380 Tons of Explosives? What 380 Tons of Explosives?

We’ve discussed before the tendency of the political press during campaigns to slavishly take its cues from the candidates — to ignore an issue (or to refrain from examining obvious aspects of an issue) unless or until candidates are out there shouting or bickering about it. (For example, only after John Kerry himself mounted a counter-attack against the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and his campaign began aggressively questioning the Vets’ credibility did reporters take a hard look at these men and their claims. It was as if Kerry’s counter-attacks suddenly gave reporters permission to … report.) Then, when the candidates cease publicly clashing about said issue, press coverage often dries up, even if legitimate questions remain. Such, it seems, is the fate of the missing explosives — which may or may not have amounted to 380 tons worth, we may never know — at the Al Qaqaa facility in Iraq.

You may recall that the New York Times broke this story on October 25, reporting that some 380 tons of conventional explosives disappeared from Al Qaqaa, likely under U.S. watch, and that the story immediately became the talk of the political press. Much of the ensuing coverage was of the how will this affect the election? variety or the isn’t this interesting timing on the part of the Times and by the way, did they jump the gun on this story? variety, and far less of it was of the we’re digging for facts and reporting this matter out variety.

Still, the “missing explosives” story was everywhere — for a while. Between October 25 and November 5, according to Lexis-Nexis, there were 160 mentions of Al Qaqaa on cable and network news. Since November 5, there have been but a handful of mentions (and the print press has been similarly silent). And these post-November 5 mentions are primarily in election post-mortem segments, along the lines of what Gloria Borger said on CNBC on November 6: “I think John Kerry continued to react to the headlines of the day and he tried to use the story of the 380 tons of missing explosives to tell voters that George W. Bush was a risk. … And I do not think that that story helped him close the deal, because then the Bush campaign came back and said, ‘John Kerry spoke before he knew all of the facts, and we don’t know all of the facts,’ and I don’t think it worked for Kerry.”

And now? Do we “know all the facts” now? The last bit of new reporting we found on the matter was a November 6 Los Angeles Times story by Mark Mazzetti, in which he reported that “a group of U.S. Army reservists and National Guardsmen … said they witnessed the looting” of explosives from Al Qaqaa “in the weeks after the fall of Baghdad” and that they “could not prevent the theft because they were outnumbered by the looters.” Mazzetti also quoted a Pentagon spokesperson, Rose-Ann Lynch, saying: “We take the report of missing munitions very seriously. And we are looking into the facts and circumstances of this incident.”

Has anyone in the press since asked Rose-Ann Lynch how the Pentagon’s fact-finding mission is proceeding and what’s been turned up to date? Or are reporters permitting the entire matter to recede — because the Kerry and Bush camps are no longer out there trading accusations about it, because the what-will-the-missing-explosives-mean-for-the-presidential-election angle is now moot, and now that every last pundit has weighed in on the question of with hindsight, did Kerry’s embrace of the 380 tons story help or hurt his campaign?

Much of the press, it seems, has already decided that this story is not important enough to pursue beyond the election post-mortems. Here’s hoping that some reporter somewhere is still digging …

Liz Cox Barrett

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.