Today's Papers

Catching Some Aziz

The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and USA Today lead with North Korea’s disclosure that it indeed has nuclear weapons and with ambiguous statements a North Korean representative may or may not have made threatening to “test them, use them or export them.” The New York Times off-leads North Korea and—along with the Wall Street Journal’s world-wide newsbox—leads with the surrender to U.S. forces of Iraq’s former deputy prime minister, the photogenic Tariq Aziz, whose capture the WP off-leads, the LAT fronts, and USAT reefers.

The papers all have slightly different accounts of what happened in talks among the U.S., China, and North Korea. During the official talks, everyone acknowledges the North Korean representative claimed that his country had “successfully reprocessed almost all of the 8,000 spent fuel rods” that it has been threatening to reprocess, a feat that U.S. intelligence cannot verify. Later, a North Korean official apparently pulled aside U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly and declared that his country indeed has nuclear bombs, something that the U.S. has long suspected. According to one “bizarre” account in the WSJ, the official then told Kelly that whether North Korea uses, tests, or exports the bombs “depends on your next step.” While the WP’s lead specifically cites the threat as well, the NYT’s off-lead writes around it, and the LAT’s sources insist that no threat “to test or export” was ever made: “They used ambiguous language about what they might do and then said, ‘It all depends on you.’ “

Although the papers all mention unnamed administration hawks who want to strike North Korea militarily or set up a tough new sanctions regime in response, they also cite sources who say ambiguous North Korean offers to dismantle its nuclear weapons program signal that more talks may be forthcoming. “There was a lot of bluster,” one “source” told the LAT. “They were obnoxious at times and also ambiguous at times. The best summary is that they were North Koreans. This is the way these people act.”

The surrender of Tariq Aziz, perhaps the best-known Iraqi official apart from Saddam Hussein, was negotiated over the course of four satellite-phone conversations between U.S. officials and an “American citizen who is a friend of Mr. Aziz and his family,” according to the WSJ, which has by far the most specific account of the event (subscription required). The Journal, alone among papers in speaking with this intermediary, also reports that U.S. officials asked that the source “not disclose his identity, as he also is negotiating the surrender of other high-level Iraqis.” Better yet, this talkative American said he spoke to a high-ranking Iraqi who claimed to have seen Saddam a couple of days ago, although no independent confirmation was possible.

Without the inside scoop, the best parts of the Aziz stories in the WP, LAT, and NYT (in a separate piece inside) are their descriptions of his powdery white hair, geek-chic glasses, love of cigars, and reporter-friendly habit of quoting Shakespeare.

The SARS epidemic continues to rage, prompting a sweeping, panicked quarantine in Beijing, where entire blocks and hospitals have been cordoned off with yellow police tape, according to stories that the WP and NYT front, USAT reefers, and the LAT stuffs. The WP also fronts perhaps the most harrowing story of the bunch: The mysterious disease’s death rate has doubled in recent days, and scientists don’t know whether it’s a statistical fluke or if SARS is actually becoming more deadly.

Deeper down in their Aziz-surrender stories, both the WP and NYT report that the self-proclaimed mayor of Baghdad continued grandstanding yesterday, touring hospitals, water facilities, and neighborhoods like a “big-city mayor,” even as Pentagon point-man Jay Garner saccharinely offered to “show him how” to leave the country if Baghdad residents demanded it.

The NYT reports inside that Iran disputes U.S. claims it is “interfering” in Iraq. In fact, at a press conference in Tehran with his French counterpart, Iran’s foreign minister made a similar observation to one TP floated yesterday: “It is very interesting that the Americans have occupied Iraq but they accuse Iraq’s neighbor of interfering in its affairs.”

Also buried in the 10th graph of that piece, and stuffed by the LAT, is Iran’s announcement that it has released the five remaining Jews imprisoned there since 2000 on charges of spying for Israel.

The WP and WSJ, alone among papers, run news that Attorney General John Ashcroft overruled an appellate panel of immigration judges with his decision that the U.S. has the right to detain illegal immigrants indefinitely regardless of their personal circumstances.

The LAT off-leads, and the NYT and WP go inside with Bush’s trip to Ohio to push his tax-cut plan—and to embarrass a GOP senator there who opposes it. As usual, the WP’s Dana Milbank actually checks up on what Bush said. “That’s not my projection,” Bush said at one point in reference to a prediction his plan would create more than a million jobs. “That’s the projection of a lot of smart economists who have analyzed the package.” In fact, Milbank points out, it is the prediction of Bush’s own Council of Economic Advisers, and independent economists dispute it.

The IRS plans to ask more than 4 million working poor people for much more exhaustive proof in order to claim a tax credit, according to a front-page piece in the NYT. Critics cite IRS figures that show the government loses far more money in underreporting from rich people than it does in payments to poor ones. “If they give you money, they want an exact accounting for it,” a former IRS commissioner told the NYT. “If they don’t collect the money, then they really don’t care.”

Inside man? … The NYT also fronts an entire piece summarizing Bush’s NBC Nightly News interview last night. The piece itself is worth skipping except for one thing: Dubya said he’d frequently pop out of meetings to catch TV appearances by former Iraqi information minister and media darling Mohammed Al-Sahhaf: “He’s my man; he was great. Somebody accused us of hiring him and putting him there. He was a classic.”