Remember al-Qaqaa? This was the massive cache of explosives that American forces failed to secure after the fall of Saddam. In the final week of the presidential campaign it was The Most Important Story on Earth.
The New York Times splashed the news on its front page and didn't stop splashing it for a week. In all, the Times ran 16 stories and columns about al-Qaqaa, plus seven anti-Bush letters to the editor on the subject over an eight-day period. Editorial boards across the country hammered the "outrage" for days. It led all the news broadcasts. It became the central talking point of the Kerry campaign, with John Kerry bellowing his indignation at the administration's incompetence at every stump stop. Maureen Dowd wrote a column about it, titled "White House of Horrors."
Bush supporters were furious. The original Times story read like it was intended to be an October surprise. It dripped with frightening quotes about how the stash was so big it was like "Mars on Earth." The authors quoted an IAEA memo warning that this was "the greatest explosives bonanza in history" and that it was now surely in the hands of shadowy terrorists across the Middle East. Because these explosives were allegedly of the type used to trigger nuclear weapons, the authors felt the need to drag in the specter of the Nagasaki bombing (though the question why WMD-less Saddam wanted explosives used for nuclear triggers got lost in the Bush-bashing). Worst of all, we were told, Bush had been warned about these explosives and failed to snap them up right away.
But, as to the intentions of these critics, the most revealing facts were ones that did not appear in that first broadside in the Times. The frightening multi-author article, which dropped like manna from heaven for the Kerry campaign, couldn't find room to mention that the 380 tons of missing explosives constituted a fairly small fraction of the 400,000 tons of explosives and weapons that had been either destroyed or secured from more than 10,000 sites. In that context, what Kerry was calling the greatest blunder of the war suddenly was more like a regrettable but not quite remarkable lapse, in the midst of an extremely fluid situation.
Oh, and they left something else out: The weapons might have been removed (ITALICS)before the invasion. Over the course of the week, the Times was forced to concede, often grudgingly and obliquely, that the weapons may not have been there for U.S. forces to secure in the first place. Moreover, it became increasingly implausible to imagine a convoy of trucks absconding with the explosives without U.S. intelligence noticing in the early days after the fall of Iraq. The United States owned the roads and watched them from the air.
So, anyway, I'd forgotten about all this. Bush won the election despite the al-Qaqaa drumbeat from Kerry and his surrogates in and out of the press.
But Byron York, my colleague at National Review, didn't forget. He wondered, whatever happened to The Biggest Story on Earth? The answer, it turns out, is nothing. The Times has not run a single story about the al-Qaqaa story since November 1. Nada, bupkis, zilch.
For a piece at National Review Online, York called the Times' ombudsman - they call him the "Public Editor" - Daniel Okrent and asked him what he thought about it. Okrent showed admirable candor, allowing that the paper should have followed up. Assuming the story was accurate, Okrent thinks his paper could at least try to figure out the question of where the explosives went.
If the story was accurate, it should be important enough to follow up. If it wasn't, we should be told that.
There's also another news angle that might have been worth investigating. As Times columnist William Safire and Cliff May, a former Times reporter and contributor to National Review Online, have suggested, the whole al-Qaqaa story might have been orchestrated by Mohammed el-Baradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, in order to influence the American presidential election. The Bush White House dislikes Baradei, and reportedly the feelings are mutual (largely because the White House wouldn't support Baradei's bid for another term as the head of the IAEA). According to the Wall Street Journal, Baradei triggered the process which resulted in the al-Qaqaa story getting leaked to the Times and CBS News.
If his intent was to influence the election, it would amount to a major scandal, in that foreign agencies aren't supposed to be trying to influence American elections by dropping distorted bombshells in the last week of a presidential campaign. At least, I don't think they are.
In one of the two columns Paul Krugman wrote on the al-Qaqaa story that week, he declared: "Just in case, the right is already explaining away President Bush's defeat: It's all the fault of the 'liberal media,' particularly The New York Times, which, so the conspiracy theory goes, deliberately timed its report on the looted al-Qaqaa explosives - a report all the more dastardly because it was true - for the week before the election." Well, much to Krugman's regret, Bush won. And the deafening silence from the Times these last four months suggests that the conspiracy theorists were on to something.