Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

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?

This has been rumored in Washington for several days. And now the Nelson Report has broken the story.

Some 350 tons of high explosives (RDX and HMX), which were under IAEA seal while Saddam was in power, were looted during the early days of the US occupation. Like so much else, it was just left unguarded.

Not only are these super-high-yield explosives probably being used in many, if not most, of the various suicide and car bombings in Iraq, but these particular explosives are ones used in the triggering process for nuclear weapons.

In other words, it's bad stuff.

What also emerges in the Nelson Report is that the Defense Department has been trying to keep this secret for some time. The DOD even went so far as to order the Iraqis not to inform the IAEA that the materials had gone missing. Informing the IAEA, of course, would lead to it becoming public knowledge in the United States.

I quote from Chris Nelson's summary ...

Despite pressure from DOD to keep it quiet, the IAEA and the Iraqi Interim Government this month officially reported that 350-tons of dual-use, very high explosives were looted from a previously secure site in the early days of the US occupation in 2003. Administration officials privately admit this material is likely a primary source of the lethal car bomb attacks which cause so many US and Iraqi casualties. In the first presidential candidate debate, on foreign policy, Democratic nominee John Kerry charged that captured munitions and weapons were being turned against Coalition Forces, with US troops suffering 90% of the casualties. But the specifics of the losses from the Al Qa Qaa bunker and building complex, only now being reported, were apparently unknown outside of DOD and the US occupation authorities. The Bush Administration barred the IAEA from any participation in the Iraq invasion and occupation process, and blocked IAEA requests to help in the search for WMD and other dangerous materials. As part of the UN sanctions regime still in place when the US invaded, the IAEA had “under seal” 350 tons of RDX and HDX explosives, since singly, and in combination, these materials can be used in the triggering process for a nuclear weapon. However, the explosives were allowed to remain in Iraq due to their conventional use in construction, oil pipe lines, and the like. Since the explosives went missing last year, sources say DOD and other elements in the Administration sought to block the IAEA from officially reporting the problem, and also tried to stop the new Iraqi Interim Government from cooperating with the IAEA. But finally, on Oct. 10, the Iraqi’s formally notified the IAEA, and on Oct. 15, the IAEA formally notified the Bush Administration. In press guidance prepared for release in the event news got out, but not released until today, when requested by The Nelson Report, State Department spokesmen confirmed the Iraqi government and IAEA report dates, and that 350 tons of dual use high explosives could not be accounted for. State says DOD has now authorized the Iraq Survey Group to investigate the situation, which, by all accounts, took place in April, 2003. The official press guidance claims “no indications of WMD” at the Al Qa Qaa site, but concedes that the IAEA-sealed explosives were already missing at that time. Some sources say that in addition to the explosives, 20,000 RDX-armed rockets were lost, but we cannot confirm this. However, sources do say that parts of Iraqi Scud engines, and other metal components, have turned up in scrap metal yards in Amsterdam.

1. The Summary gives you the sum total of what we have been told, starting Friday, by informed observers and directly involved officials. There was an expectation of a major newspaper story on it this morning, and perhaps also a segment on tonight’s 60 Minutes, on CBS Television. The newspaper report failed to materialize, the TV show may yet appear...stay tuned.

-- the information confirmed by the State Department Press Guidance, prepared, but not called for Friday, is important in that it provides, for the first time, explicit details on exactly what was lost to “looters” of the Al Qa Qaa bunker and building complex in the early days of the Iraq invasion and occupation, in April, 2003. The importance of the information? A highly informed official offered the assessment that, “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.”

Further down in this evening's edition of The Nelson Report comes this ...

3. The Iraqi authorities were caught in a similar bind, observers feel. Under heavy pressure from their sponsors in DOD and US occupation authorities not to cooperate with the IAEA, by confirming that all 350 tons of sealed explosives could not be accounted for, the Iraqi’s had to wait until the formal turnover of authority before notifying the IAEA, sources here suggest. So the Iraqis failed to act until Oct. 10, and the IAEA did not formally notified the US, by letter, until Oct. 15, according to the State Department’s official press guidance.

-- “What the hell WE were 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,” an Administration source says. Other sources also noted the language of the State Department guidance, which they interpret as seeking to deflect from the gravity of the situation in two ways: first, by listing hundreds of thousands of tons of other munitions and weapons already discovered and/or destroyed, “the Guidance has the effect, for unsophisticated listeners, of lowering the profile of ‘only’ 350 tons of RDX and HMX explosives from Al Qa Qaa”.

Note: experts were reluctant to say exactly how much of this stuff it takes for a successful road side bomb, for example, but the guesstimates were “a few pounds, at most.” In other words, “with 350 tons out there, the bombing can go on for years...”

4. Second, several highly informed sources were careful to hint, the “implications” of RDX and HMX, singly, and in combination, “are also an extremely serious issue, which is why they were under IAEA-seal”. One expert pointedly added, “and that’s all I can say on that, even on background.” Another sources noted, however, “it’s interesting that the Press Guidance seems to want us to look past any WMD implications for what was taken.”

