Conservative media figures seized on an NBC News report to defend President George W. Bush from an October 25 New York Times article reporting that 380 tons of high explosives are missing from the Al Qaqaa military installation in Iraq. But NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw and the correspondent who filed the report have both stated unequivocally that the report does not prove the explosives were taken from Al Qaqaa before U.S. troops arrived, as conservatives have claimed in recent days.
On the October 25 broadcast of Nightly News, NBC News chief Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski reported: "April 10, 2003, only three weeks into the war, NBC News was embedded with troops from the Army's 101st Airborne [Division] as they [took] over the weapons installation south of Baghdad. But they never found the 380 tons."
Bush-Cheney '04 campaign spokesperson Steve Schmidt cited NBC's segment in an effort to refute Senator John Kerry's criticism of the Bush administration over the missing explosives. The Washington Times reported on October 26:
Bush spokesman Steve Schmidt said the NBC report, which he distributed to reporters, disproved Mr. Kerry. "John Kerry today launched attacks against the president that have been proven false before the day is over," he said. "John Kerry's attacks today were baseless. He said American troops did not secure the explosives, when the explosives were already missing."
But as Media Matters for America has documented, Miklaszewski appeared on MSNBC the day after his initial report to clarify that "those troops [from the 101st Airborne Division] were actually on their way to Baghdad, that they were not actively involved in the search for any weapons, including the high explosives HMX and RDX."
On the October 27 broadcast of Nightly News, Brokaw explicitly disavowed the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign's use of the NBC report. "For its part, the Bush campaign immediately pointed to our report as conclusive proof that the weapons had been removed before the Americans arrived. That is possible, but that is not what we reported," Brokaw said.
The distortions of the NBC report by conservative media figures were numerous:
- The Drudge Report headline: NBCNEWS: CACHE OF EXPLOSIVES VANISHED FROM SITE IN IRAQ BEFORE TROOPS ARRIVED... [10/25]
- The Washington Times article: "Officials said the rest of the explosives stockpiles may have been removed and hidden before the arrival of American troops. That explanation was bolstered last night by a report from NBC News, which said the weapons already were missing when their embedded reporter arrived at the site on April 10, 2003." [10/26]
- Right-wing pundit, author, and syndicated columnist Ann Coulter: "[I]t is NBC News, that last night, after the New York Times front page story had apparently ... already gone to press, and Drudge threw it up at the siren at 1 a.m. last night, reporting -- NBC had reported that when American troops arrived in Baghdad there were no weapons there. And apparently, John Kerry didn't wait for all of the facts to come in before making a decision on this." [FOX News Channel, Hannity & Colmes, 10/26]
- FOX News Channel contributor Pat Caddell: "Well, you know, rather than getting into the New York Times thing, which could take forever because I don't think their first story even supported the original premise, but the -- but I think what's interesting is what is happening, what it's going to do now, since we have the NBC story and the fact the troops went there, may have gone there, or whatever." [FOX News Channel, Hannity & Colmes, 10/26]
- FOX News Channel host John Gibson: "[W]e have The New York Times and 60 Minutes pushing the October surprise story that Bush neglected to secure 380 tons of super-duper high explosives in Iraq that looters took and now insurgents are using to blow up Americans. ... Turns out today that NBC embeds [embedded reporters] were with the 101st [Airborne Division] when it came through the area the day after Baghdad fell. They were highballing to Baghdad, but stopped at the explosives dump [Al Qaqaa] for a day. They looked around and found tons and tons of regular old explosives, but none of the HMX and RDX, super-duper high explosives, that the U.N. had found months and months before the invasion." [FOX News Channel, The Big Story with John Gibson, 10/26]
- FOX News Channel chief political correspondent Carl Cameron, following a video clip of Kerry's October 26 speech criticizing Bush for the missing explosives: "But serious questions have surfaced about when the high explosives went missing, and therefore, Kerry's charge. NBC News reported Monday, with video shot after Baghdad fell, that the Army's 101st Airborne visited the site and saw none of the explosives in question. An indication that the explosives could have already gone missing." [FOX News Channel, Special Report with Brit Hume, 10/26]
- The Wall Street Journal editorial: "NBC News, which was embedded with the 101st Airborne when it arrived at Al-Qaqaa on April 10, 2003 -- the day after the fall of Baghdad -- also reports this week that back then it found no sign of the explosives either. Stands to reason: Of course [former Iraqi leader] Saddam [Hussein] would remove his precious HMX from its last known location before U.S. cruise missiles could find it. So much, then, for Mr. Kerry's suggestion that Bush Administration negligence is to blame for the missing stockpile." [10/26]
- Radio host Rush Limbaugh: "It wasn't until last night on the NBC Nightly News -- wasn't the White House, it wasn't the Bush campaign -- it was NBC News, that we were reminded again that the explosives were already missing when U.S. troops arrived at the storage dump on April 10, 2003.
