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, âthis is very unlikely. Taking a shell apart is incredibly dangerous and difficult, it has to be done by real experts, and weâd have seen more âaccidental explosionsâ if they were doing this on any scale. No...itâs the RDX and HMX doing most of the damage, you can bet on it.â
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?