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.
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.
"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.