"[The] NBC Nightly News report that you just heard confirms that, and there's enough detail in here to indicate 380 tons, and they'd searched for it, and they couldn't find the specific explosives." [The Rush Limbaugh Show, 10/26]
- From a column by National Review Online editor-at-large and Townhall.com contributor Jonah Goldberg: In the [New York Times' original] missing-explosives story, you have to wade through a sea of words to learn that the explosives the Bush administration allegedly lost might have been missing before American troops even reached the site. Later in the day, NBC News supported that possibility. [Townhall.com, 10/27]
- From a column by radio host and syndicated columnist Linda Chavez: In fact, the "missing explosives" story was more media campaign ploy than real news. There is substantial evidence that most of the explosives were either destroyed by U.S. bombing prior to the invasion or were already gone by the time U.S. troops arrived at al Qaqaa on April 10, 2003, according to NBC, which had a reporter embedded with the Army's 101st Airborne Division at the time. [Creators Syndicate nationally syndicated column, 10/27]
Similarly, on the October 26 edition of FOX News Channel's Special Report with Brit Hume, FOX News Channel managing editor and chief Washington correspondent Brit Hume all but declared the explosives story a fraud. But rather than referring directly to the NBC News report, Hume interviewed current FOX News Channel Moscow correspondent Dana Lewis, who was embedded with the 101st Airborne Division in April 2003, when he was an NBC News correspondent. Though Lewis said nothing to discredit either the original Times article or Kerry's criticisms based on it, Hume said: "Next on Special Report, John Kerry continues to pound the president on alleged missing weapons in Iraq, even as the news story on which the charge is based appears to be collapsing under the weight of the evidence." After the opening credits, Hume joined other members of the media in suggesting that the 101st Airborne Division's visit to Al Qaqaa proves the Times and Kerry wrong:
HUME: Welcome to Washington. I'm Brit Hume. That New York Times story that nearly 400 tons of deadly explosives went missing, after U.S. forces took over in Iraq, appears increasingly implausible tonight. It turns out that U.S. forces visited the weapons site the day after Baghdad fell and saw no such explosives.
(Baghdad fell on April 9, 2003; Hume appears to be referring to the April 10 visit by the 101st Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade.)
During the "FOX All-Star Panel" on the same edition of Special Report, Hume challenged NPR national political correspondent and FOX News Channel political contributor Mara Liasson's claim that "[w]e don't know exactly when these [high explosives] disappeared." Hume said: "It appears somewhat more likely, in view of what was seen at the site, that they were gone by the time U.S. forces got there, at least at this hour it does."
But neither Hume's interview with Lewis nor any other reporting on Al Qaqaa from the October 27 Special Report supported Hume's conclusions. In fact, several details Lewis provided suggest straightforward explanations for why the 2nd Brigade -- which wasn't looking for explosives, as explained above -- did not find them. Lewis observed that Al Qaqaa "was a tremendously large facility." He also recalled: "Most of the bunkers were locked at that point. You could not get inside." When Hume asked Lewis whether he had seen any of the seals that International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors had placed on bunkers containing high explosives when they visited Al Qaqaa prior to the U.S. invasion, Lewis replied that he does not recall seeing any, but noted: "It doesn't mean that there weren't any of them."
As for the possibility, which Kerry and the Times raised, that the explosives were looted in the weeks after the fall of Baghdad, the Times reported that Al Qaqaa was "still picked over by looters as recently as Sunday [October 24]." Lewis reported: "[W]hen I was there, we didn't see any looting. And that's not to say there couldn't have been looting after we left, either."