Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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Let's note a few more problems with what I guess we should call the Di Rita/Drudge/NBC 'It was gone when we got there' hypothesis.

To refresh our memories, this is the claim that the explosives at the al Qaqaa facility were removed by the former Iraqi regime before the first US troops ever arrived on the scene. That wouldn't make the loss of the material any less dangerous. And it would raise serious questions about why the material was allowed to be dispersed. But it might go some way to mitigating the charge of incompetence since this would mean that the material was already gone before US ground troops were able to start guarding it.

On Monday, the Pentagon gave mixed signals about what the first troops on the scene found. Or rather, an official whom the AP describes as closely involved in the Iraq survey work says the explosives were there, while Pentagon spokesman Larry Di Rita says they weren't.

Di Rita's claim that the explosives were already gone was picked up this evening by NBC news which reported that one of its news crews embedded with the 101st Airborne visited the facility on April 10th and found no weapons. This was in turn trumpeted by a number of conservative news outlets like Drudge and the Washington Times.

So, let's review some of the problems.

First, military and non-proliferation analysts say that a detachment of soldiers not specifically trained in weapons inspections work and certainly an NBC news crew simply wouldn't be in a position to make such a determination. We're not talking about a storage unit with a few boxes in it, but a massive weapons complex made up of almost a hundred buildings and bunkers.

Former weapons inspector David Albright was asked about this on CNN Monday evening and he said, "I would want to check it out. I mean it's a big site. These bunkers are big and it could get lost in that complex and it may be that they just didn't go to the right places and didn't see it."

In any case, that visit wasn't the first time US troops went to the facility. That happened a week earlier, on April 4th, as was reported at the time. According to an AP account from the following day, the troops made spot visits to some of the buildings and found chemical warfare antidotes but no WMD.

The same report says they also found "thousands of five-centimetre by 12-centimetre boxes, each containing three vials of white powder" which were initially believed to be chemical agents but were later determined to be "explosives."

Like the visit on the 10th, this visit seems to have been far from exhaustive and thus far from conclusive about what was there. Neither visit seems to provide clear evidence that the explosives were gone -- and the first may point in the opposite direction. (Further details about this first visit to al Qaqaa are contained in this April 5th article by the Post's Barton Gellman.)

Next comes the question of whether this really could have been pulled off at all under the circumstances.

As we noted earlier, there's a relatively brief window of time we're talking about when this stuff could have been carted away -- specifically, from March 8th (when the IAEA last checked it) until April 4th when the first US troops appear to have arrived on the scene.

Certainly there would have been time enough to move the stuff. That's almost a month. But this would be a massive and quite visible undertaking. As the Times noted yesterday, moving this material would have taken a fleet of about forty big trucks each moving about ten tons of explosives. And this was at a time -- the week before and then during the war -- when Iraq's skies were positively crawling with American aerial and satellite reconnaissance.

Considering that al Qaqaa was a major munitions installation where the US also suspected there might be WMD, it's difficult to believe that we wouldn't have noticed a convoy of forty huge trucks carting stuff away.

As the LA Times notes in Tuesday's paper, it's just not particularly credible ...

Given the size of the missing cache, it would have been difficult to relocate undetected before the invasion, when U.S. spy satellites were monitoring activity at sites suspected of concealing nuclear and biological weapons.

"You don't just move this stuff in the middle of the night," said a former U.S. intelligence official who worked in Baghdad.

If we had seen something like that happening, it's hard to figure we wouldn't have bombed the convoy, since the US had complete air superiority through the entire campaign. And if the thought that WMD might be on those trucks had prevented such an attack, certainly there would have been running surveillance of where the stuff was going and where it ended up.

My point here is not to say that this could not have occurred. What I am trying to show is that Pentagon appointees like Di Rita don't seem to have any clear idea what happened to this stuff. And in an attempt to push back the story, they're cooking up various theories, most with very short half-lives, that just don't seem credible to a lot of folks who follow these issues.

If you look at the multiple contradictions in the different stories administration officials told reporters over the course of Monday, it's hard not to get the sense that they're caught without a good explanation and they're just making this stuff up as they go along.

The folks who really understand this stuff don't seem to put much stock in what guys like Di Rita and Scott McClellan are saying. The LA Times piece notes that one of them is former chief weapons inspector David Kay, that notorious bush-basher and left-winger. Kay thinks the stuff was carted off after the old regime was history. Kay told the Times he visited the site in May 2003 "and it was heavily looted at that time. Sometime between April and May, most of the stuff was carried off. The site was in total disarray, just like a lot of the Iraqi sites."

I'm working on a final update for the evening on the al Qaqaa issue. But I notice that CNN has picked up the NBC news report that the explosives were already gone when the first US troops arrived.

NBC, they say, "reports that the material had already vanished by the time American troops and an NBC crew arrived there on April 10, 2003."

You guys are awfully gullible. Did it strike you guys as odd that MSNBC doesn't even appear to have picked up this "report"?

Setting aside the matter of whether a detachment from the 101st Airborne and an NBC news crew would have been able to make that determination, they weren't the first US troops there.

The first American troops on the scene (from the 3rd Infantry Division) came a week earlier, on April 4th and they found lots of explosives -- though what kind is unclear from contemporary wire service reports -- in a series of spot checks of the 87 buildings and bunkers at the al Qaqaa complex.

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.