-- another obvious question is what’s been done with the 350 tons, if anything, outside of Iraq? Our sources were unanimous in thinking that for reasons noted below, “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.” Sources also discount any possibility except that “this was a highly organized operation using heavy equipment, and it was done right under our noses.”
More on this very soon ...

It's looking more and more clear that the GOP is looking to pull in Ohio the same voter 'fraud'/voter suppression operation they tried to pull two years ago in South Dakota. Probably they'll be doing it in other states as well, but Ohio is clearly ground zero. Not altogether a surprise since they just sent their South Dakota get-out-the-vote chief to run things in Ohio.

We'll be posting more on this later today. But if you're interested in finding out more about what I'm talking about you can read up on the 2002 South Dakota drama by running through the TPM archives. Go to the TPM search function up there in the upper left hand corner of the site and type in keywords 'Dakota fraud'.

Looking over various reporting on Tora Bora from the winter and spring of 2001/2002, it seems clear that most major news outlets ran stories which flatly contradict what the Bush campaign is now saying on the subject (see this earlier post for more details.)

I'd be curious whether, in reporting the Bush campaign's current denials about what happened at Tora Bora, any major news outlet has made reference to their own earlier reporting which makes it clear that, as nearly as such things can be known, what the president is saying is simply not true.

Indeed, not only is what the president's campaign is saying not true, but as the April 2002 WaPo piece, discussed here, makes clear, what Kerry is charging is backed up to the letter by the administration's own formal and informal after-action analyses and reports about the mistakes made at Tora Bora.

It's really that clear cut.

Has the Post done it? The Times? Any of the cable networks? ABC?

These aren't simply rhetorical questions. I'm terribly curious to see which if any of these news organizations has pointed out that their own reporting says that what the president's campaign is now saying is just flat out false, an attempt to pretend that something that was widely reported less than three years ago didn't even happen.

If you've got examples, please send them. And if there aren't any, why not?

One of the key points of President Bush's <$Ad$>account of his own young adulthood is the time when a friend named John White asked Bush to help him run an inner-city anti-poverty program named PULL (Professional United Leadership League).

Bush cited the experience in his 2000 campaign biography as one of the roots of his 'compassionate conservatism'. But the president's critics in Texas have long held that he wasn't there responding to a request to help running the organization. He was actually compelled to perform community service with the organization as part of his punishment for some as-yet-undisclosed legal scrape.

Now several employees of the now-defunct organization have gone on the record with Knight-Ridder, saying that, yes, the president's story isn't true ...

But White's administrative assistant and others associated with P.U.L.L., speaking on the record for the first time, say Bush was not helping to run the program and White had not asked Bush to come aboard. Instead, the associates said, White told them he agreed to take Bush on as a favor to Bush's father, who was honorary co-chairman of the program at the time, and Bush was unpaid. They say White told them Bush had gotten into some kind of trouble but White never gave them specifics.

"We didn't know what kind of trouble he'd been in, only that he'd done something that required him to put in the time," said Althia Turner, White's administrative assistant.

"John said he was doing a favor for George's father because an arrangement had to be made for the son to be there," said Willie Frazier, also a former player for the Houston Oilers and a P.U.L.L. summer volunteer in 1973.

Fred Maura, a close friend of White, refers to Bush as "43," for 43rd president, and his father as "41," for the 41st president.

"John didn't say what kind of trouble 43 was in - just that he had done something and he (John) made a deal to take him in as a favor to 41 to get some funding," Maura said.

In these final high-velocity days of the campaign this fib probably won't gin up tons of interest. After all, how can it compete with the White House now trying to deny events reported on and televised live around the world not three years ago. But dozens of Washington reporters have spent years dismissing the community service story. You'd think that some of them might now pick up the phone to find out whether they'd gotten played one more time.

More nitty-gritty details reemerging from the Memory Hole about what actually happened at Tora Bora, particularly how clear it is that OBL was there and just how he got away. This from a December 17th, 2001 piece in the Christian Science Monitor.

Choice quote: "Though Mr. Rumsfeld has said that the two dozen or so US Special Forces are helping to block exit routes, that number of US military personnel can only be considered a token of the real figure needed to cut off all the mountain passes surrounding the mountain enclave."

Is anyone going to call them on this hundredth-odd deception on one of the Sunday shows? Tim, Bob, George?

Kerry tries to make what is arguably the biggest screw-up in the war against al Qaida into a centerpiece of the last weeks of the campaign. And what's the Bush campaign's response? Lie about it. Say it never happened.

Fits the MO.

I was not able to see the documentary ("A POW Story: Politics, Pressure and the Media") that Sinclair Broadcasting ran yesterday evening. But contrary to my (I believe well-founded) skepticism, the piece was apparently relatively even-handed. A sampling of comments from a number of right-wing sites suggests they thought Sinclair caved. And this exhaustive summary/commentary of the program from DailyKos makes it sound like the final product was -- hard as it is for me to believe -- relatively even-handed. It even included, it seems, some significant portions of Going Upriver, the Kerry-friendly documentary now in theaters.

