The scandal the Times ought to be investigating.
The United Nations is already embroiled in the largest economic scam in world history: the multibillion dollar Oil-for-Food scandal. Now there is reason to ask whether a senior U.N., official also has attempted to influence an American election by spreading misleading innormation.
To understand why this scenario is plausible, let's connect some dots.
The headline of the New York Times front-page story on Monday read: " Huge Cache of Explosives Vanished from Site in Iraq." According to the Times, powerful HMX and RDX explosives - used to "make missile warheads and detonate nuclear weapons" - were stolen from Al Qaqaa, an Iraqi installation that "was supposed to be under American military control."
The source for this politically explosive charge? The Times quoted unnamed White House and Pentagon officials acknowledging that the explosives vanished sometime after the American-led invasion last year. But named White House and Pentagon officials have said the opposite. And a senior government official told me flatly: "The stuff in Iraq was missing as of April 10, 2003 - the day after Baghdad fell."
The Times also quoted experts at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) saying they assumed Saddam Hussein had moved the explosives - before the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
But, those experts speculated, perhaps the explosives were only moved to nearby fields where, the Times suggests, they would be "ripe for looting."
But how? The Times neglects the fairly obvious fact that looters could not have stuffed 380 tons of explosives into shopping bags. To transport that much material would have required about 38 large trucks - 10 tons per truck. Before the U.S. invasion, such truck convoys moved about Iraq freely. Once the U.S. was in occupation, that kind of effort could hardly have gone unnoticed.
On Tuesday, the Times ran another page one headline: " Iraq Explosives Become Issue In Campaign." Yes, that's true - thanks to the Times.
As for the holes in Monday's story, the Times tried to fill them this morning with a page A17 story: " Commander Says Brigade Didn t Inspect Explosives Site," quoting Col. Joseph Anderson of the 101st Airborne Division, saying that when his troops arrived at Al Qaqaa, they didn't look for the HMX and RDX. But what does that imply? That tons of HMX and RDX were still there? Or that the explosives were no longer there? The Times doesn't know and doesn't appear to care.
What's more, Belmont Club argues today, persuasively I think, that the Times "interviewed the wrong unit commander" because it was the Third Infantry Division that first searched Al Qaqaa "with the intent of discovering dangerous materials," almost a week before the 101st arrived.
If the 3ID had found tons of HMX and RMX, we'd have heard about it. On April 5, the Washington Post reported on their discoveries at "Al QaQa," including "vials of white powder, packed three to a box," and stocks of "atropine and pralidoxime, also known as 2-PAM chloride, which can be used to treat exposure to nerve agents...."
If the 3ID got so close and personal that they were counting the vials in boxes, how likely is it that they would have missed 380 tons of HMX and RMX?
At this point, Times editors ought to be asking who got their story rolling and to what end?
Here's one theory: It was Mohammed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Why would he do that? "The U.S. is trying to deny ElBaradei a second term," a high U.S. government official told me. "We have been on his case for missing the Libyan nuclear weapons program and for weakness on the Iranian nuclear weapons program."
ElBaradei also opposed the liberation of Iraq. And he would like nothing better than to see President Bush be defeated next week.
If all this is true it would amount to a major scandal: It would mean that a senior U.N. official may be changing the outcome of an American election by spreading false innormation. And major U.S. media outlets are allowing themselves to be manipulated in pursuit of that goal.
The Times and other news organizations also have ignored this pertinent question: Why did Saddam Hussein have the kinds of explosives favored by terrorists - and why was he permitted to keep them? Such explosives, according to the Times, also "are used in standard nuclear weapons design," and were acquired by Saddam when he "embarked on a crash effort to build an atomic bomb in the late 1980s."
Writing in The Corner, normer federal terrorism prosecutor Andrew C. McCarthy pointed out that U.N. Security Council Resolution 687, which imposed the terms of 1991 Gulf War ceasefire, required Iraq to "unconditionally accept the destruction, removal, or rendering harmless, under international supervision, of . . . [a]ll ballistic missiles with a range greater than 150 kilometres and related major parts, and repair and production facilities[.]"
Yet the IAEA made no attempt to force Saddam to comply with his obligations to destroy these "related major parts" of its ballistic missiles.
In addition, McCarthy noted, Iraq was required "not to acquire or develop nuclear weapons or nuclear-weapons-usable material or any subsystems or components[,]" and, to the extent it had such items, present them for "urgent on-site inspection and the destruction, removal or rendering harmless as appropriate of all items specified above."
It shouldn't require a rocket scientist to understand that a detonator is a key component of a nuclear bomb. But according to the Times, Saddam persuaded ElBaradei that he wanted to hold on to the explosives in case they were needed "for eventual use in mining and civilian construction" - and ElBaradai agreed.
It gets worse: The U.N. weapons inspectors led by Rolf Ekéus asked the IAEA to dispose of these explosives back in 1995. The IAEA did not do so - and between 1998, when Saddam forced the U.N. inspectors out of Iraq, and late 2002 when U.S. pressure caused him to allow inspectors to return, 35 tons of HMX went missing. Saddam claimed he used it in Iraq's cement industry. Evidently, ElBaradei saw no reason to doubt Saddam who - as noted - was working hand-in-globe with the U.N. on the Food for Oil program, an enterprise which, we now know, stole billions of dollars from the Iraqi people.
So when all the dots are connected what we see revealed is Bomb-gate - a controversy that should be about foreign interests that may be improperly influencing the U.S. media to affect the outcome of an American election.
But that story will be written after the elections. For now, the question is who voters will believe.
If they are persuaded that the dangerous weapons went missing because of Bush's incompetence, he is likely to lose (and ElBaradei will be breaking out the cigars and bongos this time next week). On the other hand, if voters come to believe that this is another instance of Kerry shooting from the hip, basing charges on flawed innormation, saying anything in order to win, they will almost certainly abandon him.
- Clifford D. May, a normer New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.