Today's Papers

Take Five

The Los Angeles Timesand Wall Street Journalboth lead with the Argentine Congress’ selection of Peronist Sen. Eduardo Duhalde to become the beleaguered nation’s fifth president in less than two weeks. The Washington Postand USA Todaylead with a Marine expedition into the mountainous Helmand Province near Kandahar, where U.S. forces searched an abandoned Taliban compound. The New York Timesleads with yesterday’s changing of the guard in New York’s City Hall. A news analysis piece on Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s inaugural address says the speech laid out his predominant message for the months to come: frankness about the city’s grim economic predicament tempered by optimism about the city’s future.

Nobody is certain what sort of economic changes newly elected Argentine President Duhalde is likely to impose. The WP and NYT predict he’ll end his nation’s one-to-one peg of the peso to the U.S. dollar; the WSJ and LAT aren’t so sure. One thing that does seem certain is that Duhalde will continue to suspend payments of Argentina’s colossal foreign debt.

The NYT notes that the Argentine Congress’ decision to turn the presidency over to Duhalde effectively reverses the nation’s presidential election of two years ago in which Duhalde and his Peronist Party were handily defeated by Fernando de la Rúa. Duhalde has been an outspoken critic of the U.S.-backed free-market reforms Argentina adopted in the 1990s and has blamed his country’s current woes on lowered trade barriers. With the exception of the WP, none of the papers focus on the former vice president’s reputation as an economic protectionist.

The NYT calls the Marine’s Helmand expedition, which was carried out by about 200 soldiers, “the most extensive American ground operation in the war.” Military planners apparently hoped to gather intelligence from documents left behind by fleeing al-Qaida and Taliban fighters, but there is some confusion in the press as to the true goals of the mission. Though the Pentagon denies it, Afghanistan’s interim prime minister, Hamid Karzai, has said that the U.S. forces were aiding an operation to capture Mullah Mohammad Omar, who is rumored to be in the area. According to the WP, such a mission would suggest “diverging interests” between the Americans, who consider Omar’s capture a top priority, and the Afghans, who have shown little interest in hunting down Taliban leadership.

The NYT article on the Marine expedition snags a quote and a piece of what may or may not be a developing story that none of the other papers run. Hajji Gullali, an Afghan regional intelligence director, claimed yesterday that “We know where Mullah Muhammad Omar is.” Gullali says he’s currently negotiating with people close to the Taliban leader over his surrender. 

The NYT off-leads with Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s order that his country’s military intelligence agency, the ISI, cease backing the militant Islamic groups fighting India in Kashmir. Pakistan will continue to give “moral and political” support to less extreme groups provided they purge themselves of all non-Kashmiri Muslims. The NYT calls it Musharraf’s “boldest step yet” towards détente. However, Indian officials reportedly reacted to the news with skepticism. They fear that just as the ISI continued to back the Taliban for a few weeks after Sept. 11, Musharraf may not be able to prevent the agency from continuing to support militant groups that it formally disavows. And even if the crackdown is for real, they worry it may just represent a tactical retreat that will later be reversed. The NYT fails to mention one other bit of tension-diffusing diplomacy that went on yesterday. A WP article reports that despite few remaining channels of diplomatic exchange, India and Pakistan traded information about each other’s nuclear facilities, including their exact locations, as part of an annual practice first agreed to in 1992.

The WP off-lead reports on a fact disclosed by the NYT more than a week ago: an official at the Minnesota flight school where suspected terrorist conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui took lessons apparently warned an FBI agent in August that he thought Moussaoui may have been involved in a hijacking plot. The NYT’s Dec. 22 article quoted Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., saying that the FBI had been told that Moussaoui could be planning to use a 747 as a flying bomb. The only thing the WP really adds to the NYT’s reporting is a quote from a senior law enforcement official contradicting Oberstar: “{T]he notion of flying a plane into a building … never came up,” though simple hijacking did. Accounts of how the FBI responded to the warning vary. Bureau officials claim they responded without delay and pursued the lead as far as possible, but flight instructors at the Minnesota school say they were frustrated by the FBI’s slow response.

My, how things have changed since Salem! In a testament to just how slow a news day it was, the WP fronts a twisted story about a 55-year-old Maryland grandmother suspected of murdering (or having other men murder) her two husbands and a 28-year-old cousin with whom she purportedly had an affair. The catch in the story—as if murdering three people weren’t enough—is that the woman’s kin all swear that she used witchcraft and voodoo to lure the men in and control their lives. The relatives are so afraid of cooperating—lest they too get cursed—that investigators can’t put together a case to take to trial. So instead, they’re taking this Broom Hilda to court for insurance fraud.