Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Agreed, it's extremely important to find out what happened to those few hundred tons of high-explosives and how much of the stuff has already been used in terrorist operations against American troops and Iraqi civilians inside Iraq.

But missing explosives isn't the only thing we've got to be concerned about. What about the missing Administrator of Occupied Iraq?

Where's Jerry Bremer?

As we noted last night, he seems to have stiffed the Times. And as nearly as I can tell he still hasn't made any comment about any of this even though he is at the very center of what happened.

An honorary TPM ambassadorship to the first reporter who gets Bremer on the record!

(No, I don't have any idea what that means either.)

On Good Morning America, President Bush pushes the idea of a pre-election or an election day terrorist attack: "I am worried about it and we should be worried about it. On the other hand, I don't want people to say, that he knows something I don't know and therefore, something is imminent."

The White House seemed to be caught flatfooted at first in their response to the al Qa Qaa debacle. But now the spin is emerging.

One 'senior administration official' tells CNN that "the discovery was not made public sooner because standard intelligence practice is not to let the enemy know such information."

The folks I'm talking to don't think that much of that excuse. But isn't the point that 'the enemy' probably already knows because the enemy took the stuff? And since the stuff's been gone for something like a year and a half, when were people in the US going to be informed?

And is that why no one told the IAEA? Were we afraid they'd tell the enemy?

Then there's this quickly emerging excuse, I guess we might call it the FUBAR rationale.

The same official took this one out for a spin with CNN too ...

The senior administration official downplayed the importance of the missing explosives, describing them as dangerous material but "stuff you can buy anywhere." The official added that the administration did not see this necessarily as a "proliferation risk."

"In the grand scheme -- and on a grand scale -- there are hundreds of tons of weapons, munitions, artillery, explosives that are unaccounted for in Iraq," the official said. "And like the Pentagon has said, there is really no way the U.S. military could safeguard all of these weapons depots or find all of these missing materials."

So, given what a powder keg Iraq is, what's another few hundred tons of plastic explosives. It's not even "necessarily" a proliferation risk.

I'm feeling better already.

What have the al Qa Qaa RDX and HMX been used for so far?

The BBC notes that "HMX and RDX [are] key components in plastic explosives, which have been widely used in car bombings in Iraq."

Then there was this terrorist arms cache discovered in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia after the housing complex bombing in Riyadh. It contained "38.4 tons of 'RDX explosive materials'".

No word yet on the explosives used in the car bombing today near the Australian Embassy in central Baghdad.

One last point for the evening.

If you go to the MSNBC website, the headline on the al Qa Qaa story reads: "Paper: Iraq tells U.S. of missing explosives."


That not only doesn't square with simple logic, it doesn't even match with what the article in Times says.

The issue here is that the Iraqis finally told the IAEA.

The material seems to have been missing since some time shortly after the US invasion of Iraq in March/April 2003. So this isn't something that just happened. It probably happened some eighteen months ago.

What's more, the Times piece notes explicitly that Iraqi officials say they told Jerry Bremer about this last May. By definition, that means that the US government knew about this almost six months ago, and while it was still the occupying power.

And all this on top of the fact that IAEA officials have told journalists from several news outlets, including the Nelson Report, that the Bush administration not only failed to notify the IAEA of this while the US was still the occupying power but has pressured the Iraqis not to inform the IAEA both before and after the July 1st handover of power.

Are those facts covered by "Iraq tells U.S. of missing explosives"?


TPM Assignment Desk: a list of questions reporters might do well to get to the bottom of in this looted explosives story ...

1. Most glaringly, why won't Jerry Bremer talk? If you look at the Times piece it says: "Efforts to reach Mr. Bremer by telephone were unsuccessful." Yet the piece also makes clear that the Times has been working on this story since sometime last week. So presumably this isn't a matter of their calling him this morning and then spending the afternoon playing phone tag. Bremer's literally at the center of this. He was in charge of Iraq for almost the entire period of the occupation. What's his story? And if he won't talk to the press, why not?

2. The Times piece says: "American weapons experts say their immediate concern is that the explosives could be used in major bombing attacks against American or Iraqi forces: the explosives, mainly HMX and RDX, could be used to produce bombs strong enough to shatter airplanes or tear apart buildings."

That rather passes over the question of whether these explosives have already been used against US or Iraqi troops. As we noted earlier this evening, government officials who spoke to the Nelson Report seemed to think that's very likely. One US government official told Nelson, "this is the most likely primary source of the explosives which have been used to blow up Humvees and in all the deadly car bomb attacks since the Occupation began." Another official told him, "this is the stuff the bad guys have been using to kill our troops."

