Today's Papers

A Dirty Plan

Everybody leads with news that U.S. authorities announced yesterday that they have broken up an al-Qaida plot to detonate a radioactive “dirty” bomb in the U.S. and have arrested an American al-Qaida operative who was allegedly behind the plans. The suspect, José Padilla (who goes by the name Abdullah al-Muhajir), was arrested at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport on May 8, while last weekend officials classified him as an “enemy combatant” and transferred him to military detention. Authorities said that the plot was still in the early stages and that Padilla hadn’t obtained the materials to make a so-called “dirty bomb,” which is essentially a regular bomb with some sort of radioactive material stuffed in that would spread when the bomb explodes.

“There was not an actual plan,” said Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz at a news conference yesterday. “We stopped this man in the initial planning stages.”

According to officials, last year Padilla traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he researched how to make a dirty bomb. (One intel official quoted by the Wall Street Journal says that the research consisted of “basically surfing the Internet.”) While there, he discussed the plot with top al-Qaida honchos, including Abu Zubaydah, who is being held by the U.S, and who led authorities to Padilla, although he apparently never actually gave them the guy’s name.

Everybody has similar bio-details on Padilla: He’s 31, was born in Brooklyn, and is a former street gang member who changed his name when he converted to Islam. (The Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and WSJ refer to him by his original name.)

USA Today’s lead emphasizes that Pakistani authorities have nabbed a number of other men who were in some way connected to Padilla, including, the Pakistanis say, “several” U.S. citizens who have been handed over to U.S. authorities.

The Washington Post theorizes why the U.S. decided to classify Padilla as an enemy combatant: Its evidence against him, largely gleaned from foreign sources, may not have been admissible in court, and Padilla was set to have had a judicial hearing in a few days.

As the papers point out, Padilla has not actually been charged with a crime.

Everybody notes that by classifying Padilla as an enemy combatant, authorities can try to deny him a lawyer and hold him indefinitely. Various law professors quoted in the papers say that lawyers are likely to argue that you can’t do that to a U.S. citizen. “It’s going to be hard for the government to keep holding this guy,” said one law prof quoted in the Post

The papers say that that the government did cite a precedent: During WWII, a captured German saboteur, who was being tried as an “unlawful combatant,” claimed U.S. citizenship, and the Supreme Court ruled—”only implicitly, and in vague language,” says the Post—that it didn’t matter. He was later executed.

The papers point out that the administration may have gotten itself into a pickle: When the White House created guidelines last year for trying enemy combatants before tribunals, it specifically exempted Americans. That means if the White House wants to try Padilla as an enemy detainee, it’ll have to change its policy. 

The most measured description of the potential casualties caused by a dirty bomb comes from a NYT editorial: “Experts who testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in March suggested that the number of fatalities would be small, possibly measured in the dozens.” (The editorial also takes a moment to slap Attorney General Ashcroft for “overstating the likely damage when he said a dirty bomb could cause ‘mass death and injury.’ “)

The WP’s off-lead emphasizes that the radioactive material that could form the heart of a dirty bomb can be found in everything from medical devices to food-irradiation machines, and the U.S. has never spent much energy monitoring the stuff.

The LAT off-leads word that “recently, U.S. officials have received unsettling—and specific—indications that al-Qaida has again become a deadly organization with an intact leadership.” The article doesn’t get into details except to say that the leaders are probably reconstituting in the tribal areas of Pakistan. (Source Detector: The most detail the story gives about the sources for the piece is to I.D. one of them as a “Bush administration official.” That suggests to Today’s Papers that the source is the White House, and not, at least directly, intelligence officials.)

Everybody goes high with word that after President Bush met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday he announced that a Mideast peace summit, tentatively set for this summer, would be postponed. “The conditions aren’t even there yet, that’s because no one has confidence in the emerging Palestinian government,” said Bush. The papers point out that Sharon had pushed for the postponement.

Meanwhile, everybody notes that Israeli troops have continued their encirclement of Yasser Arafat’s compound in Ramallah and continue to arrest militants in the town, which is under curfew. The papers are a bit skimpy about what exactly is going on in Ramallah since, as everybody notes, Israel isn’t allowing journalists into the city. 

The NYT notes some Israeli intelligence officers’ conclusion that Arafat’s announced reforms are an effort by the Palestinian leader to actually tighten his own grip on power. The paper also mentions the officers’ assessment “that Arafat is strong enough that he is unlikely to be replaced by new leadership even if Israel banished him.”

The WP notices that when Arafat’s new head of security, Abdel Razak Yehiyeh, was asked about suicide bombings, he didn’t exactly offer up a rousing condemnation. He said, “I think in the current circumstances there are other forms to the struggle that could lead to better results.”

According to a front-page piece in the WP, German authorities are “balking” at handing U.S. prosecutors evidence against alleged al-Qaida operative Zacarias Moussaoui, because he could face the death penalty. The paper says the German officials suggested they would hand over the goods “if Washington can certify that Moussaoui will not be sentenced to death on the basis of German-provided evidence alone.”

The papers all go high with word that a 61,000-acre wildfire is approaching the outskirts of Denver, and authorities have said up to 40,000 people may have to be evacuated. According to Colorado’s governor, “There’s nothing that can be done to stop this fire under current weather and fuel conditions.”

Everybody notes that tensions are continuing to ease up between India and Pakistan. Yesterday, in response to Pakistan’s promise to permanently stop militants from crossing the border, India announced that it would lift its ban on Pakistani airliners flying over India.

The Post reports that of the $2.3 billion raised by the country’s largest charitiesafter 9/11, “29 cents of each dollar has gone to the survivors of those killed.” The number is a based on a survey conducted by the paper, which also found “that roughly 20 cents of each dollar has gone to displaced workers and others affected by the attacks and an additional 40 cents has yet to be distributed.” (The paper doesn’t say where the other 11 cents has gone, though presumably it’s gone to overhead.)

The Post’s piece also mentions this stat: “Families of firefighters who died have already received, on average, about $1 million each—10 times the figure that has typically gone to the families of others killed in the attacks.”

Everybody notes that John Gotti, former head of theGambino crime family, died of cancer yesterday at a federal prison hospital. Gotti was known as the “Teflon Don” for his penchant for flaunting his wealth and power while at the same time avoiding being convicted for a number of years. He was 61. The NYT’s fine obit on Gotti runs over 3,000 words. (By comparison, the recent obit for scientist Stephen Jay Gouldwas about half that long.)