Today's Papers

Comet Hunter

The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times lead with updates on flight cancellations, including one from London to Washington yesterday and three between London and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, this weekend. (They both front the same runway photo of a French armored vehicle next to a jetliner.) The New York Times off-leads this, and goes instead with Iran’s rejection of an American offer to send an earthquake-relief delegation led by Elizabeth Dole, the senator and former American Red Cross president. (The LAT and WP put this inside.)

Fifteen flights have been cancelled, delayed, or escorted by fighters in the last two weeks (WP), including seven outright cancellations in the last week (NYT). A French official told French radio that “a few days ago” his government overrode a U.S. request to cancel a flight. (Only the NYT story has this bit, and only in its final paragraph.) The NYT also reveals that President Bush himself authorized some of the cancellations. All the papers note that one of the “terrorist” names on a flight manifest turned out to be a five-year old. The WP says that all of the suspicious names so far have been mistaken identities (it credits the Wall Street Journal for breaking this), but that one passenger—a trained pilot of Middle Eastern descent—did not show for a flight and has disappeared. The NYT paraphrases (secondhand, and anonymously) a French diplomat badmouthing American security restrictions, but the LAT and WP quote the French interior minister publicly endorsing them.

The Post fronts word that the U.S. has been helping to protect Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf. A U.S.-provided detonation-jamming device in Musharraf’s limousine may have saved his life on Dec. 14, when a bomb exploded a minute after he passed. U.S. assistance for Musharraf does not extend to bodyguards, as it does for U.S.-installed Afghani leader Hamid Karzai. A Pakistani newspaper reports that one of the suicide bombers from the Dec. 26 attempt on Musharraf’s life has been tied to the Taliban and Laskhar-e-Muhammed, an Al Qaeda-linked group originally set up by Pakistan to fight in Kashmir. Meanwhile, four Islamic militants in Kashmir killed four Indian soldiers on the eve of the Indian prime minister’s visit to Islamabad.

The WP and LAT front the capture of cone dust by the NASA spacecraft Stardust as it flew less than 150 miles from a comet’s core. The comet spent the last 4.5 billion years in a deep freeze at the end of the solar system before it was flung toward Mars in 1974. As a result, it likely contains chemicals present at the solar system’s creation–elements that used to be in planets before their alteration by solar heat or geologic upheaval. If the Stardust safely returns to earth with the comet matter in 2006, it will represent the first human capture of non-lunar interstellar material. The papers are even more excited by the engineering than the science: The Stardust captured tiny grains flying six times the speed of a bullet with “aerogel,” a composite of 99.8 percent air and .2 percent silicon dioxide—like glass, the Post helpfully explains, except 1,000 times less dense. Scientists had to maneuver the craft close enough to get samples and pictures, but not so close that it was destroyed (the dust would vaporize a man in a spacesuit).

The LAT front page reveals that the IRS is auditing 800 of its 115,000 employees for suspicious small-business-expense deductions on their tax returns. An employee tip prompted the Justice Department’s inspector general to examine at random 25 staff filings with such deductions; half appeared to be questionable.

The LAT front also brings word that a Democratic district attorney in Texas is investigating the legality of hundreds of thousands of corporate dollars used to finance the G.O.P’s 2002 takeover of the state legislature. Most of the money is linked to U.S. House Majority Leader Tom Delay. Campaign finance experts say the case will test the legality of using soft money, now banned in federal elections, for state and local contests.      

All the papers note the death of an American serviceman in Falluja when his helicopter was shot down. Separately, Iraqis held a street protest in Baghdad against the U.S. military’s recent mosque raid, which resulted in 32 arrests. The LAT mentions another U.S. military death when a truck flipped.

The LAT reports, inside, the U.S. Navy’s arrest of 15 suspected Al Qaeda marijuana smugglers aboard a boat in the Arabian Sea. It is the third such seizure that the U.S. has linked to Al Qaeda (without releasing its evidence).

A Post editorial notes that the District of Columbia’s 2003 homocide tally, 248, exceeds the number of U.S. congressmen in either party. “Anyone who considers last year’s body count a sign of progress because 14 fewer people were killed than in 2002 is either delusional or emotionally deadened to the cruelty, destruction, and human anguish that are associated with murder,” the editors write. “In a civilized society, the District’s homicide rate remains nothing short of horrifying.” 

The LAT runs a wire story on famous Australian “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin, who yesterday dethroned Michael Jackson as the King of Reckless Infant Endangerment. Irwin entertained an audience by holding his month-old son in one arm while feeding a 13-foot croc a dead chicken from the other. (See the photo.) Irwin’s wife, at least, stands by her man: “It was a wonderful sensory experience for [the baby],” she said. “He dug it.”