes Cohen, while noting that it's all part of the administration's attempt to make it seem like the war is some sort of international effort when it's clear "the United States is as isolated in Iraq as a great power can be."
Conflict-of-interest watchdogs will surely be disappointed today as the WSJ is the only paper that fails to write a story about this morning's premiere of the Fox Business Network. Of course, the question now becomes whether this omission was because of excessive concern over a possible conflict. Meanwhile, though, the NYT hints that Dow Jones executives may already be trying to please their soon-to-be boss. Last week,CNBC was notified that ads it had scheduled to run today on two of Dow Jones' Web sites, including wsj.com, would have to be postponed.
The LAT fronts word that Jay Leno isn't quite ready to leave his late-night throne, even though he agreed three years ago to step down in 2009 and pass the crown over to Conan O'Brien. NBC executives were worried O'Brien would go elsewhere, and Leno allegedly wanted a smooth transition, which he didn't have when he took over in 1992. But as 2009 gets closer, Leno is apparently not happy with the agreement and doesn't want to go anywhere. NBC is trying to convince Leno that he could stay at the network, perhaps with a prime-time show, but some are seeing hints that "it's 1992 all over again," as one TV producer said. "History may be repeating itself for NBC."