Al-Qaqaa reconsidered.

Media criticism.
Oct. 29 2004 11:41 PM

Al-Qaqaa Reconsidered

The competition throws stones at the New York Times scoop.

That there are two sides to every story is not something that would automatically occur to the man who reads only one newspaper. If you've followed the Al-Qaqaa news only in the New York Times, where it broke, you might believe that the United States committed an unspeakable blunder in failing to guard the 380 tons of high explosives it knew Saddam harbored in the Al-Qaqaa weapons complex. The Times' Oct. 25 scoop and its Oct. 27 and Oct. 29 follow-ups give that impression. But if you've consumed the Washington Post alongside the Times, your certainty about an American miscue would have evaporated by now. The Post's Oct. 27 catch-up piece and its Oct. 29, Page One naysayer, "Munitions Issue Dwarfs the Big Picture," portray the missing munitions as an overplayed story.

Journalists live to knock down what their competitors write: Nobody at the Gazette ever made his mark by re-reporting and confirming what the Bugle published.But the Post isn't zigging on the Al-Qaqaa story simply because the Times zagged. It's whittling away at the Times account, as I noted earlier this week, because the Times scoop raises questions about Al-Qaqaa that Times editors should have answered before they sent the scoop to print.

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The Post's Oct. 29 piece provides important context with an early quotation from military analyst Anthony H. Cordesman. "There is something truly absurd about focusing on 377 tons of rather ordinary explosives, regardless of what actually happened at al Qaqaa," he says. "The munitions at al Qaqaa were at most around 0.06 percent of the total."

The Post also reports the administration position that 400,000 tons of the estimated 650,000 to 1 million tons of Iraqi munitions have been destroyed or will be destroyed. Obsessing about the missing 380 tons, the story implies, is obsessing about decimal dust.

Post coverage continues to tack away from the Times account by quoting a Harvard nuclear weapons expert who says he has deeper fears about the nuclear equipment taken from Al-Qaqaa, such as electron beam welders, than about the conventional explosives.

The Post casts further doubt on the Times' take by citing ABC News' Oct. 27 report, which says authorities might be overstating the missing tonnage. According to confidential International Atomic Energy Agency documents obtained by the network, 138 tons of the explosives may have been moved from Al-Qaqaa to another depot by Saddam's regime before the invasion. The documents also note the ease with which anyone could have compromised the IAEA "security seal" on the bunkers containing the high explosive HMX: By removing the bunker's ventilation slats, anyone could have gained access to the explosives without breaking the seal on the front door.

(To be fair, the Times isn't without independent supporters in the press. Videotape shot at Al-Qaqaa nine days after the collapse of Saddam's regime by embedded journalists working for ABC's Minneapolis/St. Paul affiliate indicates, but does not prove, that a huge quantity of the explosives may have still been safely stored there as the first wave of U.S. troops departed. And pursuing its completely unique news agenda is the Washington Times, which believes the Russians helped Iraq spirit the munitions away before the war started.)

But back to the doubting stories: Today (Oct. 29) the Associated Press reports from a Pentagon press conference in which Army Maj. Austin Pearson says his unit removed and destroyed 250 tons of ammunition from Al-Qaqaa in April 2003. Some of the destroyed munitions were high explosives, but not under IAEA seal.

As we pick the wings and legs off the Times story, we should acknowledge that many big scoops reported as quickly at the Al-Qaqaa story turn out to be flawed because they're reported from inside a cone of semi-silence. Reporters refrain from asking their questions too loudly—or consulting as many sources as they might like—out of fears of blabbing their scoop away to the competition. Indeed, despite the Times' best clandestine efforts, competing reporters quickly learned about the Al-Qaqaa investigation. According to this Los Angeles Times, the New York Times hurried its piece into print five days after receiving its first tip because it feared getting scooped on its scoop.

Critics of scoops have the distinct advantage of conducting their journalistic investigations in the open, asking as many questions of as many sources as they wish. This helps explain why the Washington Post and ABC News accounts seem more convincing in comparison. And unlike the Times, neither the Post nor ABC News have a scoop position they feel compelled to dig in and protect. The whole game is still afoot for them.