Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

In President Bush’s 2000 convention acceptance speech, he hit the issue of troop readiness hard.

“Our military is low on parts, pay and morale,” he said. “If called on by the commander-in-chief today, two entire divisions of the Army would have to report ... Not ready for duty, sir. This administration had its moment. They had their chance. They have not led. We will.”

Back on December 6th of last year, you’ll remember, the Washington Post reported that in 2004, four of ten Army divisions would not be combat ready for up to six months. Specifically, they would be rated at C-3 or C-4, the Army’s two lowest readiness levels.

Since then, Army internal reporting and a classified Government Accounting Office study of the combat readiness of all US ground forces have further underscored the problem. The Secretary of the Army and others were briefed on the GAO study, which is still under review, earlier this month. Senior uniformed Army officials are, of course, also receiving regular briefings on the situation.

The picture this reporting paints for Guard readiness is, I’m told, considerably more bleak than the December news about readiness in the Army.

Readiness in stateside Guard brigades is so poor because those brigades are essentially being cannibalized – for both men and materiel – to keep afloat brigades that are currently stationed in Iraq.

If you look through the right-wing media universe this morning you will hear that perhaps the explosives were never at al Qaqaa at all. Or if they were there perhaps Saddam's men carted them off in March. Or if Saddam's men didn't cart them off for the insurgency then the Russians carted them off to Syria. Or if, God forbid, it really did happen as the critics say, well, President Bush wasn't there. It was the fault of the troops on the ground.

If you can't quite get your head around the audacity of that last one, that's what the president's surrogate Rudy Guiliani said this morning on one of the morning shows.

"The actual responsibility for it really would be for the troops that were there," said Mr. Guiliani, "Did they search carefully enough? Didn't they search carefully enough?"

But, please, let's see through the snowstorm of mumbojumbo the president's handlers and liegemen are trying to toss in our eyes and focus on the essence of the matter.

The president and his advisors insisted on a warplan that had far too few troops to secure even the key facilities in Iraq that were the reason for the invasion in the first place. Remember, many of the nuclear facilities were stripped bare too. This wasn't the fault of troops streaming through on their way to Baghdad, doing a quick check for chemical and biological weapons. The error was in the planning of the war itself -- planning that came from Rumsfeld's civilians and the White House over and against the advice of the generals.

Now, in this particular case, could the White House get lucky and it turn out that the al Qaqaa munitions were actually carted off to Mars?

Sure. Even though no evidence adduced to date suggests anything but that they were looted because they were not secured.

But that would hardly change the essential issue. The administration didn't deploy adequate troops to secure these facilities and didn't even have a plan to do so. It wasn't even a concern until late Sunday evening when the issue blew up into a political firestorm and they began desperately trying to come up with some rationale, any rationale, to shift the blame off themselves.

Nor is that all.

Why was the mission so undermanned?

Part of the explanation comes from Secretary Rumsfeld's and his staff's view of military transformation, one that puts a heavy emphasis on high-tech weaponry and airpower over ground forces.

That's not the biggest reason, though.

The biggest reason is that President Bush and his chief advisors knew that it would be much harder to get the country into Iraq if the electorate knew the full scope of the investment -- in dollars, deployments and casualties -- upfront. In other words, undermanning the operation was always part of the essential dishonesty and recklessness with which the president led the nation to war.

Mr. President, is that your final answer? Larry?

New details from a local TV film crew embedded with the 101st.

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.

I just sat down to watch a few minutes of the alternative fact universe that is the Fox News Channel. And it's really quite bracing to see the ridiculousness up close, even from folks who should know better like Mort Kondracke or even Mara Liasson. I've always been curious what sort of brainwashing they give these otherwise good people before they take up regular gigs at that place.

To hear them tell it, the most likely time the explosives disappeared was before the war started. No one knows otherwise, including the current Iraqi officials, who say they have no way of knowing when the stuff disappeared. For all those reasons, Kerry's in big trouble. And also the NYT-CBS-IAEA anti-Bush conspiracy, did we mention that?

The collapse of the only purported evidence that the explosives were snaked away under Saddam's rule doesn't seem to have gotten their attention. What's more, only a few hours ago former weapons inspector David Kay said he found it highly implausible that the materials could have been carted away in a big fleet of trucks during the brief window of time between the last IAEA inspection and the arrival of American troops less than four weeks later. That's in contrast to the Fox panel that says it's the most likely scenario, despite the absence of any evidence.

