Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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So which is it?

The Iraqi interim government says that the explosives at al Qa Qaa went missing some time after April 9th 2003 because of "the theft and looting of the governmental installations due to lack of security."

(Remember, Baghdad fell on April 9th, so presumably that's a marker denoting simply that it happened at some point after the fall of the old regime.)

Today, Pentagon spokesman Larry Di Rita suggested that the weapons may have been taken from al Qa Qaa in the final days of the old regime or in fact during the war.

Remember, the IAEA inspected the munitions in January 2003 and then returned to the site and saw that the seals were in place in March, just a week or so before the war started. So Di Rita is claiming that the explosives were taken away in a two or three week period in late March of very early April 2003. If Drudge is to be trusted (yes, yes, I know), NBC will be running with some version of this storyline.

But there's another version of events.

A Pentagon "official who monitors developments in Iraq" told the Associated Press today that "US-led coalition troops had searched Al-Qaqaa in the immediate aftermath of the March 2003 invasion and confirmed that the explosives, which had been under IAEA seal since 1991, were intact."

That of course would mean that the explosives were not removed from the facility until some point after the war. And that would be in line with what the Iraqis two weeks ago told the IAEA.

Let's review for a moment. We have a dispute here about a window of time covering two to four weeks, say roughly from March 10th to April 10th 2003 at the longest. But it's an important few weeks because it was over this span of time that the region went from the control of Saddam's government to the US military.

If the Di Rita hypothesis rests on the claim that the first US troops that visited al Qa Qaa found that the explosives had already been stolen or looted or otherwise secreted away. (He has, in fact, already said this.) And that would mean that the US government has known the explosives were missing for some eighteen months.

The problem is that the White House has spent the entire day claiming that they knew nothing about this until ten days ago, October 15th. Scott McClellan said this repeatedly during his gaggle with reporters this morning. Indeed, he went on to say the following: "Now [i.e., after the notification on October 15th], the Pentagon, upon learning of this, directed the multinational forces and the Iraqi survey group to look into this matter, and that's what they are currently doing."

So McClellan says that the Pentagon only just learned about this. And that's why they only now assigned the Iraq Survey Group to examine what happened at al Qa Qaa.

But Di Rita says that the US government has known about it for 18 months.

So which is it?

They've known about it since just after the war and kept it a secret? Or they just found out about it ten days ago and now they're on the case?

PS. David Sanger has a nice follow-up today in the Times giving a tick-tock of the White House's story as it zigged and zagged over the course of the day.

PPS. The Sanger piece has now been expanded to include some more excuses and distortions from Bush campaign spokeswoman Nicolle Devenish.

Nothing's his fault.

The president today in Colorado ...

Now my opponent is throwing out the wild claim that he knows where bin Laden was in the fall of 2001, and that our military passed up the chance to get him in Tora Bora. This is an unjustified criticism of our military commanders in the field.

Reality = wild claim.

Difficulties keeping the story straight.

In this article filed today by the AFP, Pentagon spokesman Larry Di Rita suggests that the explosives at al Qa Qaa may have disappeared even before American troops arrived on the scene.

"We do not know when -- if those weapons did exist at that facility -- they were last seen, and under whose control they were last in ... It's very possible -- certainly it's plausible -- that it was the Saddam Hussein regime that last had control of these things."

Di Rita went on to say that it is not clear whether the explosives were at the facility when US troops did their initial searches of the place for weapons of mass destruction and related materials.

But another Pentagon official who spoke to the Associated Press seems to disagree ...

At the Pentagon, an official who monitors developments in Iraq said US-led coalition troops had searched Al-Qaqaa in the immediate aftermath of the March 2003 invasion and confirmed that the explosives, which had been under IAEA seal since 1991, were intact. Thereafter the site was not secured by U.S. forces, the official said, also speaking on condition of anonymity.


As McClellan is now making clear, RDX and HMX -- the explosives looted from the al Qa Qaa facility are hardly a big deal at all. And in any case, they're the responsibility of the Iraqis.

But interestingly, on January 30th 2003, when then-UN Ambassador (and now Ambassador to Iraq) John Negroponte testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about Iraqi non-compliance with the inspections regime, one of the items in the long bill of particulars he adduced was the fact that the Iraqis had not come clean about their stocks of HMX.

"Dr. ElBaradei," he told the Committee, "also explained that IAEA has yet to determine the relocation or use of certain, dual-use items, such as the high explosive HMX which was sealed by IAEA in 1998, and which Iraq claims it has used since for mining."

No, it certainly wasn't the highest on their list of concerns. But it was there.

Would al Qaida want to get its hands on RDX and HMX? al Qaida expert Peter Bergen says 'yes'. In fact, Peter says that's what would-be LAX bomber Ahmed Ressam got caught trying to bring over the Canadian border.

A clip from an article just posted on the WaPo website that truly says it all ...

In a 45-minute speech in Greeley, Colo., today, Bush ignored the news about the missing explosives, Washington Post staff writer Mike Allen reported. Instead, Bush stuck to his stock assertion: "America and the world are safer with Saddam Hussein sitting in a prison cell."

Doesn't that capture everything?

When your whole story is a crock spun together on the fly, I guess it's hard to keep your numbers straight. But this still seems a noteworthy contrast. Two quotes from McClellan's briefing this morning ...