Now, Sinclair will undoubtedly try to make out like that got a bum rap all along, like they'd planned to be fair and balanced, shall we say, from the get-go.

But that is, in a word, crap.

Sinclair planned to use their hold over airwaves around the country to turn an hour of prime-time broadcast time over to an anti-Kerry informercial put together by a group that has now merged with Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. My sense was always that they knew they'd take some hit but were willing to take it in part because of their ideological stance but even more because they thought they'd be made whole through (de)regulatory payback after a Bush victory.

But they got more than they bargained for. A lot more.

Thousands of individuals across the country started organizing a boycott of Sinclair's local advertisers -- the heart of their business. And the stock price commenced a rapid descent. I don't have at my fingertips the precise numbers. But I think the company lost something like $100 million in market capitalization, or 20% of the stocks value, in little more than a week. (ed.note: please check other sources for exact amounts).

This was then compounded by a cluster of inter-related lawsuits, which would not have been possible had it not been for the predicate created by the boycott and the related stock price drop.

Eventually, Sinclair saw the writing on the wall -- penciled in by major institutional shareholders, I suspect -- and cried 'uncle.' It was all quite a feat, seeing as it mixed together the actions of policy luminaries like former FCC Chair Reed Hundt, existing activist groups like Media Matters, the absolutely invaluable work that went into the Sinclair Boycott website and mainly an army of political junkies around the country who didn't want to see this election gamed by a gaggle of jokers in Maryland who thought they could trifle with American democracy with impunity.

Last night when discussing the White House's truth-bending revisionism on Tora Bora, I wrote that I had been "pretty skeptical of the Bush team's revisionism on this count since the outlines of the Kerry critique have been a commonplace in national security and counter-terrorism circles for literally years."

You'll remember that what I'm referring to here as 'Kerry's critique' is the charge that the US let bin Laden get away at Tora Bora because we 'outsourced' the job to local warlords and militiaman. The Bush campaign is now calling that a lie. Dick Cheney says it's "absolute garbage" and the campaign has enlisted retired general and now Bush surrogate Tommy Franks to help back their case.

Now Steve Soto points out one more reason why I and others who've followed this story for years were so skeptical.

Look at the lede of this Washington Post article from April 17, 2002 ...

The Bush administration has concluded that Osama bin Laden was present during the battle for Tora Bora late last year and that failure to commit U.S. ground troops to hunt him was its gravest error in the war against al Qaeda, according to civilian and military officials with first-hand knowledge.

That really says it all.

And there's more.

Was bin Laden there, a claim Cheney and the Bush campaign now discount or treat as mere speculation?

Again from the Post: "Intelligence officials have assembled what they believe to be decisive evidence, from contemporary and subsequent interrogations and intercepted communications, that bin Laden began the battle of Tora Bora inside the cave complex along Afghanistan's mountainous eastern border."

The article goes on to say that though the administration had never publicly acknowledged that bin Laden slipped the noose in this way, "inside the government there is little controversy on the subject."

Then the paper quotes a government official "giving an authoritative account of the intelligence consensus," who says that, "I don't think you can ever say with certainty, but we did conclude he was there, and that conclusion has strengthened with time."

And as to the issue of 'outsourcing'?

One more time from the article ...

After-action reviews, conducted privately inside and outside the military chain of command, describe the episode as a significant defeat for the United States. A common view among those interviewed outside the U.S. Central Command is that Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the war's operational commander, misjudged the interests of putative Afghan allies and let pass the best chance to capture or kill al Qaeda's leader. Without professing second thoughts about Tora Bora, Franks has changed his approach fundamentally in subsequent battles, using Americans on the ground as first-line combat units.

In the fight for Tora Bora, corrupt local militias did not live up to promises to seal off the mountain redoubt, and some colluded in the escape of fleeing al Qaeda fighters. Franks did not perceive the setbacks soon enough, some officials said, because he ran the war from Tampa with no commander on the scene above the rank of lieutenant colonel. The first Americans did not arrive until three days into the fighting. "No one had the big picture," one defense official said.

I quote here at length for a simple reason, to make a simple point. Though we cannot in the nature of things have absolute certainty about bin Laden's whereabouts, there is little doubt that bin Laden was there. We had a "reasonable certainty" he was there when the critical decisions were being made. And subsequent intelligence has only tended to confirm that belief. As to the issue of 'outsourcing,' the claim is unquestionably true. And it is widely believed that this was a key reason for the failure to capture bin Laden.

One might well argue, we hadn't hunted a bin Laden before. And I don't mean that flippantly. Had the Afghan tribesmen killed OBL in those hills, the decision might have seemed an inspired one, since it no doubt saved American lives. Perhaps a Gore or a Kerry administration would have made the same mistake.

What you simply cannot say is that the whole thing never happened. And yet that is precisely what the president and the vice president are now doing: Simply denying everything. Who you gonna believe? Me or your lyin' eyes?

They are, in old fashioned English, lying.

And the major news outlets covering the campaign -- as nearly as I've seen so far -- are just treating the disagreement as a he said/(s)he said in which both sides' arguments have equal merit.

Sums up the whole campaign.