Today's Papers

Gross Domestic Progress

The New York Times and Los Angeles Times lead with word that North Korea has tentatively agreed to multilateral talks with the United States and four other countries over its nuclear weapons program. USA Today, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal (online, at least) lead with the improving economy. While the job market is still in the toilet (and will be until at least next year, the government says), the gross domestic product, the total value of the nation’s output of goods and services, grew at an annual rate of 2.4 percent during the second quarter of this year—1 percent faster than a year ago. One reason for the increase, according to the WSJ: defense spending, which experienced its biggest quarterly growth since the Korean War more than 50 years ago.

The meetings with North Korea—still regarded as tentative since they were announced by Russia and not Pyongyang itself—are expected to occur in September. The papers describe the talks as a “breakthrough,” since North Korea for months had said it would negotiate only with Washington. Now, in addition to the U.S., the negotiations will include Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea. Yet, as the NYT notes, the development fell “far short of anything indicating an imminent breakthrough on substance.”

By all accounts, the biggest hurdle likely will be what the U.S. will offer North Korea in exchange for giving up the arms race. The WP, which previewed this battle last week, says the administration remains split over whether to agree to the nonaggression guarantee that North Korea has long sought. “Nonaggression agreements went out with the 1920’s,” an unnamed senior administration official tells the NYT.

Hard-liners in the administration question whether North Korea can be trusted, since it broke an earlier agreement to halt its nuclear ambitions. According to the NYT, some U.S. officials want up the pressure on Pyongyang “economically, politically and perhaps militarily in hopes that the government would collapse.”

One of those people apparently is Undersecretary of State John Bolton, who, in a speech in South Korea yesterday, described North Korea as a “hellish nightmare” and appeared to make the case for regime change in the country several times over. According to the WP, Bolton, a close ally of Vice President Dick Cheney and the Pentagon, mentioned North Korean leader Kim Jong-il nearly 40 times during the speech, at one point calling him a “tyrannical rogue leader.”

The NYT, on Page One, says the U.S. is mulling over the creation of a special tribunal of Iraqi judges to try Saddam Hussein, if he’s captured alive. The idea of tribunals isn’t new—the LAT broke the story back in April—but back then, the U.S. expected to play a leading role in trying Saddam and other high-level Iraqis, while Iraqi judges would have full control over other low-level war criminals. Now it appears the U.S. wants to create a “tribunal that would have the stature to be seen as free of American control.”

In Baghdad yesterday, Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator of the country, told Iraqi diplomats that a hand-over of power could come sooner than expected, possibly by next summer, the LAT reports. Some, predictably, say Bremer is being too optimistic—and that the announcement, surprise, surprise, might have been fueled by politics. “The key issue is that the Bush administration would like to produce some results for the American public,” a “high-ranking staff member for the Iraqi council” tells the LAT. “They didn’t find any weapons of mass destruction, and if there’s no elected government, no elections, no real democracy by the time of the 2004 elections, it would be a big, big debacle.”

Meanwhile, the WP notices the Bush administration is now using a “different rationale” for the war in Iraq. Instead of focusing on weapons of mass destruction, Bushies are now citing the bigger goal of bringing peace to the Middle East, which they contend would reduce the terror threat against America. An unnamed “senior administration official” tells the WP that U.S. has embarked on a goal similar to its efforts to transform post-World War II Germany, a long-term strategy to spread American values throughout the Middle East. “Our values and security are inextricably linked,” the official says.

Speaking of weapons, USAT fronts and everybody else stuffs word from David Kay, the former U.N. weapons inspector who is now leading the search for arms in Iraq, that Iraqi scientists have led searchers to new sites suspected of being used to produce banned arms. No weapons have been found, Kay says, but searchers have uncovered evidence of Iraqi efforts to hide weapons from inspectors.

The WP and NYT front and others stuff official confirmation of the WSJ’s scoop yesterday on the pending resignation of John Poindexter over the Pentagon’s trading futures fracas.

Everybody goes high with the Vatican’s memo to Catholic lawmakers yesterday instructing them to block efforts to legalize gay marriage. “To vote in favor of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral,” the 12-page document, published in multiple languages, warns. “”Marriage is holy, while homosexual acts go against the natural moral law.” While it’s a noteworthy warning, the papers note that its practical effects are pretty much null. Most Catholic lawmakers have found ways to separate their political votes and their religion, the WP notes. Also, it’s been a long time since the Vatican tried to impose church penalties—like excommunication—on a politician who failed to toe the church line. Meanwhile, an LAT piece notes that members of Congress have been jumping on the bandwagon to endorse legislation that would ban same-sex unions.

The WSJ fronts an interesting look at how rival telecoms Verizon and AT&T joined forces to go after competitor MCI after executives for the companies felt the telecom wasn’t punished enough for the accounting irregularities that subsequently led to its bankruptcy. After months of pressing Congress and other federal regulators to further investigate the company, Verizon and AT&T got lucky: A single phone call from an MCI engineer alerted them to proof that MCI might be defrauding them by improperly routing calls. In a related development, MCI, now under investigation for those allegations, was suspended yesterday from receiving new contracts from the government.

Finally, LAT writer Chuck Phillips, who caught a lot of flak for reporting that the rapper Biggie Smalls was the man behind recording rival Tupac Shakur’s murder, is back with another installment on the violent rap feud. Phillips says, perhaps not surprisingly, that LAPD investigators think that someone is now gunning for Suge Knight, the head of Death Row Records and key player in the Biggie-Tupac drama. Over the last year or so, some of Knight’s closest associates and bodyguards have been killed in unsolved slayings. When asked if he fears that he might be next, Knight, a former gang member who reportedly still maintains ties to the groups, compares himself to Jesus Christ. “Anyone who reads the Bible knows Jesus was no punk. He didn’t hide from nobody,” Knight says. “The threat of danger didn’t stop him from doing what he had to do. That’s how it is with me too. I fear no man. Only God.”