Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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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 ...

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.

Wouldn't you figure it's time for a terror alert about now?

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.

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 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 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 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.