The following is a response by Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, to the column “U.N. manipulation” by Clifford May (Commentary, Oct. 31) about missing explosives in Iraq, and a reply by Clifford May.
Mr. May — whom you identify as a one-time New York Times reporter but neglect to identify as a longtime Republican Party spokesman — berates the [New York] Times for disclosing the disappearance of a large cache of high explosives from a vast weapons repository in Iraq. As you may recall, the Times reported that 377 tons of unusually dangerous high explosive disappeared from sealed bunkers in Iraq after the American invasion. The Iraqi government reported it had been stolen “due to lack of security.”
Mr. May declares that there was “not a shred of evidence” that the story was true. He quotes a “senior government official” who assures him that the stuff was already missing when the Americans arrived. He goes on to assert that looters could not possibly have “stuffed 380 tons of explosives into their pockets and purses,” particularly with American troops in the area. Based on these assertions, he launches into a fevered portrait of a newspaper attempting to undermine President Bush. His commentary is utter nonsense from start to finish.
The information in the original Times story was clearly attributed to the American-allied Iraqi Ministry of Science and Technology, which reported the lost explosives in a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency in October. We obtained that letter in mid-October and assigned three of our best reporters to it. They got the information confirmed by a variety of sources — including at the Pentagon and the White House. That original story was so scrupulous that not a single detail has been successfully refuted in the weeks since.
On the contrary, by the time Mr. May’s comment was published in the paper where I saw it, the New Haven Register of Oct. 31, his assertions had already been discredited by additional evidence. An ABC television affiliate in Minneapolis came up with footage showing American troops arriving at the arms depot on April 18, cutting open the bunkers with bolt-cutters, removing the IAEA seals, and examining boxes marked “explosives.” The troops then departed, leaving the bunkers unsecured. (Bizarrely, someone inserted a parenthetical report of this TV footage in the Register version of Mr. May’s commentary, apparently without noticing that it rendered Mr. May’s whole argument ludicrous.) On Nov. 4, the Los Angeles Times published interviews with Army Reserve and National Guard troops who passed through the area even later in April and watched looters in pickup trucks carrying away boxes of explosives. The Americans did not intervene because they didn’t have enough troops.
The New York Times
Clifford May’s reply:
I am disappointed that it is not clear to Mr. Keller that this story did not meet the [New York] Times’ standards — standards I learned and practiced during the years I served as a Times reporter, foreign correspondent and editor.
I have sent Mr. Keller a five-page letter noting the holes that should have been filled and the questions that should have been answered before this story ran on the Times’ front page — the week prior to a presidential election. He has not replied so far. I will be glad to share that letter with anyone who has further interest in this issue.
Allow me to make a few very quick points to illustrate why there should be concern over this story:
1. It is not clear that HMX and RDX explosives were filmed by the Minneapolis crew, but if they were, the RDX almost certainly was not present in the amounts suggested by the Times. ABC News’ Martha Raddatz discovered an IAEA document showing that in January 2003 there were only three tons of RDX stored at Al Qaqaa.
Based on this document, one must conclude that of the two explosives on which the Times reported, one was not present in significant amounts. (Three tons, in the context of the amount of explosives and weapons that were amassed by Saddam and destroyed by U.S. forces is insignificant.)
2. The Times ignored the satellite imagery showing large trucks near the Al Qaqaa depot on March 17, just two days before hostilities broke out. At that time, it would have been relatively simple for Saddam Hussein’s forces to remove such explosives. Gen. Michael DeLong, former deputy commander of the U.S. Central Command, has said that just prior to the invasion: “Two days before March 19, 2003, we saw quite a number of vehicles going into Syria. We could not go after them because we said we’d give Saddam 48 hours.”
3. William Safire, one of the Times’ leading columnists, also believes it possible that the Times may have been manipulated in regard to this story.
He wrote in his Nov. 1 column: “Bin Laden was the second outsider to try to influence our election in an ‘October surprise.’ I suspect the first was Mohammed El Baradei, the chief U.N. arms inspector, said to be miffed at the Bush administration’s refusal to support his bid for an unprecedented third term.”
In the end, we still don’t know the truth about the explosives. We still don’t know for sure whether HMX and RMX were at Al Qaqaa when U.S. forces arrived, how much may have been there, whether what was there was entirely destroyed, partly destroyed or not destroyed at all by U.S. forces. We don’t know whether explosives were looted, when this might have happened, how it might have happened, or who was responsible.
Nevertheless, based on insufficient information, the Times broke a sensitive story on its front page days before the elections — and that story was immediately exploited by one presidential candidate against another.
These are the questions that ought to concern Mr. Keller.
CLIFFORD D. MAY
Foundation for the Defense of Democracies