Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

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."

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.