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.