The Note: A Lifetime in Politics

There is a strong and not always unwarranted suspicion on the right that the press likes to end-load the pre-election news cycle with lots of hard-hitting, negative stories … so with that, we bring you the latest "surprise" stories that have the potential to develop nationally.

Yesterday's "surprise" — the New York Times story on the missing explosives, " … gave Kerry an opening on national security" and leads some to say that Monday was "the second day in a row that Bush appeared on the defensive on the issue his advisers believe will lead to Kerry's defeat: keeping the United States safe," reports the Washington Post 's VandeHei and Allen. LINK

An NBC News report last night suggested that those explosives went missing before April 10, 2003 — before U.S. troops ever got to the site in Iraq, leading to an avalanche of push-back from the Bush campaign last night. If the 101st Airborne Division was indeed there one day after liberation and they could not find any of the high grade explosives, that does cast doubt on the suggestion that the Bush Administration's alleged failure to plan for post-war eventualities was to blame.

(Timing is a critical issue here: the Times story yesterday include this paragraph: "Earlier this month, in a letter to the I.A.E.A. in Vienna, a senior official from Iraq's Ministry of Science and Technology wrote that the stockpile disappeared after early April 2003 because of '"the theft and looting of the governmental installations due to lack of security."'" (emphasis ours).

The NBC story does not exonerate the president, but it does add context that rebuts, at least to some extent, the most hyperbolic charges that we heard yesterday.

Perhaps the Bush Administration can be faulted for not pre-securing the site, and there is ample evidence that they were warned about it and the dangerous explosives. But that's a different and less meaty charge than what the story sounded like across America — that they knew about the site and failed to secure it after the war.

And unless one knows for sure the timing of the removal, one can't say for sure either way how seriously this should be treated substantively or politically.

There is no hard evidence yet that the missing Al Qaqaa explosives are being used to kill U.S. troops or that the troops are less safe because of what the administration did or didn't do to secure this material.

For their part, the Kerry campaign defended the Times story by suggesting the Bush Administration is distorting the words of journalists.

We're not sure how this plays out, but the point is: one news cycle of the eight left was partially dominated by this story. There is still time to set the record straight.

The reporter who co-wrote the original story, David Sanger, today writes of the political heat his words stirred up:

"In several sessions with reporters, the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, alternately insisted that Mr. Bush 'wants to make sure that we get to the bottom of this' and tried to distance the president from knowledge of the issue, saying Mr. Bush was informed of the disappearance only within the last 10 days. White House officials said they could not explain why warnings from the international agency in May 2003 about the stockpile's vulnerability to looting never resulted in action. At one point, Mr. McClellan pointed out that 'there were a number of priorities at the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom.'" LINK

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