Today's Papers

Silicone Volley

USA Today leads with the Food and Drug Administration’s decision to continue its ban on silicone breast implants, citing continued worries about the implants’ long-term health effects. The “surprise” ruling goes against the recommendation of an in-house advisory panel at the FDA, which had suggested the gel implants be allowed back on the market after a decadelong absence. The New York Times leads with President Bush’s long-anticipated announcement that the U.S. will launch efforts to build a base on the Moon and ultimately send a man to Mars. The initiative, which is also the Los Angeles Times top non-local story, is said to have been conceived as a way to portray Bush as an “inspirational leader” this re-election year. The Washington Post leads with the National Zoo’s admission that its mistakes in record-keeping and treatment likely contributed to the deaths of at least 15 of the 21 animals that have died at the zoo in recent months.

Everybody describes the FDA’s decision yesterday as a major setback for efforts to bring implants back to the market, although the decision yesterday was not a definitive “no.” In what it described as a “non-approvable letter,” the agency deferred an application by a California-based silicone implant developer and asked the company to provide more information about the safety of its implants. In doing so, the FDA also announced new guidelines that set a higher threshold for future requests to sell implants, including tougher research trials of the devices. Specifically, the agency wants to know more about the risk of silicone leaks and what the long-term consequences would be on a woman’s health.

“What we are saying is that we think that a lot of information has been developed over the last 10 years that increases our assurance of the safety” of silicone implants, one FDA official tells the NYT. “But there is additional information that we think is necessary for this product to pass the threshold of what we would consider necessary.”

As everybody notes, many observers had expected the FDA to follow the recommendations of its advisory committee, which approved a return of the silicone implants by a 9-6 vote last October. (USAT describes the move as a “rare rejection” of the panel’s finding.) Now some analysts say it could be as long as three years—if not longer—for the implants to be made available in the US.

According to the papers, despite all the rumors, it’s still unclear exactly what kind of space initiative Bush will announce next week. While the LAT says the proposal is expected to be a “comprehensive blueprint for NASA’s future,” an administration official tells the NYT the proposal could be “broad and open-ended.” Any mission likely wouldn’t be launched until nearly a decade from now—and even that date is up in the air, the papers note, because of series of lingering questions. One: How would it be paid for? Furthermore, what spacecraft would be used? In 10 years, NASA’s current fleet of shuttles will be more than 30 years old, and NASA officials still have no idea how to replace them. “This stuff isn’t cheap,” one expert tells the NYT.

The WP fronts the latest round of attacks against U.S. soldiers in Iraq. A Black Hawk helicopter crashed in west-central Iraq, killing all nine soldiers on board, after witnesses said it was hit by rocket fire. (The Army has declined to say what caused the crash.) Meanwhile, a military transport plane carrying more than 60 people made an emergency landing in Baghdad after being hit by a surface-to-air missile, the paper reports. Meanwhile, the LAT and USAT pick up on early-morning wire reports of raids in Tikrit, where 13 Iraqis are suspected of plotting attacks on coalition forces.

The NYT stuffs what seems to be a major admission yesterday from Secretary of State Colin Powell: Despite insinuations to the contrary by a slew of administration officials, Powell says he’s never been presented with definitive evidence to back up a link between al-Qaida and Iraq. “I have not seen smoking-gun, concrete evidence about the connection,” Powell told reporters in a briefing yesterday. “But I think the possibility of such connections did exist, and it was prudent to consider them at the time that we did.” Last year, Powell, in pressing the case for war against Iraq, told members of the U.N. Security Council that there was a “sinister nexus” between Iraq and al-Qaida and cited as evidence that Iraq was home to a terrorist group with ties to Osama Bin Laden. “Iraqi officials deny accusations of ties with al-Qaida. These denials are simply not credible,” Powell told the U.N. Yesterday, the secretary defended his remarks and described criticism as second-guessing.

Meanwhile, USAT stuffs word that President Bush’s foreign policy is “on a hot streak.” The paper cites recent developments in Libya, Iran, and North Korea, as well as the capture of Saddam and the apparent consensus on writing off most of Iraq’s $150 billion * foreign debt as evidence that the Bush administration has either achieved—or is about to—a slew of major foreign policy successes. While Bush’s critics somewhat grudgingly admit that the president is having a good run, the paper cites another reason for the White House’s sudden luck: Bush isn’t as bad at diplomacy as once thought. “The administration was never as bad as some people wanted to say they were, just as they aren’t as good now,” says one analyst.

On the health front, everybody goes high with news of the latest food worry: Eating farm-raised salmon might be bad for you. A study published in the journal Science found higher levels of PCBs and cancer-causing contaminants in salmon raised in ocean feedlots, than in wild salmon—but it’s at levels still below limits set by the federal government, the NYT reports.

The nation’s terror threat level will likely be lowered from orange to yellow as early as today, the WP reports. Meanwhile, federal law enforcement sources tell the LAT that they have determined that there were no known terrorists among the passengers ticketed for an ultimately canceled Air France flight bound from Paris to Los Angeles on Christmas.

Finally, on the campaign trail, the NYT reports that Democratic presidential hopeful Wesley Clark is out to lure the ladies—to vote for him, that is. To show off his sensitive side, Clark recently ditched his trademark navy suit and loafers in favor of an apparently female-friendly argyle sweater, corduroys, and duck boots. An argyle sweater and duck boots. Is that what lured Madonna into the fold? TP’s inherent dislike of Martha Stewart-chic aside, the tactic seems to be working. Says one female supporter, who says she didn’t want to elect “one more defensive, arrogant male”: “What I found was that it’s part of (Clark’s) nature to understand the lives of women.”

Correction, Jan. 9, 2004: This piece originally referred to Iraq’s “$150 million foreign debt.” The correct figure is $150 billion. Return to corrected sentence.