Today's Papers

Nine for the Show

The Washington Postand Wall Street Journal’s world-wide newsbox lead with, and the Los Angeles Timesfronts, news that Iran test-fired nine missiles yesterday, including at least one capable of striking Israel. “Our hands are always on the trigger and our missiles are ready for launch,” a top Iranian military leader said. U.S. officials tried to downplay the move, saying it demonstrates that Iran’s missiles pose a real threat but essentially dismissing the tests as simple saber-rattling. The LAT leads with Defense Secretary Robert Gates announcing that the Pentagon will reopen bidding on the troubled contract to replace the Air Force’s aging aerial refueling tankers. The move followed last month’s report by the Government Accountability Office that found the process by which the Air Force selected Northrop Grumman for the project over Boeing was flawed. In what was yet another very public rebuke of the Air Force, Gates announced his office would oversee the process and select the winner. He said he wants a new contract to be in place by the end of the year, but many predict the whole process could take much longer.

The New York Timesleads with the Senate overwhelmingly, and unsurprisingly, approving a bill that expands the government’s surveillance powers and effectively grants immunity to telecommunications companies that helped the National Security Agency’s post-Sept. 11 spying efforts. By a 69-28 vote, senators approved “the biggest revamping of federal surveillance law in 30 years.” As was widely expected, Sen. Barack Obama, who had earlier spoken up against any immunity provision for the phone companies, voted for the measure. Sen. Hillary Clinton voted against the bill. USA Today leads with an analysis of census data that shows some cities in the Midwest saw a modest growth in population last year. The data suggest that problems in the housing market have “disrupted a long-term migration by Americans to the Sun Belt,” notes USAT.

The WSJ highlights that the Iran missile tests “appeared to be a response” to Israel’s not-so-subtle military exercise last month, which was widely seen as a trial run for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Although the tests could be seen as a simple show of strength, it’s far from clear what message Iran wanted to send about new talks with the West that are expected to resume this month, particularly since U.S. officials had recently been more publicly optimistic about the negotiations. The Post gives what is perhaps the most interesting revelation from the tests near the end of its story, noting that some think the missile that could hit Israel—as well as U.S. troops in Iraq—is clearly being refined to carry nuclear weapons. “If they are not developing nuclear weapon for this missile, why are they continuing to test it?” one expert said. “It is worthless otherwise.” But some also said the missiles tested might not be as powerful as Iran claims, and the tests could have simply been a high-profile way for Iran to get rid of some old weapons. For its part, Israel was muted in its response, and the government’s spokesman merely said that Jerusalem “does not desire hostility and conflict with Iran.”

The presidential candidates, of course, were quick to respond to Iran’s actions. While they both emphasized that the move demonstrated how Iran remains a threat, the candidates used the opportunity to highlight their differences. Sen. Barack Obama called for the United States and its allies to pursue “direct, aggressive, and sustained diplomacy.” Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain said the tests demonstrate the need for missile-defense systems and criticized Obama for saying that he would be willing to negotiate with Iran without preconditions. Obama responded by saying that just because he would be willing to start talks with hostile nations, it doesn’t mean that the discussions would be at the presidential level.

The Post’s Dan Balz notes in a front-page analysis that Obama’s vote in favor of the new intelligence surveillance bill put him at odds with leaders of his party, and was the latest example of the presumptive nominee’s much-talked-about move to the center. While Obama’s ability to “confound both left and right” might be a sign of a good politician, “it has left unanswered important questions about his core principles and his presidential priorities.” So far, Obama hasn’t picked up a signature issue that could help explain what his core political philosophy consists of and might help define the candidate. Some Democrats say Obama has to be clear about his priorities in order to avoid problems once he gets to the White House.

But does all this wrangling over Obama’s shift to the center really matter to Democratic voters? Some who follow the minutiae of the daily campaign might care, but the LAT says that most Democrats are too  focused on the bigger picture  to give it much thought. “When I hear people complaining,” one Democratic strategist explained, “I tell them I have one thing to say: ‘President John McCain. Three Supreme Court appointments.’ That’s all I need to say.” Of course, some are definitely troubled by the shift (Obama says anyone who thinks he’s changed positions hasn’t been paying attention), but most are still more interested in just making sure that a Democrat is in the White House next year. The shift does give an opportunity for Republicans to say that Obama is just like any other politician who panders to win votes, but the truth is that McCain is more than a little vulnerable to  “charges of flip-flopping,” notes the LAT.

USAT fronts results from its latest poll, which shows Obama leading McCain, 48 percent to 42 percent. Although that margin might seem slim, the paper digs a little deeper and sorts the electorate into six groups of voters to demonstrate that Obama leads among those who are more enthusiastic about the election and are firm in their decision on whom they want in the Oval Office. The “enthusiasm gap” clearly provides a challenge to McCain, but the good news for him is that his supporters tend to be those who reliably vote. On the other hand, a big chunk of Obama’s supporters are people who historically have been less likely to show up on Election Day. And too much enthusiasm carries its own risks because “all that energy sometimes is fragile if you make a big mistake,” Democratic strategist Joe Trippi said.

The NYT gets word that there’s recently been a spike in the number of foreign fighters who are traveling to Pakistan’s tribal areas. Although the numbers aren’t clear, American intelligence officials say that Pakistan and Afghanistan have now become the destination of choice for foreign fighters, who once flocked to Iraq. It should come as no surprise that U.S. officials see a correlation between the new Pakistani government’s move to cut down on security operations in the country’s tribal areas and this increase in foreign fighters. “We’re trying to impress upon the Pakistanis how bad things are,” one senior administration official said. Whereas before the White House could just call up President Pervez Musharraf, things aren’t as easy now because he’s lost much of his power.

The Post fronts a look at how insurgents in Iraq have begun using rocket-propelled bombs against U.S. troops. Some call these bombs “flying IEDs,” as a reference to the roadside bombs known as improvised explosive devices. The U.S. military officially knows these “propane tanks packed with hundreds of pounds of explosives and powered by 107mm rockets” as Improvised Rocket Assisted Munitions. They are often fired remotely and are seen as a good example of how Iraqi insurgents have learned to use materials that are commonly available to create deadly weapons. The weapon isn’t new to the world as insurgents in Colombia have used them in recent years but they allow Iraqis to more easily circumvent security measures. It was first identified as a threat in Iraq last year, “and has become a top concern in recent months,” says the WP.

Everyone goes inside with the four gunmen who opened fire outside the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul and killed three Turkish police officers. Three of the gunmen also died. Local reports say Turkish officials suspect al-Qaida was involved, but no one knows for sure and there has been no claim of responsibility.

The Post notes that dogs aren’t just useful to detect drugs. Well, to be fair, dogs have also been used to detect plenty of other things, including land mines and blood. But now a few have been trained to sniff out cell phones. Smuggled cell phones are a big problem in prisons, where inmates can use them for a wide variety of criminal activity, and they’ve become quite easy to hide. But the dogs can sniff them out even if they’re hidden inside a television or a jar of peanut butter. Maryland and Virginia have become the first to train these dogs, but other states are likely to follow.