Iraq explosives story detonates under Bush campaign

How team Bush has bungled the al-Qaqaa controversy -- with a new "60 Minutes" blockbuster coming on Sunday.

Published October 30, 2004 4:12PM (EDT)

President Bush has spent his final push toward Election Day on the defensive over allegations of his mismanagement of the war in Iraq, awkwardly trying to fend off charges that the U.S. military failed to protect huge stockpiles of explosives that have disappeared and are presumed to be in the hands of anti-American insurgents. Not even the reappearance of Osama bin Laden in a new videotape has spiked the story. The controversy erupted Monday morning when the New York Times reported that 380 tons of high explosives -- mainly HMX and RDX, which can be easily used by terrorists, even to detonate a nuclear device -- had disappeared from the Al-Qaqaa arms dump 30 miles south of Baghdad. The Times reported that the disappearance occurred after U.S. troops arrived on the site despite the fact that the U.S. government had been urged by the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency to protect it. Administration officials told the Times they were looking into the disappearance.

The Kerry campaign immediately made the news its top issue. And instantly, battle over the facts was joined. The Bush White House questioned the validity of the report and insisted the explosives were likely removed from the dump while Saddam Hussein was still in power. Along with allies in the conservative media, the Bush campaign, perhaps emboldened by its win last month over CBS's "60 Minutes II" story about Bush's National Guard service -- which fell apart after questions were raised about the authenticity of the documents used as evidence -- and convinced they could make any press story they challenged go away, decided to wage an all-out war on the story and the newspapers and broadcast networks that advanced it. But this time, instead of getting the press to back down, conservative media helped keep the story alive for a week -- to the delight of the Kerry campaign -- and ultimately ended up on the wrong side of the facts.

Republicans first attempted to knock down the Times exclusive using a Monday night report by NBC's Jim Miklaszewski, who was embedded with the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division during the war, and noted that that unit had visited the Al-Qaqaa weapons site on April 10, 2003, and found no explosives. That fit in nicely with the White House and Pentagon's early spin that the weapons were likely ferreted out before the war began. "Of course Saddam would remove his precious HMX from its last known location before U.S. cruise missiles could find it," commented the Wall Street Journal's editorial page.

Writing in the Weekly Standard on Tuesday, its editor, William Kristol, wrote hopefully that the Times story about the missing explosives "may not even be true." A day later, Attorney General John Ashcroft's former press secretary Barbara Comstock went one step further, suggesting on CNN that military officials "don't know that anything was even there to start with." In other words, the explosives stockpile may have been a mirage.

But NBC anchor Tom Brokaw on Tuesday night clarified Miklaszewski's report: "We simply reported that the 101st did not find them. For its part, the Bush campaign immediately pointed to our report as conclusive proof that the weapons had been removed before the Americans arrived. That is possible, but that is not what we reported."

Two subsequent Times stories on Wednesday quickly set the administration back on its heels. The first featured an interview with Col. Joseph Anderson, the brigade commander whose unit of the 101st Airborne was at the weapons site in early April. He explained that his servicemen and -women were never ordered to search for weapons, which meant it was entirely possible the stash was still there. (The unit used Al-Qaqaa as an overnight stop on its way to Baghdad.) The Times noted Bush's aides had "moderated" their views, "saying it was a 'mystery' when the explosives disappeared and that Mr. Bush did not want to comment on the matter until the facts were known."

The second Times story on Wednesday featured four eyewitnesses recounting how local Iraqi looters had raided Al-Qaqaa, hauling things off in trucks, after U.S. troops had swept through the area. The report once again substantiated the Times' original story suggesting that the weapons disappeared on the U.S. Army's watch.

That same day, as CNN's conservative pundit Robert Novak labeled the controversy "phony," Bush broke his silence. Speaking at a campaign rally in Vienna, Ohio, he complained that Kerry "is making wild charges about missing explosives. Think about that. The senator is denigrating the actions of our troops and commanders in the field."

The next morning, on NBC's "Today" show, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani stepped on Bush's line, blaming U.S. troops for not properly searching the weapons dump. "No matter how you try to blame it on the president, the actual responsibility for it really would be for the troops that were there. Did they search carefully enough -- didn't they search carefully enough?" said Giuliani.

That was the beginning of a bad message day for the Bush camp. But Bush communications director Nicolle Devenish gamely told the Los Angeles Times on Thursday the story was "an attack that's falling apart" and was playing to Bush's advantage by rallying his supporters. "We're really locked into a dogfight here," she said. But off the record, Bush aides conceded to the Associated Press that the ongoing story had "slowed their campaign."

