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Uh-oh ... The head

Uh-oh ... The head of the Iraqi Science Ministry's site monitoring department says there's no way the explosives were snagged from al Qaqaa before the former regime fell.

"It is impossible that these materials could have been taken from this site before the regime's fall," Mohammed al-Sharaa told the AFP. "The officials that were inside this facility (Al-Qaqaa) beforehand confirm that not even a shred of paper left it before the fall and I spoke to them about it and they even issued certified statements to this effect which the US-led coalition was aware of."

Does this guy have an axe to grind? Is he biased? I can't say I know anything about him. But if he's some Baathist or dead-ender why is he the guy in charge of protecting these sites now?

And how about those certified statements issued to coalition officials?

Which ones?

This may even convince CNN ...

Is it all going

Is it all going to be about media bias now?

A short time ago Drudge tossed up one of his flashing sirens and soon enough he was pushing the story that ABCNews -- supposedly for political reasons -- is sitting on a new terror tape warning of an attack that will dwarf the horror of 9/11.

According to Drudge, the CIA is now analyzing the tape for authenticity and there are various other breathless quotes. The tape supposedly emerged in Waziristan over the weekend.

Then we hear the odd detail that the terrorist speaks in an American accent and speculation that it might be "Adam Gadhan - aka Adam Pearlman, a California native", who, if you look at his photo on this mug shot and flyer announcing the Bureau's interest in questioning him, looks like he probably turned to radical Islam after getting turned down for a role in Dazed and Confused or possibly Clerks.

These are difficult waters to wade into, particularly with skepticism, doubt or derision. And who knows what the story is here. But a few questions suggest themselves.

Like, since when do we even hear about 'terror warning tapes' when they don't come from the likes of bin Laden or al Zawahiri?

Questioning this stuff isn't a matter of making light of terrorism. It comes from so many people's frustration about how many ways these jokers have tried to use this stuff to divide this country and manipulate it for narrow political ends.

I half expect that by tomorrow we'll be watching a grainy video of Ken Mehlman, decked out in a phony beard a la Woody Allen in Bananas, bellowing that he and his boss OBL are about to take over America with one mammoth terror attack and institute compulsory gay marriage before forcibly converting everyone to Islam.

I can only hope that we've finally come to point where even the standard pushovers in the mainstream media are getting wise to this song and dance.

Apparently President Bush and

Apparently President Bush and his campaign didn't want to make it three days straight without any comment from the commander-in-chief about the al Qaqaa business.

But it wasn't pretty.

No, it probably won't surprise you that I thought it was weak. But I really don't think many of the president's supporters (at least not those who still have any critical faculties left) will be too heartened by it either.

What I jotted down just as I was listening was a line about Kerry's "wild charges about missing explosives" and how Kerry's "denigrating the actions of our troops in the field without knowing the facts."

Beside that it seemed to be a mix of 'Not my fault', 'We still don't know what happened', 'Maybe they were already gone, 'Criticizing me means criticizing the troops' and then on top of that some more mumbojumbo about Tora Bora.

I almost expected him to start whining about media bias.

Weve now gone two

We've now gone two days without President Bush making any comment at all about the al Qaqaa business. As the Times notes, the president twice ignored reporters' questions on the topic yesterday.

Will Wednesday be number three?

It's an oddly defensive stance less than a week before an election.

This evening Wingerdom is

This evening, Wingerdom is all aflutter about what they now see as the New York Times-CBS-IAEA international anti-Bush conspiracy. But they might do better to focus their anxieties elsewhere.

Like at the Pentagon, for instance.

Who over there is trying to stick it to the president?

Look at two big news stories on Tuesday, the Washington Post report that the White House plans to ask for some $70 billion more in Iraq spending just a week or two after the election and this USA Today piece reporting that the Pentagon is planning to add roughly 20,000 more troops to the force in Iraq in anticipation of the elections in January.

Just on the basis of logical inference, I'm gonna bet those leaks didn't come from Scott McClellan.

More troops in the country is something that many administration critics have been pressing for. But, still, it's not the news the Bush campaign wants to be talking about one week before the election. Combined with the al Qaqaa business, these two stories managed to create what one network news talking head called a trifecta of bad Iraq news to kick off the last week of the campaign.

Tom Squitieri, author of the USA Today piece, provides some possible guidance about who was behind the troop deployment story: "Four Defense officials with direct knowledge of troop planning for Iraq discussed what the Pentagon must do to meet the need for more troops at election time. They asked not to be identified because troop matters are highly sensitive and decisions have not yet been finalized." The Post sourced its story to Pentagon officials and "Appropriations Committee aides." But what Republican Appropriations Committee aides -- who are the ones who'd know the best details -- would have leaked this stuff to the Post this week?

