Today's Papers

North Korea Goes Nuclear (Again)

The Los Angeles Timesbanners, and the New York Timesleads with, the late-breaking announcement by North Korea that it successfully carried out an underground nuclear test this morning. It was the country’s second underground test in three years and came after the communist nation was on the receiving end of widespread international condemnation for its rocket test launch in April. According to North Korea’s official news agency, the “nuclear test was safely conducted on a new higher level in terms of its explosive power and technology.” Experts are still waiting for independent confirmation of the test’s strength. Early morning wire stories report that the North also fired three short-range missiles later in the day.

The Washington Postleads with a look at how threats against judges and prosecutors have been on the rise, which has prompted many to pay more attention to their security. Many have 24-hour protection from U.S. marshals, and some even carry weapons while they work. The number of threats against federal court personnel has more than doubled in the last six years, and a “threat management” center has even opened recently to keep track of them all. Even though attacks haven’t actually increased, “the explosion of vitriolic threats has prompted a growing law enforcement crackdown aimed at preventing them,” notes the paper.

North Korea’s nuclear test came after months of rising tensions over the country’s nuclear program and its withdrawal from the so-called six-party talks. The North has been threatening to test another weapon unless the United Nations apologized for the sanctions it imposed after the April missile test. Despite these previous warnings, the test “clearly caught South Korea and the United States off guard,” notes the NYT. North Korea is thought to have enough plutonium to make six to eight bombs. Many considered the 2006 test a failure, and analysts are waiting for results of this test to see whether North Korea may have improved its capabilities. The 2006 test had a strength of about 1 kiloton—tests by other countries usually range between 20 to 40 kilotons—and one analyst tells the LATit seems North Korea may have been aiming for something in the 4-kiloton range. According to early morning wire reports, Russia’s Defense Ministry estimated the blast’s yield at 10 to 20 kilotons, but Russia also gave a far higher estimate of the 2006 test than most others.

The test came at a time when there has been heightened speculation about who will take over for Kim Jong-il as well as increased tension with the United States over the two American journalists who were charged with illegally entering the country and who will be tried next month. It’s no secret that Kim Jong-il wants to have one-on-one talks with the United States and has apparently been frustrated with the lack of progress on that end. So the test may have been a ploy to get some diplomatic concessions. The 2006 test, although widely condemned, focused worldwide attention on North Korea, and the Bush administration later agreed to remove the country from the list of state sponsors of terrorism in exchange for progress in dismantling its nuclear program.

A few weeks ago, the WP’s Carol Leonnig raised some troubling questions about how a company owned by the nephew of Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., received millions in no-bid contracts. Today, Leonnig continues on the Murtha beat and, in a front-page piece, details how Mountaintop Technologies has benefitted from the largesse of the influential chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee. The company, which has hired the lobbying firm where Murtha’s brother worked, received at least $36 million over the past eight years in earmarks and military contracts without competition and with the backing of Murtha. The reason why the story is so eyebrow-raising isn’t exactly because of the money involved but, rather, because the registered defense firm was awarded work in a variety of fields, including law enforcement and medicine, in which it had no apparent experience. In fact, the company often ended up acting like a glorified middleman in what sometimes may seem like an episode of federal spending gone wild. In one case, the company was tasked with setting up an emergency operations center to facilitate communications between first responders. Now the five-person emergency command center in Cambria County has 40 computers at its disposal in case of a major crisis.

The NYT fronts a look at how foreclosures have shifted toward those with prime mortgages and decent financial histories who have been affected by the economic downturn. With the unemployment rate expected to continue increasing, everyone expects the number of foreclosures to rise along with it and generate what the paper calls “the latest phase of the nation’s real estate disaster.” Economist say we’re now in the “third wave” of the crisis—the first foreclosures involved speculators, which was followed by those who couldn’t pay the mortgage when introductory rates ended—and it’s about to get worse. Some warn that if foreclosures continue to accelerate, it could pose a problem to already-ailing banks.

In a dispatch from Baghdad, the LAT talks to two Sunni insurgent leaders who warn they’re ready to take up arms again if the United States can’t incorporate them into Iraq’s political system. Some U.S. officials are worried that it may only be a matter of time until the “dormant insurgent groups” rise up again. As American troops prepare to leave Iraqi cities, the insurgents aren’t optimistic that things will get better. Even though these insurgents aren’t part of the Awakening movement, who actually joined forces with Americans, they’re still angered by the fact that their fellow Sunnis haven’t received what they were promised and continue to feel threatened by the Shiite leaders. The LAT says this could even be a bad sign for Afghanistan, where the United States hopes to create similar partnerships but Taliban fighters may not be so eager to join after seeing what happened with the Sunnis in Iraq.

In analyzing possible candidates to replace David Souter on the Supreme Court, most have focused on how the court isn’t likely to change much since Obama will probably choose someone who agrees with him on social issues. But the NYT points out that if Souter’s replacement has a different view on presidential power, the new vote “could be pivotal” since there have been many 5-4 decision on that issue. But the truth is that most of the candidates believed to be in Obama’s short list haven’t really said much that could give us some hints of whether they might be more sympathetic toward presidential claims of authority. One of them, Judge Diane Wood, has been skeptical about presidential claims of broad authority in national-security issues, while Solicitor General Elena Kagan’s past suggests she might be more sympathetic toward the White House.

The NYT may have been able to beat the Post to the Watergate story, according to two former Times employees, who are speaking out about the issue for the first time. Apparently, a former NYT reporter was told some juicy details about the Watergate break-in by the acting director of the FBI. The reporter went back to the Washington bureau and told the story to an editor, who took notes and recorded the conversation. But then the reporter couldn’t follow up because he had already quit the paper to attend law school. It seems the story was just forgotten about by the editor, who was focused on the Republican convention and then left on a trip to Alaska. Interestingly, though, the revelation means that the two top FBI officials leaked details about the scandal.

In the LAT’s op-ed page, Catherine Whitney writes that even though the military has gotten better at dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, it “is still viewed as an abnormal response to battlefield trauma rather than the reaction of a normal person to the horrors of war.” Even if a veteran is willing to ignore the stigma that is often associated with a PTSD diagnosis, the process to file a claim is so “convoluted, humiliating and intimidating” that many simply give up. “There is a significant disconnect between what we say about supporting our troops and what we actually do,” writes Whitney. “We seem to despise the weakness of the wounded soldier, especially when it is manifested by mental illness, social alienation or undefined degenerative diseases.”

In the WP’s op-ed page, Steven Schooner points out that there is unlikely to be “an accurate accounting of the real human cost of our military actions abroad” during today’s Memorial Day services. That’s because most people simply don’t count the 1,350—as of June 2008—civilian contractors who died in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the real numbers are likely much higher since no one really keeps track. Many might dismiss contractors as mere profiteers, but the truth is that these deaths probably would have been servicemembers if it weren’t for the fact that the modern U.S. military cannot run without contractors. “In a representative democracy, public awareness of the human cost of our engagements abroad is critical,” writes Schooner. “If we’re going to tally the human cost of our efforts, the public deserves a full accounting.”