But surely we can get a more specific sense. If for no other reason, given Iraqi record keeping and the quantity of explosives in question, it seems unlikely that specific attacks could be forensically demonstrated to have used these specific explosives from this stash. But, again, certainly we could narrow down the possibilities.

For instance, hypothetically, let's say that the explosive from al Qa Qaa were all of type A and B and the vast majority of attacks in Iraq used types C and D. Then we could say that as bad as it is that all of this material has gone missing, little or none of it seems to have been used against US soldiers or Iraqi civilians. On the other hand, if most of the attacks have used types A and B, then perhaps that 350+ tons of the stuff that got carted away from al Qa Qaa would be a likely source of a lot of it.

Again, clearly I'm no expert on military-grade explosives, or any other grade for that matter. But clearly some reporting is needed here to give us a rough sense of the range of possibilities about how much of this stuff was used against our own soldiers.

This evening's Nelson Report contains the following passage ...

That last, rueful crack refers to efforts by DOD to create the impression that the road side bombs are made from captured artillery shells; our sources say, “this is very unlikely. Taking a shell apart is incredibly dangerous and difficult, it has to be done by real experts, and we’d have seen more ‘accidental explosions’ if they were doing this on any scale. No...it’s the RDX and HMX doing most of the damage, you can bet on it.”

I have no way of evaluating that judgment. But certainly that's a good topic for more reporting. One hint comes from this report from a Indian think-tank which says that RDX is often used in 'improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Kashmir.

3. This is a simple one. What pressure, if any, did Pentagon, CPA or now US Embassy officials bring to bear on Iraqi officials not to report the disappearance of the al Qa Qaa materials to the IAEA? What have the Iraqi representatives to the IAEA in Vienna told IAEA officials? What do the folks in Iraq say? What does Jerry Bremer say? And why would the US not want the Iraqis to inform the IAEA?

4. Did CPA officials become aware of the disappearance of the al Qa Qaa materials prior to the CPA's dissolution at the end of June 2004? And if they did, why did they not inform the IAEA?

A quote from an administration official in the Times piece suggests that the folks in charge of the CPA at the time were simply too busy with the impending governmental turnover and the growing insurgency to do anything about it. The quote from the senior administration official is: "It's not an excuse. But a lot of things went by the boards."

5. Whenever White House, Pentagon or CPA officials say they found out about the looting of the al Qa Qaa facility, did they inform congress?

6. The Times article says that Condi Rice "was informed within the past month that the explosives were missing." How many days after she was informed did she begin her current campaign swing?

7. In the revised and expanded version of the Times article, Pentagon spokesman Larry Di Rita suggests that whatever happened to the explosive material at al Qa Qaa must be seen in context of far larger quantities of explosives which have been destroyed by coalition forces. The actual text reads ...

A Pentagon spokesman, Lawrence Di Rita, said Sunday evening that Saddam Hussein's government "stored weapons in mosques, schools, hospitals and countless other locations," and that the allied forces "have discovered and destroyed perhaps thousands of tons of ordnance of all types."

The reporting from the Times and the Nelson Report would seem to suggest that this is not an apples to apples comparison, given the specific type of high explosives at al Qa Qaa. Who's right?

If I'm not mistaken, the piece on al Qa Qaa in the Times has now been revised and expanded since it was first posted late Sunday evening.

The New York Times, following the lead of The Nelson Report, has now posted its story on the looting of the 350-odd tons of high-explosives from the al Qa Qaa weapons facility in Iraq.

The Times story treads lightly over the question of whether the explosives in question have played a substantial role in the various suicide bombings, car bombings and sundry other attacks in Iraq over the last year.

They also say little about Pentagon pressure on the Iraqis not to report the disappearance of the explosives to the IAEA.

In its place seems to be an administration version of events in which no one was put in charge of ascertaining what happened to the al Qa Qaa materials, then Iraqis mentioned it to Bremer in May but he seems not to have passed on word to anyone else, then Condi was told "within the past month" but it's not clear whether she told the president.

If that's true, you've really gotta marvel at the chain of command this crew has in place. The whole thing is "I forgot", "I didn't know", "I didn't tell anybody", "It wasn't my responsibility", "What?" and so on.

There are even moments of refreshing candor like this line: "Administration officials say they cannot explain why the explosives were not safeguarded, beyond the fact that the occupation force was overwhelmed by the amount of munitions they found throughout the country."

As I wrote earlier, there are very good reasons to disbelieve this Keystone Cops explanation for what happened. There was a much more concerted effort to keep hidden what had happened here, including pressure on Iraqi officials not to report the disappearance of these materials to the IAEA.

But even if you accept this explanation on its face, I think it's almost worse.

Think about it ...