On Thursday a videotape taken on April 18, 2003, nine days after the fall of Baghdad, by an ABC television affiliate in Minneapolis, KSTP, embedded with U.S. troops, clearly showed U.S. troops at the weapons dump uncovering an entire storage bunker full of high-powered explosives that soon went missing. The video even showed soldiers breaking International Atomic Energy Agency seals on warehouse doors, seals put in place months earlier and used only to secure munitions depots.

Yet, during an interview on WPHT radio in Philadelphia, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld downplayed the weapons dump story, saying, "The idea that it was suddenly looted and moved out, all of these tons of equipment, is, I think, at least debatable."

That same day the Pentagon released satellite images that it suggested showed significant truck activity at one of Al-Qaqaa's 56 bunkers on March 17, 2003. Supposedly, the weapons were whisked away by Saddam (or the Russians, according to the conservative Washington Times) before the war. But an examination by uncovered that the images were not what they appeared to be: "A comparison of features in the DoD-released imagery with available commercial satellite imagery, combined with the use of an IAEA map showing the location of bunkers used to store the HMX explosives, reveals that the trucks pictured on the DoD image are not at any of the nine bunkers identified by the IAEA as containing the missing explosive stockpiles." In the end, on-the-ground, up-close video shot by KSTP showing U.S. troops unsealing a locked warehouse full of explosives in April 2003 trumped the Pentagon's wrong photographic interpretation.

All day Thursday, Fox News went to extraordinary lengths to avoid reporting the definitive KSTP video. Fred Thompson, the former Republican senator from Tennessee, went on Fox's "O'Reilly Factor" to discuss how "the [explosives] stories have been pretty much discredited" and how it was clear that "in all probability [the explosives] were not there" when the war began. He dismissively called the issue a "stupid thing." To Thompson, Bill O'Reilly and his viewers, the story was another mainstream media hoax, a "hit piece," that had been debunked by fair and balanced conservatives.

During Thursday night's "Fox Special Report With Brit Hume," reporter Carl Cameron, traveling with the Kerry campaign, continued along this line, telling viewers, "The Iraqi explosives may have disappeared before the invasion, undercutting Kerry's attack on the president." Fox's panel of pundits liked what they heard from Cameron and based their subsequent conversation on his incorrect assertion. (Earlier in the week, Fox's Tony Snow announced hopefully that the missing explosives story "looks pretty bogus" and is "an embarrassment to the New York Times.")

But one hour before O'Reilly's program, ABC News, quoting weapons inspectors, reported that the KSTP video represented "the strongest evidence to date that conventional explosives missing from Iraq's al-Qaqaa installation disappeared after the United States had taken control of Iraq."

Right after Thompson's appearance on "The O'Reilly Factor," David Kay, the former head of the Iraq Survey Group, handpicked by the Bush administration to search for WMD in Iraq, appeared on CNN and confirmed ABC's report: that the KSTP tape represented "game, set, match" in the debate about the story's timeline. Kay said, "And to put this in context, Iraq is awash with tens of thousands of tons of explosives right now in the hands of insurgents because we did not provide the security when we took over the country."

But on Friday the Pentagon, in yet another attempt to explain the story, sent out an Army major for a press conference. He said his unit had removed 250 tons of equipment, ammunition and explosives from somewhere in the Al-Qaqaa facility in early April 2003, and before the Minneapolis TV crew showed up. But so many questions surrounded his story -- questions even the Pentagon cannot answer -- that it was impossible to determine how his sketchy information plays into the ongoing story. However, the major's disclosure "did little to quell the controversy over the disappearance from the site of high explosives that had been sealed by UN inspectors," reported Saturday's Chicago Tribune.

Late on Friday afternoon, the only story threatening to dislodge Al-Qaqaa from the front page came when a new tape was released of Osama bin Laden, the man Bush once promised to capture "dead or alive." Bin Laden was obviously alive. And after the tape was shown, "NBC Nightly News" ran another story on the missing explosives, featuring the KSTP tape.

On Saturday, CBS News issued a press release about a "60 Minutes" story it will broadcast on Sunday night, perhaps triggering a new cycle of controversy less than 48 hours before Election Day: "In Harm's Way -- Even though roadside explosive devices account for half of all the war's U.S. casualties, soldiers are still getting killed and wounded by them because the Pentagon hasn't provided enough fully-armored vehicles to protect them." The Bush campaign and the conservative media will have precious little time for denials.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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2004 Elections Iraq Middle East