The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times lead with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s unexpected proposal to amend his country’s constitution to permit direct, multiparty presidential elections sometime this year. The free vote would be a first for Egypt, which Mubarak has governed unchallenged since 1981. The Washington Post reefers the democratic buzz out of Egypt but leads with allegations that Iran bought nuclear designs and materials from associates of infamous Pakistani nuclear black marketer A.Q. Khan nearly two decades ago. Investigators recently turned up evidence of the transaction, apparently the outgrowth of a “secret meeting” between Iranian officials and Khan deputies in 1987. One anonymous diplomat calls the findings “the strongest indication to date that Iran had a nuclear weapons program.”
Analysts have pegged growing pressure from the Bush administration and the recent electoral examples of nearby Iraq and Palestine as the inspiration behind Mubarak’s call for reform. (The LAT also notices that Cairo has been waiting for a $1 billion economic aid package from the U.S. which has been mysteriously held up.) But whether the democratic overture actually marks “a new political era” remains to be seen. Critics caution that Egypt’s parliament, which must make the constitutional amendment, “has a long history of diluting reforms.”
Some U.S. officials are hoping the new evidence of Iran’s nuclear aspirations will convince Europe that it’s time to take the Islamic Republic before the U.N. Security Council. That, however, seems like a long shot, since the latest intelligence is riddled with the usual caveats: While suspicious, the Post notes, “there is no evidence the materials were assembled in a manner consistent with bomb-building.”
In a related story, the LAT offers an update on its excellent series of reports on the A.Q. Khan nuclear network. Weapons specialists reviewing nuclear warhead plans that Khan sold to Libya have been surprised by the documents’ sophistication and level of detail. Khan’s far-flung ring was shut down last year, but investigators are now beginning to worry that they didn’t act soon enough.
Everybody notes that Palestinian militants Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for Friday’s suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. Israel decried Syria for harboring the group and seemed careful to keep all blame away from new Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who spoke out strongly against the attack. Israeli and Palestinian security forces have already arrested at least seven suspects.
The CIA is fretting about the possible prosecution of officers involved in the interrogation and detention of terror suspects, reports the NYT. So far, just one CIA contract employee has been slapped with criminal charges, but the agency’s inspector general is said to be reviewing several other cases of alleged misconduct. Legal implications could be particularly tricky, too, since officers used as their guideline a 2002 legal opinion that has since been repudiated by the Justice Department.
In a similar spirit, the Post goes inside with a swansong for the glory days of the CIA. With John Negroponte gearing up to become national director of intelligence, the WP predicts that the special relationship between the Oval Office and Langley will wither. Additionally, the FBI and the Pentagon may take over some of the CIA’s traditional duties. One wistful former agent calls the CIA “a wounded gazelle on the African plain.”
The papers all give Page One space to the arrest of the BTK strangler in Wichita, Kansas. Police identified BTK—a self-chosen acronym for “bind, torture, and kill,” his preferred method of murder—as Dennis Rader, a 59-year-old municipal employee. Authorities believe that he killed 10 people over the course of three decades.
The Post fronts a probing look at the “climate of fear” that has infiltrated the Russian judicial system under the presidency of Vladimir Putin. Judges who are seen as being too lenient face censure from a no-nonsense disciplinary body known as the Qualification Collegium. This, in turn, has created an emphasis on the quick and almost inevitable conviction of defendants that harkens back to the old Soviet system of jurisprudence.
One of the hot-button issues of the new Iraqi government will be deciding whether political parties can keep their militias, Edward Wong reports in the NYT. The Kurds, whose peshmerga militia totals 100,000 soldiers, are particularly adamant about maintaining their private army. The debate so far has been an awkward one for American authorities. On the one hand, they dislike the splintering of power and the potential for “warlordism.” On the other, they need the Kurdish soldiers to help out with security.
Both the NYT and the WP check in on President Bush’s ambitious plan to remake Social Security with private investment accounts. The Times takes a look back over Bush’s political career and finds him gunning for a more market-oriented Social Security system as early as 1978. The Post, meanwhile, notices weary congressional Republicans already picking up on constituent hostility to the plan. Many are eager to compromise with Democrats in order to avoid the serious political fallout of a “Hillarycare”-style legislative defeat.
Many happy returns … The Post’s Dana Milbank reports inside that Ralph Nader is celebrating his 71st birthday the old-fashioned way—by soliciting money from strangers. His former presidential campaign, still in the red four months after the elections, recently sent out an e-mail asking supporters to help square their debts in honor of Nader’s big day. The message offered 71 reasons to give, including, most notably, “his non-stop advocacy for the legalization of industrial hemp” and his role as “the driving force behind the Tort Museum in his hometown of Winsted, Connecticut.”