The explosives at al Qa Qaa were one of the primary -- and much-publicized -- concerns of non-proliferation officials at the IAEA and elsewhere prior to the war. During and after the war there was apparently no effort to secure the facility or catalog its remaining contents. Then no one realized there was a problem until more than a year later when someone told Jerry Bremer. But he didn't tell anyone in Washington, or at least no one remembers. And then Condi Rice only found out about it within the last month, but it's not clear she told anyone (i.e., the president or other principals) either.

Next up, a list of questions reporters should be focusing on ...

Now that the story of the looted munitions dump has seen the light of day, all the bigs will be digging into it this week, at least one as early as tomorrow morning. But let's take a moment to put into perspective what this means.

To review the essential facts, prior to the war, Iraq's Al Qa Qaa bunker and weapons complex had roughly 350 tons of high explosives under IAEA seal. After the war, for whatever reason, the complex was either not guarded at all or inadequately guarded. And all those explosives (primarily RDX and HMX) were carted away.

What we're talking about here isn't just a bunch of dynamite. This encyclopedia entry says RDX "is considered the most powerful and brisant of the military high explosives." And not 350 pounds, 350 tons.

It is apparently widely believed within the US government that those looted explosives are what in many, perhaps most, cases is being used in car bombs and suicide attacks against US troops. That is, according to TPM sources and sources quoted in this evening's Nelson Report, where the story first broke.

One administration official told Nelson, "This is the stuff the bad guys have been using to kill our troops, so you can’t ignore the political implications of this, and you would be correct to suspect that politics, or the fear of politics, played a major role in delaying the release of this information."

In response to questions about whether the material might have been smuggled out of Iraq, another source told Nelson, "It’s still in Iraq, and this is the most likely primary source of the explosives which have been used to blow up Humvees and in all the deadly car bomb attacks since the Occupation began.”

One need only look to the West Bank or al Qaida operations around the world to see that terrorists or insurgents don't need access to 350 tons of military-grade explosives to be able to pull off terrorist operations. But that quantity of material would clearly constitute an almost limitless supply for the insurgents now targetting US military personnel in Iraq. And it seems that these materials constitute at least a major source of the stuff now being used against US troops, not to mention Iraqi military personnel, policemen and civilians.

It has become increasingly clear of late in just what a ramshackle and disorganized fashion the occupation was run, with too few troops, too little planning, and often misplaced priorities.

Now we are starting to see the human consequences of that incompetence. I don't think we can know yet how many of our own troops have been killed with explosives that were looted because the administration didn't field enough troops to secure key installations like the al Qa Qaa facility. But the number may be high. And I'm sure we'll get more details on that count in reporting over the next few days.

In any case, it puts the consequences of the administration's incompetent management of the war and occupation in a whole new light.

Then there's the subsidiary matter of the use of these sorts of explosives in triggering devices for nuclear weapons. The IAEA clearly believes this aspect of the loss of these materials is a very big deal. But I want to wait to hear more from non-proliferation experts about this aspect of the story.

Those points give at least an outline of the consequences of this screw-up. But what's possibly the most damning aspect of this is the level of dishonesty, subterfuge and cover-up. What's clear in Nelson's and TPM's reporting is that the administration has known about this for at least a year. But they've gone to great lengths to hide the facts both from monitoring organizations like the IAEA but also, by extension, from the American public.

When the US was still the occupying power in Iraq, we didn't inform the IAEA.

And once Iraqis were in semi-control over the reporting process and now under de jure control, with the reestablishment of a nominally sovereign Iraqi government, the US continued to order the Iraqis not to report the theft of the explosives to the IAEA.

There are a number of reasons why you can imagine the White House and the civilians at the Pentagon wouldn't want to inform the IAEA. But one pretty clear one is that letting the IAEA find out would pretty clearly mean that the American public would find out what a major league screw-up the president and his advisors had allowed to happen.

Only a couple weeks ago did the Iraqis finally report the theft to the IAEA. And from there it was only a matter of time till the yearlong cover-up started to unravel.

But it didn't even stop there.

As I've noted, the White House and the Pentagon have known for more than a year that this stuff had gone missing. But the White House, according to TPM sources, has known that this story was coming for at least ten days. Again, not just the underlying facts -- that the stuff had been stolen and was being used against American troops (they've known that for more than a year) -- but the fact that this story was going to break in the not too distant future. And they've been hoping it could be pushed back until after the election.

As another administration source told Nelson, "What the hell were WE doing in the year and a half from the time we knew the stuff was gone, is obviously a huge question, and you can imagine why no one [in the Administration] wants to face up to it, certainly not before the election."

Another told Nelson, "You would be correct to suspect that politics, or the fear of politics, played a major role in delaying the release of this information."

It's a story that really brings together the adminstration's two cardinal sins: dishonesty and incompetence.

And what other stories are they trying to push back until after November 2nd?