On Monday, The New York Times carried a front-page story that could change the outcome of the 2004 elections.
According to the Times, a cache of powerful explosives used to "make missile warheads and detonate nuclear weapons" was missing from an installation where Saddam Hussein had conducted nuclear-weapons research, a facility that "was supposed to be under American military control."
The story was soon all over the television news. Melissa Fleming, the spokeswoman of the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), went on CNN to add fuel to the spreading fire over U.S. "responsibility" for the "lost" explosives.
There was only one problem with the story: There was not a shred of evidence that it was true.
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: "It is very important the world understands that the stuff in Iraq was missing as of April 10, 2003 - the day after Baghdad fell."
The Times story also quoted IAEA experts saying they assumed that it was indeed Saddam who had moved the explosives - before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But, they added, it was possible the explosives were only moved to nearby fields where the Times suggests they would be "ripe for looting."
But how? Looters could not have stuffed 380 tons of explosives into their pockets and purses. 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 United States was in occupation, that kind of effort could hardly have gone unnoticed.
So this is a murky story at best and one has to wonder how the Times came to publish it on its front page, just days before the presidential election. The most likely source: Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the IAEA. Why might he want to plant such a story?
"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 objects to Washington's tough stance regarding Iran's attempts to develop nuclear weapons. He would like nothing better than to see President Bush defeated next week.
In other words, a senior U.N. official may have attempted to influence the outcome of an American election by spreading false information. And major U.S. media outlets allowed themselves to be manipulated in pursuit of that goal. Call it "Bomb-gate." Or "Al Qaqaa-gate." - but don't expect the elite media to seriously pursue this or any other scandal in which they themselves may be implicated.
Caught up in the political spin, the major media also have failed to ask this pertinent question: Why did Saddam 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."
Former federal terrorism prosecutor Andrew McCarthy pointed out that U.N. Security Council Resolution 687, which imposed the terms of the 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 kilometers 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 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 doesn'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 onto the explosives in case they were needed "for eventual use in mining and civilian construction" - and ElBaradai agreed.
It gets worse: U.N. weapons inspectors led by Rolf Ekeus asked the IAEA to dispose of these explosives back in 1995. The IAEA did not do so - and between 1998, when Saddam forced 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. The Iraqis claimed they used it in their cement industry. Sure.
Moreover, we now know that just when ElBaradei was taking Saddam's word, other U.N. officials were taking his money as part of a multibillion-dollar scam, the United Nations' own oil-for-food program.
Knowing all this, are you confident that had Saddam been left in power, some of these dangerous substances would not have disappeared - again? And if they did, are you confident that ElBaradei would have demanded anything more than a stern letter to Saddam in response?
No, it requires seasoned, elite journalists to be that willfully credulous.