Today's Papers

Lord of War

The New York Timesleads with an investigation into a weapons contractor that has been providing Afghan security forces with lots of old and useless ammunition. The company, AEY Inc., is led by a 22-year-old who has no discernible experience in military procurement and has had problems with the law. After the paper began making inquiries, the Army decided to suspend AEY from any further contracts, but it seems clear the problems with the munitions were fairly obvious to anyone who was bothering to pay attention. USA Todayleads with a look at how Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr has the power to paralyze vital sections of the Iraqi government. Sadr loyalists control several ministries and services, and they’ve heeded the cleric’s call for a nationwide strike, which is raising fears that basic services throughout the country could come to a standstill. The Wall Street Journal leads its world-wide newsbox with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki warning Shiite fighters that they have three days to drop their weapons. The clashes, which continued to rage in Baghdad and southern Iraq, have killed around 140 people.

The Washington Postand Los Angeles Timeslead with Sen. John McCain’s first major foreign-policy speech since clinching the Republican presidential nomination, where he carefully distanced himself from the Bush administration while also emphasizing his support for the Iraq war. McCain called himself a “realistic idealist” and said it’s important for the United States to vigorously pursue diplomacy to attract “others to our cause.” He said, “I detest war,” that fighting terrorism shouldn’t be seen as a primarily military endeavor, and that the United States should use aid, diplomacy, and trade to gain favor in the Muslim world. The LAT notes the speech “showed McCain in a political pivot” as he moves from the Republican primaries to the general-election campaign, where he knows he has to broaden his base of support by appealing to independents and Democrats.

The NYT’s lead story, which clocks in at more than 4,000 words and involves reporting by seven reporters in as many countries, has several key pieces of damning information, and each could have made up a story by itself, but added together they paint a shocking picture of the underworld of the arms trade, not to mention the inefficiencies in the federal procurement process. Here’s a highlight: Some of the ammunition provided by AEY is more than 40 years old; much of it came from former Communist countries and involves obsolete stockpiles that the State Department has paid to destroy; to maximize profits, the materiel was often sent in inappropriate packages that quickly disintegrated; AEY appears to have done business with people whom the federal government suspects of illegal arms trafficking; and millions of pieces of ammunition were manufactured in China, which could mean the company broke U.S. law. Not enough for you? To top it all off, a conversation between the company’s president and an Albanian businessman, which was secretly recorded, suggest the 22-year-old executive was well-aware that his purchases involved lots of kickbacks and corruption.

Despite all the information, the story raises almost as many troubling questions as answers. Primarily, how did AEY get away with this for so long? And how on earth did a previously unknown company manage to get such high-value contracts? Perhaps more important, though, how many companies like AEY are there out there? As the NYT points out, AEY is only one of many small contractors that seemed to rise out of nowhere when federal dollars started flowing for the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. Needless to say, the whole piece is well-worth a read.

As fighting continues to rage in Baghdad and southern Iraq, the Health Ministry, which is controlled by Sadr loyalists, was deserted yesterday. If the strike continues, it could have tragic consequences for Iraq’s hospitals. And Sadr’s influence goes far beyond the health sector. The cleric’s followers have the power to “stop all the daily affairs of government,” a professor at Baghdad University tells USAT. “They can stop services, schools, and bring the economy to a standstill.”

Yesterday, TP wondered whether the Iraqi security forces in Basra are really targeting all Shiite militias or whether, as Sadr contends, they’re focusing simply on the Mahdi Army. Today, the NYT seems to have somewhat of an answer and reports that most of the operations seemed to focus on neighborhoods controlled by Sadr’s Mahdi Army. “In fact, some witnesses said, neighborhoods controlled by rival political groups seemed to be giving government forces safe passage, as if they were helping them to strike at the Mahdi Army,” reports the NYT. So far, it doesn’t seem like Iraq’s security forces are gaining much ground, and they appear beset by operational problems. If you’re confused about the different Shiite groups vying for control of Basra, you can at least take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone. “The landscape is one of enormous complexity,” explains the NYT, because there are a number of armed groups that have taken control over key parts of the city’s economy. But it’s important to remember that the groups from which Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki derives much of his political power have been clashing with the Mahdi Army lately.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials are characterizing the offensive as a good example of how Maliki is taking security matters into his own hands. But the WP talks to a Kurdish legislator who says he doesn’t understand why Maliki chose to carry out the offensive now when there are so many other pressing problems and insists the prime minister didn’t discuss the operations with parliament.

The WSJ reminds readers that the recent violence isn’t the only pressing concern for U.S. officials and points out that there’s a real risk many Sunni fighters who have joined local security forces will go back to acting as insurgents. Add to that the possibility that Sadr will officially call off his cease-fire and that most of the additional U.S. “surge” troops are getting ready to go back home, and it all adds up to an easily combustible situation. “All three of the factors holding down the violence are unwinding at the same time, which is a pretty big deal,” a U.S. professor tells the WSJ.

The WP fronts word that the United States has been increasing the number of attacks against al-Qaida targets in Pakistan’s tribal areas because officials know the window of opportunity for carrying them out may be closing. Predators have struck at least three al-Qaida sites over the past two months, killing around 45 fighters. Some have warned that airstrikes can’t be all that effective without more special forces on the ground, but officials realize the new parliament is likely to curtail these types of attacks in the near future, so they’re trying to get as many in as they can in the meantime.

The LAT fronts apologies from the writer and editor responsible for a story published last week about a 1994 attack against rapper Tupac Shakur. LAT reporter Chuck Philips partly based his story on what he said were FBI documents that tie Sean “Diddy” Combs to the shooting of Shakur that sparked a West Coast vs. East Coast rap war. Yesterday, the Smoking Gun said the paper was fooled by a con artist who forged the documents. “In relying on documents that I now believe were fake, I failed to do my job,” Philips said in a statement Wednesday. “I’m sorry.” LAT’s editor, Russ Stanton, said the paper will conduct an internal review but said that “the bottom line is that the documents we relied on should not have been used.”

Back to the past: Yesterday, in a column that surveyed the way people get political information from the Internet, the WSJ’s Lee Gomes went mid-’90s on his readers to talk (of all things) e-mail technology. The paper noted that e-mail is “an easy and effective way for people to share ideas with friends about what might be going on with the candidates.” TP thought it couldn’t get much worse than that, but then today’s Page One (!) NYT story comes along, where Brian Stelter reveals that (brace yourselves here) people, and more specifically “younger voters,” are “not just consumers of news … but conduits as well.” That means these young people send out stories and videos to their friends, who often share stuff as well so they all keep each other informed. “In one sense, this social filter is simply a technological version of the oldest tool in politics: word of mouth.” Exactly.