When the New York Times reported on Monday (10/25/04) that over 300 tons of high-explosive materials appeared to be missing from an Iraqi weapons facility, it was no surprise that the Bush administration and conservative pundits would quickly challenge the story. But recent reporting has taken this spin as proof that the facts of the story are in dispute– even though new evidence disproves the administration’s rebuttals.
On October 28, ABC affiliate KSTP released footage that was shot by its embedded reporters on April 18, 2003, showing members of the 101st Airborne Division searching the Al Qaqaa bunkers. Clearly visible on the tape are containers marked with labels that indicate the barrels contained the high explosives in question. ABC World News Tonight broadcast the footage on October 28, noting that soldiers opened the bunkers that had been sealed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), discovered the high explosives, and then left those bunkers open and unguarded. Given that the tape was shot nine days after the fall of Baghdad, it would appear to prove that at least some of these explosives were looted after the U.S. invasion — a scenario that is consistent with statements from Iraqi officials and witnesses to the looting (Agence France Presse, 10/27/04; New York Times, 10/28/04). As ABC‘s Martha Raddatz put it, “It is the strongest evidence to date the explosives disappeared after the U.S. had taken control of Iraq.”
On the other hand, on the same day the Pentagon released satellite images that they claim show vehicles near some of the bunkers at the Al Qaqaa site on March 17, 2003. That would seem to be an attempt to bolster the administration’s claim that the explosives were removed by Saddam Hussein prior to the U.S. invasion, though there is no evidence that the trucks did anything at all with the explosives in question. Indeed, the fact that trucks were in the vicinity of bunkers that contained large amounts of battlefield weapons (in addition to the high explosives) just before a war seems hardly newsworthy. Certainly the presence of trucks near the bunkers does nothing to undermine the footage of explosives in the bunkers days later.
But despite their dubious relevance, the Pentagon images– along with the White House’s continued criticism of Kerry for bringing up the issue at all– seemed to leave some news outlets uncertain about the facts. A subhead above a Los Angeles Times story read, “Reporters Taped Troops Apparently Finding Munitions. A Pentagon Photo Implies Otherwise.” The actual article, however, noted that the Pentagon photos implied very little: “The photograph reveals little about the fate of the 377 tons of explosives, part of an estimated 600,000 tons of explosives believed to have been scattered throughout Iraq at the time.”
And even though ABC‘s network newscast had broadcast the KSTP footage, ABC‘s Ted Koppel reached a very different conclusion on the Nightline broadcast later that evening (10/28/04). Koppel explained that “a friend” in the military had reminded him that he was actually at Al Qaqaa during the war, and that “my friend, the senior military commander, believes that the explosives had already been removed by Saddam’s forces before we ever got there. The Iraqis, he said, were convinced that the U.S. was going to bomb the place.” For some reason, the theory advanced by his military friend was apparently more credible to Koppel than the television footage ABC had aired hours earlier that debunked his thesis.
Instead of reporting on this newly discovered footage from Al Qaqaa, the Washington Post (10/29/04) pursued a different angle: “This week’s assertions by Sen. John F. Kerry’s campaign about the few hundred tons said to have vanished from Iraq’s Qaqaa facility have struck some defense experts as exaggerated.” The story’s point, that the invasion allowed vast quantities of weapons to be looted all over Iraq, would hardly seem to undermine Kerry’s critique of the Bush administration.
Ignoring the evidence released the day before that explosives were on site after the fall of Baghdad, the Post instead reported that “Pentagon officials, reconstructing a timeline of what might have occurred at Qaqaa, believe they have narrowed the window for the disappearance to a two-month period between mid-March 2003, when the IAEA verified its seals were still in place, and May 2003, when U.S. military search teams arrived at the site and found it had been looted, stripped and vandalized.” If the Post had reported on the KSTP footage, though, the paper would have been able to shut much of the Pentagon’s “window.”
Not surprisingly, Fox News Channel continued to aggressively challenge the explosives story, even after the KSTP footage surfaced. On Special Report (10/28/04), anchor Brit Hume told viewers that “officials cite further evidence the material had been moved before U.S. troops arrived”– apparently a reference to the inconclusive Pentagon satellite images. Special Report did not even mention the KSTP footage. But Fox campaign reporter Carl Cameron claimed that the news of the day was damaging to the Kerry campaign, since “the Iraqi explosives may have disappeared before the invasion, undercutting Kerry’s attack on the president.” Cameron added, “The Democrat hoped the explosive story would be explosive. But the president is already calling it a dud, accusing Kerry of saying anything to get elected.”
The Los Angeles Times followed a similar tack with an article (10/29/04) headlined “Munitions Issue Cuts Both Ways.” The only evidence the paper found to support the idea that the issue would be harmful to Kerry were the claims of White House strategist Karl Rove, Bush communications director Nicolle Devenish and George W. Bush.
That the subject of a scandal gets to decide how important it is is an odd notion — but many journalists seemed to put more faith in administration pronouncements than in videotaped evidence.