"We've destroyed more than 243,000 munitions, we've secured another nearly 163,000 that will be destroyed."

Followed a few moments later by this ...

"And as I pointed out, that's why we've already destroyed more than 243,000 munitions and have another nearly 363,000 on line to be destroyed."

Special thanks to TPM reader DJ.

Definitely take a moment to skim over Scott McClellan's remarks today in the press gaggle about the al Qa Qaa debacle. It's a brazen effort.

McClellan's key point is that the US knew nothing about any of this until October 15th, ten days ago.

That contradicts what the Times says, which is that Iraqis claim they told Jerry Bremer about this last May. It contradicts what the Iraqis have told the IAEA, which is that the US pressured them not to report the disappearance to the IAEA.

It also stands in what I guess you'd have to call simple defiance of the fact that the US had formal charge of these facilities for more than a year ending in late June of this year.

To say that we knew nothing about the theft of these materials during that entire time is simply not credible. And if it's really true, it's considerably worse than if it's a lie.

Asked whether securing a facility like this wasn't a key priority of the occupation forces, McClellan responded: "At the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom there were a number of priorities. It was a priority to make sure that the oil fields were secure, so that there wasn't massive destruction of the oil fields, which we thought would occur. It was a priority to get the reconstruction office up and running. It was a priority to secure the various ministries, so that we could get those ministries working on their priorities, whether it was ..."

And then one of the key questions from one of the reporters ...

Q: Scott, did we just have enough troops in Iraq to guard and protect these kind of caches?

MR. McCLELLAN: See, that's -- now you just hit on what I just said a second ago, that the sites now are really -- my understanding, they're the responsibility of the Iraqi forces. And I disagree with the way you stated your question, because one of the lessons we've learned of history is that it's important to listen to the commanders on the ground and our military leaders when it comes to troop levels. And that's what this President has always done. And they've said that we have the troop levels we need to complete the mission and succeed in Iraq.

Q But you're saying this is the responsibility of the Iraqi forces. But this was our responsibility until just recently, isn't that right? Weren't these -- there is some U.S. culpability, as far as --

MR. McCLELLAN: You're trying -- I think you're taking this out of context of what was going on. This was reported missing after -- when the interim government informed that these munitions went missing some time after April 9th of 2003, remember, that was when we were still involved in major military action at that point. And there were a number of important priorities at that point. There were munitions, munition caches spread throughout Iraq. There were -- there was a concern that there would be massive refugees fleeing the country. There is concern about the devastation that could occur to the oil fields. There was concern about starvation that could happen for the Iraqi people.

So -- and obviously there is an effort to go and secure these sites. The Department of Defense can talk to you about -- because they did go in and look at this site and look to see whether or not there were weapons of mass destruction there. So you need to talk to Department of Defense, because I think that would clarify that for you and set that record straight.

Did you understand his answer? Or the proper 'context' he was saying it needs to be seen in? As nearly as I can tell his explanation is that there was a lot of stuff going on during the early occupation and that this wasn't that high on the priority list.

And even this explanation, if accepted at face value, doesn't get at the real issue. Let's say things were just too crazy in the first month or more of the occupation to secure the al Qa Qaa facility. What about the period of relative calm between spring 2003 and the end of the year. Didn't anybody go out and see that the place had been swept clean?

Not only are McClellan's explanations not good ones, most of them don't even make any sense. And they all hang on the palpably false premise that the US knew nothing about this until little more than a week ago.

Could the al Qa Qaa debacle be a sinister and ingenious ploy on the part of the White House to give the public one more view of the goofball buck-passing that has been such an asset to the president's administration?

Look at the latest from Scott McClellan on Air Force One. This from CNN ...

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said President Bush wants to determine what went wrong.

McClellan, on Air Force One, stressed that the missing explosives were not nuclear materials, and said the storage site was the responsibility of the interim Iraqi government, not the United States, as of June 28, when the United States turned over the nation's administration to the Iraqis.

The president wants to determine what went <$Ad$>wrong.

This reminds me of when I wanted to know why my Palm Pilot stopped working after I dropped it in the bath tub.

Doesn't this capture Bush's entire presidency?

The thing happened more than a year ago, his administration has taken active steps to cover it up and now that the truth finally comes out, he 'wants to determine what went wrong.'

The idea of accepting responsibility for anything is simply alien to the man. He doesn't even have the good grace to scam us by finding a scapegoat to pin the blame on.

And what about Scott McClellan trying to pin it on the Iraqis?

Does he not read the newspapers or does he think everyone else to too stupid to remember what they just read in them this morning. The stuff was taken more than a year before the Iraqis took over the US occupation authority. And even the highly-cautious Times piece makes clear that Jerry Bremer was told about it no later than May of this year.

Nolo contendere?

As one would expect, the Kerry campaign has seized on today's revelation of the Bush administration's latest lethal blunder in Iraq and pressed the point on the campaign trail.

And the Bush administration's response?

Kerry's lying?

It's not true?

There's an explanation?

Apparently, on the merits, there's no response at all.

Bush spokesman Steve Schmidt issued the campaign's response: "John Kerry has no vision for fighting and winning the War on Terror, so he is basing his attacks on the headlines he wakes up to each day."