CBS News apparently had an October surprise of its own for President Bush.
The network, already reeling from accusations of bias over anchorman Dan Rather’s use of bogus memos to challenge Mr. Bush’s Texas Air National Guard record, acknowledged yesterday in a statement that it had planned to air a story critical of the Bush administration’s handling of Iraqi munitions Sunday on “60 Minutes,” two days before the presidential election.
CBS opted to allow its “reporting partner,” the New York Times, to run the story Monday, citing concerns over competition, and ran it on its network news Monday night.
“This was a timely story that was developing quickly, and we wanted to air it as soon as possible on ‘60 Minutes,’” spokesman Kevin Tedesco said. “Then it became apparent the story was already breaking elsewhere, so we agreed to run it in the Times, and on our own evening news Monday night.”
Both news outlets reported that the Iraqi government has told the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that 380 tons of plastic explosives, one pound of which can bring down a jet aircraft, went missing during postwar looting.
The stories now are being challenged by the Pentagon and by an NBC News reporter embedded with the U.S. unit that first took control of the munitions dump.
NBC News revealed Monday night that when one of its reporters embedded with the 101st Airborne Division arrived at the Al-Qaqaa site April 10, 2003, the Iraqi explosives were missing. The network added a slight nuance yesterday, adding that U.S. forces never undertook a thorough search.
The Pentagon stands by its statements that U.S. forces found no IAEA-sealed explosives there and that the site already had been looted by April 10.
Nevertheless, the tale emerged as an instant political weapon for Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry, who called it a Bush administration “blunder” and promptly based a campaign TV spot on the revelation.
“Kerry gins up his attack machine based on a flawed New York Times story,” the Republican National Committee stated yesterday.
American Conservative Union Executive Director Richard Lessner called the story “a cheap, baseless and partisan hit-job on President Bush,” adding that “neither the Times nor CBS has much interest in reporting the facts.”
Exactly seven weeks have passed since Mr. Rather claimed on “60 Minutes” that he had documents proving that Mr. Bush had shirked his National Guard service three decades ago. The documents later proved to be falsified, CBS issued an apology and the affair was dubbed “Rathergate” in press accounts.
Historically, news outlets avoid investigative pieces critical of candidates within days of an election to avoid appearing partisan. But last year the Los Angeles Times, which first reported CBS’ plan to air the story days before the election, was criticized for publishing sexual-harassment accusations against Arnold Schwarzenegger days before a gubernatorial-recall vote.
CBS would not address its initial plans to air the anti-Bush story two days before the presidential election, but pundits interpreted it as an “October surprise,” a late-breaking news event designed to tilt an election one way or the other.
Some Democrats have accused Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign of conspiring with the regime in Iran to extend a hostage crisis that damaged President Carter’s standing. The charges were investigated by a congressional committee, and Mr. Reagan’s team was cleared.
In 1992, Republicans cried foul when — after six years of Iran-Contra investigations and on the Friday before Election Day — Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh announced a new indictment of Caspar W. Weinberger, secretary of defense in the Reagan administration.
Four years ago, just five days before Election Day, a Democratic operative in Maine alerted the press to a previously unreported 1976 drunken-driving citation for George W. Bush.
“Major media outlets have constructed this story to appear that the Bush administration is to blame, a week short of an election. It’s become fodder for the campaign, and in a close race like this, the story easily could sway voters,” said Clifford May, a syndicated columnist and president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a District-based nonprofit group that analyzes global terrorist threats.
Attempts to manipulate the U.S. election with strategically timed leaks goes beyond journalists, Mr. May said.
“What has to be investigated here is whether [IAEA Director-General] Mohamed ElBaradei has attempted to manipulate an American election, and whether certain components of the American media helped him by not exercising sufficient journalistic skepticism,” he said.
In an online column of the National Review yesterday, Mr. May wrote, “The Iraqi explosives story is a fraud.”
“The IAEA and its head, the anti-American Mohamed ElBaradei, leaked a false letter on this issue to the media to embarrass the Bush administration. The U.S. is trying to deny ElBaradei a second term, and we have been on his case for missing the Libyan nuclear-weapons program and for weakness on the Iranian nuclear-weapons program.”
Variations of the missing-explosives theme also appeared on CNN, CBS and ABC.
The “‘October surprise’ missing-weapons story flops,” noted the Media Research Center’s Brent Baker, while the Drudge Report cast CBS as a habitual Republican basher, airing accounts critical of the party “a few days before the vote” in 1992 and 2000.