A shoddy October surprise
The late-breaking story about missing explosives in Iraq should bother all those people who keep saying that mainstream journalism is better and fairer than ever.
The story came from the New York Times and CBS, elite news outlets with strong track records of hostility to President Bush. The Times has been conducting what surely looks like an all out six-week assault on Bush in the news columns and its Sunday magazine. CBS, which gave us Rathergate, did not think it was worth postponing its hoax-based report on Bush's National Guard documents long enough to get the story straight. But it did think it was a good idea to hold back the missing-explosives story until Sunday, October 31--some 36 hours before the polls opened. William Safire, a token conservative columnist at the Times for many years, said on the Larry King show that it was "scandalous" for CBS to plan a last-minute unanswerable charge so close to the election.
Journalists generally regard last-minute pre-election surprises as troubling. In 1992, the Washington Post declined to run a devastating election-eve sexual-harassment story about Sen. Robert Packwood and later regretted its decision. The Los Angeles Times ran a roundup of sexual-harassment charges against Arnold Schwarzenegger five days before the election that made him governor, and the paper was pleased by its own decision. Stories not initiated in newsrooms are different. The missing-explosives story was breaking news and could not have been ignored, but the handling of the story was botched, and the possible motives for the story appearing so late and so conveniently for Bush-haters were ignored.
The Times broke its "October Surprise" story on October 25, in a front-page lead story headlined "Huge Cache of Explosives Vanished From Site in Iraq." The source was an October 10 letter from an Iraqi official to the International Atomic Energy Agency stating that because of the lack of security, nearly 380 tons of high explosives were lost to theft and looting. The only indications in the Times story that the looting might have preceded the arrival of the first American troops was a brief comment by an unidentified administration official that the first troops "saw no materials bearing the IAEA seal."
The next day the Times ran another front-page story, "Iraq Explosives Become Issue in Campaign" (imagine that!), and on Wednesday an article in the back undermined an NBC News report that the first American troops did not find the explosives when they arrived at the complex on April 10, 2003, the day after Baghdad fell (they hadn't looked carefully, the Times said). With a bit more fairness and journalistic enterprise, the Times might have examined reports that Saddam had dispersed some of his more important munitions before the coalition invasion.
Half-baked? Weak responses from the Bush administration added to the journalistic confusion, possibly because it just didn't know what had happened at al Qaqaa and wanted to avoid being on the defensive. But one of the administration's arguments sounded right: that Iraq was so awash in arms that coalition forces were overwhelmed by the problems of protecting weapons sites. Some munitions dumps are miles long, and the al Qaqaa site, where the nearly 380 tons of explosives disappeared, has 1,100 buildings.
The Times did not discuss the difficulty of looters trying to remove a vast store of explosives, with coalition forces constantly moving around in the area. And the paper remained incurious about the role of IAEA Director General Mohammed El Baradei in promoting the "October Surprise." No word in the paper that the Bush administration has been trying to deny him a second term as director for his weakness in confronting the Iranian nuclear-weapons program and for misreading the extent of Libya's nuclear efforts.
By Thursday, the Times -CBS scoop seemed to be coming apart. ABC was reporting that, according to IAEA documents, the missing explosives amounted to only 3 tons, not 377 or 380. Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, told the Washington Post that the Times article had been rushed into print because the Internet had gotten wind of it. The blog Power Line offered this comment: "When the Times runs a false, half-baked story, it isn't their fault; they had to do it lest people get wind of the false, half-baked story from some other source first." Keller also said there should be no fuss over the Times coverage because the newspaper's original story allowed the possibility that the looting had preceded the troops' arrival. Not really. That Times story said "White House and Pentagon officials acknowledge that the explosives vanished sometime after the American-led invasion last year." That sentence turned the whole article into yet another Times indictment of Bush. Isn't this journalistic malpractice?
This story appears in the November 8, 2004 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.