It seems that every four years, there's some sort of "October surprise" in American politics.
This year, it's the "revelation" that some 380 tons of powerful conventional explosives are missing from the al Qaqaa former Iraqi military complex near Baghdad.
This story, seemingly leaked by officials at a United Nations agency, has caused a political storm in Washington. Sen. John Kerry has accused President Bush of "incredible incompetence."
But the real threat here is that un-elected U.N. officials may be trying to bring down a president.
This controversy arose after The New York Times published an article based on leaked information, most likely originating from the International Atomic Energy Agency, headed by Director General Mohammed El Baradei. The Times article reported that the IAEA had received a letter from the Iraqi Ministry of Science and Technology on Oct. 10 reporting the loss of 341.7 metric tons of HMX, RDX and PETN.
This article strongly implied the explosives were taken by insurgents after U.S. troops failed to properly secure al Qaqaa. However, subsequent news stories indicate that, in all likelihood, the explosives were already gone when the invasion of Iraq began.
So let's consider the timing: The Times piece was published just one week ahead of the U.S. presidential election and squarely aimed at influencing the electoral debate.
Also, the IAEA waited two weeks before reporting the missing explosives to the Security Council. That, plus the subsequent leak of critical information to two American media outlets, strongly suggests a political agenda.
There is certainly no shortage of tension between the IAEA and the administration. The United States has consistently opposed the return of U.N. inspectors to Iraq and has been critical of the IAEA's performance with regard to the growing threat posed by Iran. The Bush administration reportedly opposes ElBaradei's attempts to seek reelection for a third term as director general.
The controversy over the IAEA's role in the al Qaqaa missing-stockpile scandal should also be viewed within the context of the increasingly tense relationship between the Bush administration and the United Nations over the war in Iraq and the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan described the war as an "illegal" violation of the U.N. Charter in a Sept. 16 interview with the BBC, adding, "I hope we do not see another Iraq-type operation for a long time."
In an interview with another British broadcaster, Annan firmly rejected the notion that the world is a safer place with Saddam out of power: "I cannot say the world is safer when you consider the violence around us, when you look around you and see the terrorist attacks around the world and you see what is going on in Iraq."
Such remarks are deeply unhelpful at a time when the United States and Britain, with the support of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1546, are working to generate greater international involvement in the reconstruction and stabilization of post-war Iraq.
Moreover, Annan's comments undermine the interim Iraqi government in the lead-up to crucial elections in January. The secretary-general's description of the liberation of Iraq as a violation of the U.N. Charter merely gives comfort to the insurgents who are determined to thwart hopes of a democratic Iraq.
These are trying times at the United Nations. The world body failed spectacularly to deal with Saddam's dictatorship and his flouting of the U.N.'s own resolutions. It is failing to provide leadership in disarming Iran. It is weak-kneed in the face of genocide in Sudan.
At the same time, the U.N. faces serious allegations of mismanagement and corruption relating to its Oil-for-Food Program. The ill-fated program is now the subject of at least four congressional investigations, three U.S. federal investigations, as well as a U.N.-appointed commission of inquiry. The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the role of Kojo Annan, Kofi's son, in connection to his role as a paid consultant to a Swiss-based company that received a contract for inspecting goods shipped to Iraq under Oil-for-Food.
President Bush is committed to fundamental reform of the U.N. system and has pledged that the organization will wield no veto over U.S. foreign policy. A second Bush presidency is also likely to strongly support congressional investigations into Oil-for-Food, a scandal with the potential to bring down Annan and other senior U.N. officials.
So it's hardly surprising that Annan has been highly critical of Bush's foreign policy and has sought to undermine the legitimacy of the U.S.-led war against Iraq. Still, this undignified meddling in the U.S. political debate reflects poorly on an international institution that once took pride in its neutrality on the world stage.
The strong possibility that El Baradei and the IAEA deliberately sought to influence the electoral debate in the United States should be thoroughly investigated. In the face of growing scandal and declining credibility, accountability and transparency - not politically motivated leaks - must be the watchwords that govern the U.N.
Nile Gardiner, Ph.D., is a fellow in Anglo-American security policy at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared on FOX News