Anatomy of a Story

How missing explosives in Iraq burst into the presidential election

In the final week of the presidential election, one story suddenly seized the headlines. The New York Times reported, on page one, that 377 tons of high-density explosives with a dual-use capacity as the detonator in nuclear bombs had been reported missing from Iraq's network of heavily looted and now poorly guarded munitions depots.

John Kerry, the Democratic candidate, pounced on the story, saying this was clear proof of yet another of President Bush's "great blunders" in the war. He charged Bush with "incredible incompetence" in failing, as reported by the Times, to heed warnings from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about these special munitions that were stored in large part at one of Iraq's biggest arms facilities, Al Qaqaa, only about 30 miles from Baghdad.

Mr. Bush snarled back that Senator Kerry was making "wild charges" and "denigrating the action of our troops and commanders in the field without knowing the facts"—making him "not a person you want as your commander in chief." Karl Rove, Bush's chief political planner and spinner, accused the Times of deliberately timing the story to cause the greatest damage to Bush's chances. Other Republican partisans said the story was mostly recycled from news widely reported more than a year ago—that the American occupation force was stretched too thin to guard the myriad munitions caches left behind by the defeated Iraqi army.

An Afghan boy watches as a soldier with Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, searches a sack for illegal weapons in the Daychopan District of Zabol Province, Afghanistan, Oct. 23, 2004.
photo: U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Joseph P. Collins Jr.
An Afghan boy watches as a soldier with Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, searches a sack for illegal weapons in the Daychopan District of Zabol Province, Afghanistan, Oct. 23, 2004.

The Times story did have a familiar ring. The nation's leading newspaper had pretty much led the way on the arms depots' vulnerability, with prominent stories in September and October of last year about the security lapses, the subsequent massive looting, and the use of these munitions by the growing anti-American insurgency, which has produced a death toll of more than 1,100 U.S. soldiers and many thousands of Iraqi civilians.

But the 2003 stories by the Times and others mentioned only conventional weapons and explosives—nothing related to nuclear arms. The information about the high-grade explosives—known as HMX, RDX, and PETN—was new and therefore a legitimate story. Was it a story, though, worthy of dominating the crucial final stage of a presidential election?

Probably not, but that wasn't the doing of the Times or of the press maelstrom that followed. That was the creation of the toxic stew that our national political dialogue has become—the output of a nasty noise and pollution machine that never sleeps. The main perpetrators in this instance were not carrying press credentials. These circus performers were ringmasters Bush, Kerry, Cheney, Giuliani, and all their coat holders.

The Times, appropriately, did not write a nuclear-scare scenario. It pointed out that there was no evidence that any of the missing tonnage of HMX, RDX, and PETN had fallen into nuclear-savvy hands. The paper also made clear that these munitions, often used in plastic explosives, had been around for a long time and, despite international restrictions, were relatively easy to acquire. The Times also stressed that these "trigger" explosives were far from the hardest nuclear-bomb components to obtain; the radioactive fuel and a detailed bomb design are far more difficult for renegades to come by.

Conventional use of the high-density explosives is much likelier. High in its first story, the Times wrote: "American weapons experts say their immediate concern is that the explosives could be used in major bombing attacks against American or Iraqi forces: the explosives, mainly HMX and RDX, could produce bombs strong enough to shatter airplanes or tear apart buildings."

As is often the case on stories with sensitive subjects, much remains unknown about how the newspaper came to the story. We know a one-paragraph letter was sent on October 10 by the Iraqi Ministry of Technology to the International Atomic Energy Agency notifying the U.N.'s nuclear overseers that the 377 tons of HMX, RDX, and PETN "registered under IAEA custody were lost after 9 April 2003, through the theft and looting of the government installations due to lack of security." Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA's director general, says he informed U.S. officials immediately. But he didn't pass the letter to the U.N. Security Council until after the Times story had appeared.

The letter was not a public document, so who leaked it? Was it ElBaradei? Often at odds with the Bush administration, he had been told by the White House a few months ago that it would not support his appointment to another term. Does it matter? Only if you believe, as reporters should, that the motive of the leaker could help the public understand the larger ramifications. ElBaradei dismissed as "total junk" any notion that he was trying to influence the election.

And why did CBS News' 60 Minutes—which had the story first—bow out and turn it over to its sometime partner, the Times? CBS says its story wasn't ready. Some wagging tongues wonder if CBS got cold feet because of the hammering it took about the inauthentic documents used in the recent 60 Minutes story about Bush's National Guard service.

And so the circus rolls on . . .

 
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