The New York Times leads with a new theory in the intelligence community that North Korea has a secret plutonium-processing plant. The Washington Post leads with the U.S. military’s plan to assemble, in the next few weeks, a 3,500-strong militia of Iraqis that will conduct security operations alongside American troops. The Los Angeles Times leads with California Gov. Gray Davis’ first anti-recall rally, held the same day as a ruling which makes a recall election within three months almost certain. None of the leads appears on the others’ fronts.
The anonymously sourced NYT lead is a follow-up of sorts to last Tuesday’s story that revealed North Korea’s claim to have converted 8,000 spent fuel rods to weapons-grade plutonium. This boast confused American officials, today’s article says, because North Korea’s one known nuclear plant has been operating at too low a capacity to account for 8,000 rods. But a report from a South Korean spy and readings by U.S. air sensors at the border have convinced some “American and Asian officials” that the new rods may have been converted at a hidden plant. If true, the Times notes, Washington would lose one of its strategic options—a pre-emptive airstrike against the known plant. The article mentions that, because of the political climate, “White House officials have been told only informally of the new evidence” by the CIA, but it fails to explain how, exactly, top-secret intel gets from Langley to the White House “informally.” Semaphore in the Rose Garden? A midnight IM to Condoleezza?
The U.S. commander in the Gulf, Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, tells the Post that “the Iraqis want to be in the fight; we intend to get them in the fight.” The U.S. will raise 10 Iraqi battalions of 350 soldiers, each of which will be trained by, and operate with, a U.S. division or regiment. The article reports that the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council supports the move as a way to improve communication between troops and citizens and as a way to reduce the propaganda value of assassinating troops. The NYT scores an exclusive interview of its own, off-leading a discussion with the war’s chief allied air commander about the extensive pre-war bombing of Iraq under the guise of punishing Saddam Hussein for breaching U.N. no-fly zones. The article implies that the 606 bombs dropped on Iraq during the last half of 2002 allowed the U.S. to begin the war without an extensive air assault. The Post off-leads a feature on the collapse of the Iraqi army based on interviews with about two dozen former officers, most of them named. Most say that they ordered their troops to disband when the fall of Baghdad became inevitable, and all agree that no chemical or biological weapons were issued.
The NYT fronts a long report retailing the United States’ near-blackout of intelligence on Iraq weapons after U.N. inspectors left in 1998. At various times during the buildup to war the administration implied that it had more accurate intelligence than the new inspectors could ever hope to assemble, when in fact the White House was merely extrapolating from five-to-10-year-old data. Administration officials now admit to the five-year vacuum but assert that the pre-’98 info implied a clear pattern of WMD development. The Post places below the fold an examination of other dubious intelligence claims made by President Bush outside of the State of the Union, such as his assertion that Iraq could mount a biological or chemical attack in 45 minutes, or that Iraq was harboring al-Qaida operatives. The article’s headline, “White House Didn’t Gain CIA Nod for Claim on Iraq Strikes,” makes hay of a non-issue, since the article itself concedes that the CIA never vets routine speeches by the president.
Two Democratic presidential candidates receive profiles. In the WP, Richard Gephardt tries to make himself out to be a man of humble Midwestern piety—as opposed to Bush’s swaggering, Texan kind—and, of course, the man with a comprehensive plan for health care, which may prove to be 2004’s defining domestic issue. The LAT shows Carol Moseley Braun to be a candidate with no detailed policy papers and a tarnished past. Her campaign can be distilled to a single quote: “Mine is the face of the American dream, it’s just black and female.”
The NYT and LAT front pages today display a striking contrast in photographic sensibility. The NYT photo looks like a Matisse, bursting with the supersaturated color and asymmetrical shapes of a Miami parade for the late salsa singer Celia Cruz. The LAT photo looks more like “Guernica,” with Liberian civilians fleeing in chaos from rebel troops with bandoliers and machine guns.