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."