Okay now we seem

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Okay, now we seem to have the White House’s third rendition of what happened at al Qaqaa. And we can find it in a nicely digestible form in this new piece from Fox News.

The headline reads: “Search Showed No Explosives at Iraqi Base Before War’s End.”

Down into the piece we find this: “U.S. forces searched several times last year the Iraqi military base from which 380 tons of explosives vanished — including one check a week before Saddam Hussein was driven out of power. But the military saw no signs of a huge quantity of munitions.”

Now that the White House’s defenders have given up on the April 10th NBC visit, they’ve fixed on April 3rd (stretching into the 4th) arrival of units from the 3rd ID, which we first noted late Monday evening.

Fox and Larry Di Rita (Don Rumsfeld’s communications guy) are now arguing that since those units that were there on the 3rd and 4th of April didn’t find a “huge quantity of munitions” that the stuff had already been taken away.

Now, once again, let’s review a few points.

Remember, this is a huge facility. The fact that this particular stuff wasn’t found during a brief inspection is hardly conclusive about the whereabouts of these explosives, especially since that’s not what they were looking for.

More to the point though, look what they did find. This from a piece by Barton Gellman two days later …

In the first of yesterday’s discoveries, the 3rd Infantry Division entered the vast Qa Qaa chemical and explosives production plant and came across thousands of vials of white powder, packed three to a box. The engineers also found stocks of atropine and pralidoxime, also known as 2-PAM chloride, which can be used to treat exposure to nerve agents but is also used to treat poisoning by organic phosphorus pesticides. Alongside those materials were documents written in Arabic that, as interpreted at the scene, appeared to include discussions of chemical warfare.

This morning, however, investigators said initial tests indicated the white powder was not a component of a chemical weapon. “On first analysis it does not appear to be a chemical that could be used in a chemical weapons attack,” Col. John Peabody, commander of the division’s engineering brigade, told a Reuters reporter with his unit.

And what was the white powder? Here’s what the Associated Press was told the same day …

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.

RDX and HMX are white powders.

So after a quick search what they found mainly were thousands of vials of white powder that turned out to be an explosive, and quite probably RDX and/or HMX.

Now, does this prove that the explosives were all there on the 3rd of April and that they were then left for looters to pick over? Of course, not. Like the visit on the 10th, this was a quick inspection of a facility with hundreds of buildings. At worst it was inconclusive as far as the explosives are concerned. But there is also this contemporaneous evidence that strongly suggests that they did find some of the explosives on site.

Needless to say neither the Fox Report nor the Di Rita marching orders, which they were working from, mentioned this.

One can get mixed up in the murkiness that the White House spin-doctors are trying to create here. But that’s the point. They’re just trying to kick up a lot of dust.

I have to tell you, though I figure that it will ruffle feathers all around, that this desperate hopping from one explanation to another reminds me very much of those desperate days when Dan Rather and Mary Mapes were hunting around trying to find some backing — after the fact — for a story that turned out to have very little behind it.

The same thing is going on here. The folks at the White House were caught completely flat-footed by this whole story. It’s not something that they or the civilian mis-planners of the war ever gave much thought to.

But now they realize that the way they can get out of this is to find some way to show that the stuff wasn’t there when they arrived. So first they try with the NBC story. And when that falls apart they move on to this story. But it doesn’t really hold up either.

Later Di Rita brought out the then-commander of the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division (the first troops on the scene) who said that in the weeks after April 3rd when his troops came through the area on the way to Baghdad it would have been “very highly improbable” that anyone could have put together a convoy to haul the stuff away because the two roads through the area were choked with US military convoys bringing men and materiel into the country.

Perhaps small-scale looting, he said, but not a major operation.

On the face of it, that sounds persuasive.

But then former weapons inspector David Kay was on CNN just a short time later saying that he can’t believe it could have happened in the short time window before or during the war either — which is just what Di Rita is trying to suggest. And it has to be one of the other. Here’s Kay

I must say, I find it hard to believe that a convoy of 40 to 60 trucks left that facility prior to or during the war, and we didn’t spot it on satellite or UAV. That is, because it is the main road to Baghdad from the south, was a road that was constantly under surveillance. I also don’t find it hard to believe that looters could carry it off in the dead of night or during the day and not use the road network.

So Kay not only says he doesn’t think it happened in the only other possible time — the last three weeks of March — he also seems to think that it could have been done later without using those major roads.

Again, Di Rita and his associates in the Bush campaign certainly don’t know what happened. Nor are they trying to find out what happened. What they’re trying to do — a la Rather and Mapes in those ugly days — is try to come up with something, anything, that will provide an alternative, exonerating explanation of what happened. And as each new piece of evidence or explanation gets knocked down, they look around for something else.

As of late Wednesday evening, Drudge is reporting that the Russians carted it off just before the war. I kid you not.

Here we go again.

Late Update: Drudge’s ‘the Russians did it’ story is up now at the Washington Times, all based it seems on the say-so of John A. Shaw, the deputy undersecretary of defense for international technology security, whose theory about Russian involvement even Di Rita seems to be distancing himself from.

Shaw does at least provide the adminsitration’s 9th or 10th theory of what happened. It had to have been taken out before the war because the US watched the place so closely no other explanation is possible. “That was such a pivotal location, Number 1, that the mere fact of [special explosives] disappearing was impossible,” Shaw told the Times. “And Number 2, if the stuff disappeared, it had to have gone before we got there.”

You can’t make this stuff up.

Or, I guess, actually you can.

Meanwhile, back on planet Earth, the New York Times talks to some of the folks who looted the place during the early weeks of the occupation.

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