Politics & Policy

Remember Al Qaqaa?

With the election over, the New York Times forgets its big scoop.

On Monday, October 25, 2004, the New York Times published a 2,600-word front page story headlined “Huge Cache of Explosives Vanished From Site in Iraq.” Written by three Times journalists who reported from Baghdad and Yusifaiya in Iraq, as well as Vienna, New York, Washington, and Crawford, Texas, the article reported that about 380 tons of very high explosives–munitions that could be used by Iraqi insurgents to attack American troops–were missing, and had probably been looted, from Iraq’s Al Qaqaa weapons-storage facility.

The story, published eight days before the presidential election, caused an immediate uproar. Aides to Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry quickly arranged a conference call with reporters that Monday morning to push the Times’s findings. “We’re here this morning to talk about an incredibly significant and troubling development as far as the war in Iraq and the President’s prosecution of that war,” top Kerry adviser Joe Lockhart said. “This president was warned [about Al Qaqaa]…He chose to ignore those warnings, and we’re just now understanding more fully the consequences of the President’s arrogance, his stubbornness and rush to war.”

Despite questions raised by critics about the story’s accuracy, completeness and timing, in the days that followed the Times mounted the journalistic equivalent of a full-court press on Al Qaqaa. On October 26, the paper ran a front-page article on Kerry’s quick pickup of the issue, “Iraq Explosives Become Issue In Campaign.” (At that point, President Bush had not responded to the news.) That same day, Times columnist Paul Krugman charged that the administration’s handling of Al Qaqaa was part of a “culture of coverups.”

The next day, October 27, the Times published two stories on the subject, “Kerry Attacks Bush Over Loss of Explosives,” and “No Check of Bunker, Unit Commander Says.” One day later, on October 28, the Times published a front-page story on Al Qaqaa, “Bush Hits Back At Kerry Charge Over Explosives,” and another story, “Four Iraqis Tell of Looting At Munitions Site in ‘03.” Columnist Maureen Dowd also mentioned Al Qaqaa in an article entitled “White House of Horrors.”

The paper published two more stories mentioning Al Qaqaa on October 29 (one was another Krugman column), then two more on October 30, then two more on October 31, and then two more on November 1, the day before Election Day. Each day Kerry, who abandoned much of his planned final-week strategy to concentrate on Al Qaqaa, tried to capitalize on the latest reports. In all, in the eight days from October 25 to November 1, the Times published 16 stories and columns about Al Qaqaa, plus seven letters to the editor (all of which were critical of the Bush administration).

And then, abruptly, it stopped. In the four months since the election, the Times appears to have simply dropped the Al Qaqaa story, publishing nothing about the munitions dump and the supposedly critical issues it raised about the Bush administration’s handling of the war in Iraq. After November 1, according to a search of the Nexis database, just one story in the Times, a November 29, 2004, piece by John Burns, has contained the words “Al Qaqaa,” and that story did not concern the munitions issue.

Why was the Al Qaqaa story so important in the eight days leading up to the election that it merited two stories per day, and so unimportant after the election that it has not merited any stories at all?

The Times’s “public editor,” Daniel Okrent, told National Review Online that he has raised the question, at least in a general sense, with the paper’s editors. Those editors, Okrent explained, believe that the story has been fully reported. “Their version is pretty much, ‘What did we have to add to the story? The story held up,’” Okrent told NRO.

Nevertheless, Okrent believes there are aspects of the Al Qaqaa story that merit following up. There is, for example, the still-unanswered question of where all those highly dangerous munitions ended up. “I do think there is the matter of where did this stuff go,” he told NRO. “It’s been quiet, certainly, and I wish that were not the case.” (Several critics–not Okrent–have suggested that the answer is that explosives simply were not taken from Al Qaqaa in the massive quantities that the Times originally reported. But if the paper believes its 380-ton figure is correct, then the whereabouts of such an enormous cache of weapons would seem to be as newsworthy after Election Day as before, especially in light of continuing insurgent attacks on U.S. forces. Yet the Times has not addressed the question.)

Okrent told NRO that it is possible the Times might at this moment be working on new Al Qaqaa story, but if that is the case, he doesn’t know about it. “The Times’ editors do not tell me what they are working on now,” Okrent says. “For all I know, they are [working on a followup].”

Should they be? “Yes,” said Okrent.

The obvious question is whether the Times pushed the Al Qaqaa story hard in the days in which it might have an effect on the presidential election, and then let up the moment the election was over. Okrent conceded that that might appear to be the case. “I would say at the very least that the dates they were running stories certainly can leave an impression,” Okrent told NRO. “But I’m not ready to convict, at least not yet.”

Perhaps the Times is indeed preparing an update to the Al Qaqaa story. But even if it is, the paper has let four months pass without discussing what it apparently felt was an urgent issue in the days before November 2. And that silence, too, remains unexplained.

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