Even in the al Qaqaa story, while Larry Di Rita has been working reporters trying to get out the White House's storyline, there's been a steady back-draft of off-the-record comments by Army officials that keep tripping him up.

I also couldn't help but notice that both the Times and CBS managed to get lengthy and rather candid interviews with Col. Joseph Anderson, commander of the unit that came through al Qaqaa on April 10th with that NBC News crew. He completely upended the NBC/Drudge storyline that the White House had been depending on all day. And for CBS, Anderson even tossed in the bonus comment that he would have needed four times as many troops to secure all the weapons depots that his troops came across while sweeping into Iraq.

If it were appropriate, I might even note that one of the folks who received the 'talking points' di Rita sent out today describing how to spin the al Qaqaa mess decided to send them on to me.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that the Army is trying to drive the president from office or that there's anything coordinated about this. I'm simply pointing out that if you look at the Pentagon as a whole -- and not just Larry Di Rita's shop in OSD -- in Bush-Cheney '04 terms, it's starting to look like part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Now might be a

Now might be a good time <$NoAd$>for a follow-up from Rick Jervis of the Chicago Tribune.

Back on September 30th, he wrote a piece about the lawlessness in the Iraqi town of Latifiyah, what the US military calls the "IED [or 'improvised explosive device'] capital of Iraq."

Down a ways into the story, in the process of explaining all the violence and bombings and explosions, Jervis writes ...

The insurgents probably are using weapons and ammunition looted from the nearby Qa-Qaa complex, a 3-mile by 3-mile weapons-storage facility about 25 miles southwest of Baghdad, said Maj. Brian Neil, operations officer for the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, which initially patrolled the area.

The facility was bombed during last year's invasion and then left unguarded, Neil said. "There's definitely no shortage of weapons around here," he said.

From the context of the piece it sounds like he may be talking about mortar shells and artillery rounds rather than the RDX and HMX from al Qaqaa that everyone's now talking about.

Still, this sounds like something we should know more about.

[ed. note: thanks to TPM reader TH for having the eagle eye.]

Oh if only hed

Oh if only he'd remembered his own sage advice ...

Back at the last debate, after John Kerry rattled off some press praise about one of his programs, President Bush quipped (at Kerry's and Bob Schiefer's expense), "In all due respect, I'm not so sure it's credible to quote leading news organizations."

I bet the folks at the White House are now wishing they'd followed the headman's advice before they based their entire push back on the al Qaqaa fiasco on a short blurb on NBC Nightly News that fell apart about as quickly as it took to get all their surrogates to start talking about it.

As we've noted in a series of posts over the course of the day, the NBC story started falling apart when MSNBC interviewed one of the members of the news crew in question, who said that there hadn't been any search at all. A short time later Jim Miklaszewski came on to explain that indeed there had been no search and that what the NBC News crew saw didn't tell us much of anything about whether explosives were still there at the time the news crew arrived with the 101st Airborne on April 10th. By early evening, Tom Brokaw told Nightly News viewers in polite but no uncertain terms that they hadn't said what the White House was claiming they did.

In fairness to NBC, they never ran that hard with their 'scoop'. And they carefully unpacked it over the course of the day. That fell to CNN, which got goaded into running with the story by Drudge. But by late in the afternoon, even CNN was bailing out.

There's certainly plenty of schadenfreude to go around. But it's worth drawing back and seeing this turnabout in the context of the broader story.

Given all that's happened in Iraq, the potency of the al Qaqaa story was never that it was the worst thing that has happened in Iraq. It's that it brings together in one package almost everything that's gone wrong: incompetence, abetted by denial, covered up by dishonesty, and all in one fatal brew.

And what do we have over the last forty-eight hours? The White House faces a press storm over a new revelation and their reaction is to go to battle with the news organizations involved with an argument they pretty clearly hadn't thought over for more than a few minutes.

Now the White House has first, denied they knew anything about the problem before October 15th; second, said they've known about it all along and that it wasn't their fault because it happened before we got there; and third, well ... I guess we'll find that out tomorrow.

Special thanks to TPM reader TB for reminding me of that moment from the first debate.

Im told that Dan

I'm told that Dan Senor went on Paula Zahn's show this evening to try to push back on the al Qaqaa story, and that it wasn't a pretty sight. They've just uploaded the transcript. So I'm going to read it shortly. But before I do, an idea ...

