Sandefur says I “fell” for a false story about the disappeared explosives:
Explosives disappear in April of 2003 or so, before American troops arrive. The probable explanation is that Iraqi troops moved the material out of the bunker and camouflaged it prior to American bombing, and that it was either destroyed, or stolen then. Nevertheless, the press runs out in the last week before the election and runs this as if it is a new story–careful not to mention any dates–to make it sound as though this is some revelation of massive incompetence in American leadership, rather than the usual confusion accompanying war. And sure enough, Ed Brayton falls for it–because, you know, only the Bush campaign engages in dirty tricks.
But let’s think about this. Disappeared sometime around April? All of the reports I’ve seen say that the IAEA certified that they were under seal on March 9, 2003, before they bugged out. The invasion began on March 19th. Baghdad fell on April 7th, war over, occupation begins. Wouldn’t this require that they either moved everything in the intervening 10 days, between March 9th and 19th, without us knowing, or that they did so while an invasion was going on (highly unlikely)? Furthermore, we had satellite surveillance going on and knew that this was a major munitions site, and 350 tons doesn’t just walk away in a pickup truck. It takes major moving equipment and nearly 40 semi trucks. How could this go on unseen given Powell’s statements to the UN that we were monitoring all of these facilities?
Additionally, we have one official at the Pentagon being quoted as saying that everything was under seal when we got there, and another official admitting that they should have been guarded. Unless multiple news agencies are inventing sources, that’s pretty compelling (though the former is possible, obviously). Another part of the problem here may be that the munitions in question were moved at the request of the IAEA, but were then resealed. See reports here and here. As of January 27, 2003, the IAEA had certified and resealed them after they had been moved. Does anyone know if they were moved away from Al QaaQaa or to another site in the same complex? I haven’t had time to run this down in any detail.
Three other things should also be noted. First, the NBC reporter was embedded with the 101st Airborne, which was not the first ones to get to the site, which was the Third Infantry a week earlier. Second, the same report that mentions that the NBC reporter said nothing was found at the site also says that they didn’t really do a thorough search there, and we know that there are multiple bunkers:
“There wasn’t a search,” she told MSNBC, an NBC cable news channel. “The mission that the brigade had was to get to Baghdad. That was more of a pit stop there for us. And, you know, the searching, I mean certainly some of the soldiers headed off on their own, looked through the bunkers just to look at the vast amount of ordnance lying around.
“But as far as we could tell, there was no move to secure the weapons, nothing to keep looters away.”
Third, that report quotes yet another Pentagon official as saying that the military had confirmed that the explosives were there when our troops got there:
At the Pentagon, an official who monitors developments in Iraq said U.S.-led coalition troops had searched Al-Qaqaa in the immediate aftermath of the March 2003 invasion and confirmed that the explosives, which had been under IAEA seal since 1991, were intact. The site was not secured by U.S. forces, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
There is some doubt as to what really happened here, that is becoming more clear. But given that administration officials are admitting that it was there and given that the reporter embedded with the troops admits to not seeing much at all, is that really enough to declare that it’s settled? Certainly the Iraqi authority thinks they disappeared after April of 2003, so do all the sources in the Pentagon talking to reporters, and so does the IAEA. All of those things seem more compelling to me than an NBC reporter saying things were gone when she got there but they didn’t really look, so the contrary position just doesn’t seem too credible to me at this point (new information may of course change that). It certainly does not seem credible to me that they were removed before our troops got there, assuming that the reports on the IAEA confirming they were there are true. I hope the papers keep digging on this one, whether it is ultimately shown to be true or false. As usual, if it turns out to be false, I’ll be glad to retract my previous statements about it.
Update. There is also this story from AP on April 5, 2003, which was about the first group of soldiers who got to this complex and whether they had found chemical weapons. It says:
UN weapons inspectors went repeatedly to the vast al Qa Qaa complex, most recently on March 8. But they found nothing during spot visits to some of the 1,100 buildings at the site 40 kilometres south of Baghdad.
Col. John Peabody, engineer brigade commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, said troops found thousands of five-centimetre by 12-centimetre boxes, each containing three vials of white powder, together with documents written in Arabic that dealt with how to engage in chemical warfare.
A senior U.S. official familiar with initial testing said the powder was believed to be explosives. The finding would be consistent with the plant’s stated production capabilities in the field of basic raw materials for explosives and propellants.
So we do in fact have evidence from at least April 5th that there was a large amount of explosive material on the site. Was it the same material? I don’t know. I’m sure those with more expertise will be following up on it. But it sure sounds like it, as all of the reports refer to the material as the raw materials for explosives like C-4 and semtex. In addition, the LA Times notes:
Given the size of the missing cache, it would have been difficult to relocate undetected before the invasion, when U.S. spy satellites were monitoring activity at sites suspected of concealing nuclear and biological weapons.
“You don’t just move this stuff in the middle of the night,” said a former U.S. intelligence official who worked in Baghdad.
I would argue that the time frame is even shorter than that. The invasion began on March 19th. It’s almost inconceivable that once the invasion and bombing campaign began, they were still there trying to take this material out of there. We had total air superiority and a massive air and satellite surveillance effort going on. If they had seen a convoy of trucks leaving a known munitions factory, they most certainly would have bombed it from the air. Of course, even before the invasion we had an enormous amount of air and satellite surveillance going on and we know that this was a major site that we kept track of. Surely if they had seen a massive effort to load up and move 40 semis worth of explosives, they would have tracked where it went.
Also note that David Kay, the original head of the Iraq Survey Group, also thinks the looting took place after we moved in, as the LA Times reports:
David Kay, the CIA’s former chief weapons hunter in Iraq, believes that the material was looted in the immediate aftermath of the war.
He said he saw the facility in May 2003, “and it was heavily looted at that time. Sometime between April and May, most of the stuff was carried off. The site was in total disarray, just like a lot of the Iraqi sites.”
They also note that it’s quite likely this material is now being used against our own soldiers:
Kay said that HMX and RDX were “superb explosives for terrorists” because they were stable compounds that could be transported safely and used for large-scale attacks.
Both types of material “would be good for a car bomb or a truck bomb,” Kay said. “Just pack it together with a detonator.”
The U.S. failure to guard hundreds of ammunition depots after the invasion has been well documented. Top military officials in Iraq believe that weapons taken from these sites have armed an insurgency that is taking American lives almost daily. More than 1,100 U.S. troops have been killed since the invasion began.
It also must be noted here that the administration has put out multiple contradictory stories on this. Larry Di Rita says that when our soldiers got there (accompanied by weapons inspectors), in early April 2003, all the material was gone. As Josh Marshall points out, that means that we knew about the missing material for 18 months. But Scott McLellan told reporters on Air Force One that they just learned about this from the IAEA on October 15th and instructed the Survey Group to investigate it. In addition, we have the conflicting statements from the spokespeople and the Pentagon sources. So you’ll pardon me for not buying the administration’s story at this point.
As far as the John Edwards statement goes that Sandefur keeps insisting I reply to even though it has nothing to do with anything I’ve said: Yes, if he said what he is reported to have said, it’s a major exaggeration. Of the type that goes on quite literally all the time by every campaign. It’s as credible as those “he voted 10,000 times to raise taxes” lines, or Kerry’s incredible world-changing plans he keeps mentioning.