And the Iraqis? They say they don't know when the stuff disappeared either? That must be breaking news because the guy in charge there now said today that he has specific knowledge that the explosives were taken after fall of the old government. Perhaps he's part of the anti-Bush conspiracy too but at least we can do this hopeless dead-ender the courtesy of accurately reflecting his public statements.

To the White House, and thus to Fox, no one can talk about this because we still don't know precisely what happened to the stuff -- which is of course a bit of a side-effect to leaving the place abandoned for a year and a half and never mounting any sort of investigation into what happened. For them, the administration's incompetence and cluelessness amounts to their silver bullet.

President Bush's comments today on the al Qaqaa matter are so telling, disjointed and over-the-top that it's really worth reprinting them in full (with the most rancid or ridiculous passages emphasized courtesy of the TPM editorial staff) ...

A President must be consistent. After repeatedly calling Iraq the wrong war and a diversion, Senator Kerry this week seemed shocked to learn that Iraq was a dangerous place full of dangerous weapons. (Laughter.) The Senator used to know that, even though he seems to have forgotten it over the course of this campaign. But, after all, that's why we went into Iraq. Iraq was a dangerous place, run by a dangerous tyrant who hated America and who had a lot of weapons. We've seized or destroyed more than 400,000 tons of munitions, including explosives, at more than thousands of sites. And we're continuing to round up the weapons almost every day.

I want to remind the American people, if Senator Kerry had his way, we would still be taking our global test.


THE PRESIDENT: Saddam Hussein would still be in power.


THE PRESIDENT: He would control all those weapons and explosives and could have shared them with our terrorist enemies.


THE PRESIDENT: Now the Senator is making wild charges about missing explosives, when his top foreign policy advisor admits "we don't know the facts." End quote. Think about that. The Senator is denigrating the actions of our troops and commanders in the field without knowing the facts. Unfortunately, that's part of the pattern of saying anything it takes to get elected. Like when he charged that our military failed to get Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora, even though our top military commander, General Tommy Franks, said, "The Senator's understanding of events does not square with reality," and intelligence reports place bin Laden in any of several different countries at the time.

See, our military is now investigating a number of possible scenarios, including this one -- that explosives may have been moved before our troops even arrived, even arrived at the site. The investigation is important and ongoing. And a political candidate who jumps to conclusions without knowing the facts is not the person you want as the Commander-in-Chief. (Applause.)

If you're wondering about the all the 'boo' and 'applause' lines, we're working from the White House transcript.

By the way, did you understand his <$NoAd$>answer?

There's actually a good deal more in <$NoAd$>this AFP article we noted earlier about the missing explosives, and information that puts some concrete detail behind the Science Ministry official's claim that the explosives were not spirited before the demise of the old regime.

I'm reprinting selected portions of the piece. But by all means read the whole thing ...

"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."

He said officials at Al-Qaqaa, including its general director, whom he refused to name, made contact with US troops before the fall in an effort to get them to provide security for the site.

The regime's fall triggered a wave of looting of government and private property, which US-led troops struggled to contain as they were busy securing their own positions.


Science Minister Omar Rashad sent a letter on October 10 to the International Atomic Energy Agency sounding the alarm about the explosives in Al-Qaqaa.

Sharaa said the letter was sent after repeated warnings and inquiries by the IAEA over the disappearance of so-called duel-use nuclear material, which could be used for either conventional or nuclear means.

"Normally we should be overseeing all sites but these responsibilities were stripped away from us under the coalition authority," he said.

The ministry was only handed oversight responsiblities of two site -- Al-Tuwaitha and Al-Wardiya -- after authority was transferred from the coalition to the interim government in June.

There is no need to simply take these assertions at face value. Certainly there may be a variety of motives in play. But these are very concrete and specific claims, ones that reporters might easily use to follow up on with administration and CPA officials. And the motive for members of the interim government to be making trouble for the president at just this moment is not immediately clear.

Department of pleasant surprises<$NoAd$> ...

NBC reports out Drudge's 'terror tape' mumbojumbo and adds some helpful debunking details ...

U.S. officials told NBC News that the tape included now-standard militant Islamist rhetoric promising widespread destruction inside the United States. The man cannot be identified, the officials said, because his face is covered by a headdress.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said ABC gave the CIA a complete copy of the tape Monday. They described analysts’ concern as “low” because it is not clear that the tape was recorded recently and because the man on the tape, who speaks in what appears to be an American accent, mentions no details.

“It’s unclear what this tape is — even whether the person on the tape is an American,” one of the officials said.

Surprise, surprise.

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 ...