When Jerry Bremer headed up the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, Dan Senor was his right hand man. He's still playing that role for Bremer here stateside now that the CPA has gone out of existence.

Now, Sunday evening I noted that there was one big dog who hadn't barked in this whole brouhaha. And that's Bremer. Yes, we're caught up with all this mumbojumbo about whether there are any aerial photographs of what was happening at al Qaqaa in March 2003. But Bremer's really the guy at the center of all this.

He was the administrator of Iraq for almost the entire period of the occupation. All these issues were part of his brief. He was the senior US government official on the ground. And according to Monday's article in the Times, the Iraqis told Bremer in May of this year of their concerns about al Qaqaa. Bremer would also almost certainly know about US pressure on the Iraqis not to communicate these concerns to the IAEA.

Yet, Bremer's not talking. The Times piece made that clear. And journalists who are trying to get him to talk are getting a particularly feeble excuse for why he won't.

He's telling them his publisher isn't letting him talk to the press.

(Back on July 4th of this year Bremer told Fox's Chris Wallace that he was about to "turn to writing a book about my experiences" in Iraq. So presumably that's what he's talking about.)

So when Senor hits the shows, shouldn't the hosts be asking him why his boss isn't willing to answer any questions on this topic from the press? Is the Times right that Iraqis told Bremer about the problem at al Qaqaa last May? Does he know about the pressure CPA officials put on the Iraqis not to talk to the IAEA?

Those would all be great questions to have answers to. But let's talk for a moment about the real reason Bremer is probably observing radio silence.

Let's go back to the beginning of this month.

What got Bremer in hot water a few weeks ago were his indiscreet remarks about how the US occupation force in Iraq was undermanned and the looting that ensued because of it.

"We paid a big price for not stopping it because it established an atmosphere of lawlessness," the Washington Post quoted him as saying. "We never had enough troops on the ground." In another speech, he reportedly said, "The single most important change -- the one thing that would have improved the situation -- would have been having more troops in Iraq at the beginning and throughout" the occupation.

Later, after the firestorm erupted, Bremer wrote an OpEd in the Times tried to do as much damage control as he could with his remarks. And he did so by pulling his criticisms and dissents back to the earliest stages of the occupation. In that way, his already public criticisms would only apply to this very limited period of time.

As he wrote in the Times, "I believe it would have been helpful to have had more troops early on to stop the looting that did so much damage to Iraq's already decrepit infrastructure."

Now, here I think we may be on to the root of the matter. A few weeks ago, the widespread looting and destruction of critical infrastructure in the first weeks of the occupation seemed an out-of-the-way and politically safe point.

Now, not so much.

When CBS interviewed the commander of the unit that visited al Qaqaa with that NBC news crew on April 10th, they heard the following ...

The commander of the first unit into the area told CBS he did not search it for explosives or secure it from looters. "We were still in a fight," he said. "our focus was killing bad guys." He added he would have needed four times more troops to search and secure all the ammo dumps he came across.

This really is the same issue, the heart of the matter: the lack of a sufficient number of troops early on to secure critical infrastructure and facilities. And it seems to be one to which Bremer's given quite a bit of thought.

I know it's not fun to get on the wrong side of your publisher. But somehow I think that's not the only reason Mr. Bremer's staying mum.

Special thanks to TPM reader ADJJ for recalling for me what Bremer said in the Times OpEd.

The lede in tomorrows

The lede in tomorrow's Times story about al <$NoAd$>Qaqaa ...

White House officials reasserted yesterday that 380 tons of powerful explosives may have disappeared from a vast Iraqi military complex while Saddam Hussein controlled Iraq, saying a brigade of American soldiers did not find the explosives when they visited the complex on April 10, 2003, the day after Baghdad fell.

But the unit's commander said in an interview yesterday that his troops had not searched the facility and had merely stopped there for the night on their way to Baghdad.

And then there's this ...

President Bush's aides told reporters that because the soldiers had found no trace of the missing explosives on April 10, the explosives could have been removed before the American invasion. They based their assertions on a report broadcast by NBC News on Monday night that showed video footage of the 101st arriving at Al Qaqaa.

By yesterday afternoon, as Mr. Bush made his way through Wisconsin and Iowa, his aides had moderated their view, saying it was a "mystery" when the explosives disappeared. They said that it could have happened before or after the invasion and that Mr. Bush did not want to comment on the matter until the facts were known.

Reduced to hanging their hat on the say-so of the NBC News crew. Splendid.

Much more on this, this evening. But for now, those grafs above pretty much say it all, don't they?