Video: Explosives Went Missing After War
ABC News on Thursday showed video that appeared to confirm that explosives that went missing in Iraq did not disappear until after the United States had taken control of the facility where they were stored. The disappearance of the hundreds of tons of explosives from the Al Qaqaa storage facility has become a hotly contested issue in the U.S. presidential campaign. Democrat John Kerry said it was an example of President Bush bungling the Iraq war. Bush countered that Kerry was making wild accusations without knowing the facts. Vice President Dick Cheney said it was possible that the explosives had been removed from the site before the U.S. forces arrived there.
ABC said the video was shot by an affiliate TV station embedded with the 101st Airborne Division when members of the division passed through the facility on April 18, nine days after the fall of Baghdad. ABC said experts who have studied the images say the barrels seen in the video contain the high explosive HMX, and U.N. markings on the sealed containers were clear. The barrels were found inside locked bunkers that had been sealed by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency just before the war began, ABC reported.
Yesterday evening, the Pentagon released a satellite image of the complex taken just two days after the inspectors left, showing a few trucks parked in front of some bunkers. It is not clear they are the bunkers with the high explosives. “All we are trying to demonstrate is that after the I.A.E.A. left, and the place was under Saddam’s control, there was activity,” said Lawrence DiRita, the Pentagon spokesman. It is not clear from the photo what activity, if any, was under way.
On Thursday, a top Iraqi official said the interim government had spoken to witnesses who said the material was still at Al Qaqaa at the time Baghdad fell.
The videotape , taken by KSTP-TV, an ABC affiliate in Minneapolis-St. Paul, shows troops breaking into a bunker and opening boxes and examining barrels. Many of the containers are marked “explosive.” One box is marked “Al Qaqaa State Establishment,” apparently a shipping label from a manufacturer. The ABC crew said the video was taken on April 18. The timing is critical to the debate in the presidential campaign. By the Pentagon’s own account, units of the 101st Airborne Division were near Al Qaqaa for what Mr. DiRita said was “two to three weeks,” starting April 10. Then they headed north to Baghdad, and the site was apparently left unguarded. By the time special weapons teams returned to Al Qaqaa in May, the explosives were apparently gone.
Intriguing if still inconclusive. The arguments made by Ralph Peters and others still strike me as rather powerful evidence that it was unlikely the materials dissappeared after the U.S. had secured the area.
A story in today’s WaPo adds some perspective to the story as well–some good and some bad for the Bush administration.
Analysis: Munitions Issue Dwarfs the Big Picture (Bradley Graham and Thomas E. Ricks A01)
“There is something truly absurd about focusing on 377 tons of rather ordinary explosives, regardless of what actually happened at al Qaqaa,” Anthony H. Cordesman, a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in an assessment yesterday. “The munitions at al Qaqaa were at most around 0.06 percent of the total.” Retired Army Gen. Wayne A. Downing, who served briefly as President Bush’s adviser on counterterrorism and has criticized some aspects of the administration’s performance, said yesterday he considered the missing-explosives issue “bogus.”
Whatever the case, the military significance of the loss, in a country awash with far larger amounts of munitions, is open to question. The most powerful of the three explosives — HMX — can be used in a trigger for nuclear devices, which is why it was placed under IAEA seal. But HMX is obtainable elsewhere, and the chief U.S. weapons investigator in Iraq, Charles A. Duelfer, has acknowledged that the Iraqi stockpile posed no particular concern in this regard.
Matthew Bunn, a Harvard University expert in nuclear weapons and terrorism, said that although he is concerned by the removal of the explosives, he is far more worried by IAEA reports that large quantities of sophisticated equipment, such as electron beam welders, were looted and removed from Iraq’s nuclear weapons program. “That material, which would be quite useful to a nuclear weapons program, was also well known to the United States, was not guarded and today is probably in hostile hands,” with Iran being a likely recipient, said Bunn, who noted that he has been advising the Kerry campaign but does not speak for it.
What’s particularly interesting to me is the side debate, about whether criticizing Bush for this issue amounts to blaming the troops. This strikes me as a span of control issue. If in fact these weapons went missing after the fall of Baghdad, then it’s certainly legitimate to question Bush’s leadership if 1) the administration did not issue instructions to secure these facilities or 2) commanders on the ground had to choose which facilities to guard because there were inadequate soldiers for the task. If neither of these conditions are met, then it’s instead a judgment call made by commanders on the ground–at what level, exactly, I’m not sure–and it would be useful to get an explanation for why that decision was made. In no case, though, are the “troops,” if one means enlisted soldiers or junior officers, to blame.
The other side story is the political interplay between the IAEA, the New York Times, and the Kerry campaign. Certainly, the reporting of a story on something that may or may not have happened eighteen months ago at this juncture is harmful to the Bush campaign. Without question, both the NYT editorial board and the leadership of the IAEA want Bush defeated. So the question of timing is indeed interesting. Did the IAEA just now discover that these munitions were missing? The NYT? Inquiring minds want to know.
Hindrocket has some rather extensive analysis as well.
[T]o date, the U.S. military has secured 400,000 tons of munitions in Iraq. At most, the Al Qaqaa explosives would represent less than 1/10 of 1% of the munitions that have been secured and, for the most part, destroyed. Let’s assume that the New York Times and John Kerry are correct, even though, as noted this morning, the Times has backed off their story and said they have no idea when the explosives left Al Qaqaa. Giving the Times and Kerry the benefit of the doubt, the American armed forces were more than 99.9% effective in securing Iraqi explosives. And this is what John Kerry calls “incompetence”?