Lost Weapons – and Minds?

by , October 30, 2004

As befits the week before one of the most bitterly-contested and emotional elections in recent memory – one in which the committed partisans on each side, many of whom seem more motivated by dislike of the other guy than by affection for their chosen champion, seem to think victory by the other side will mean Apocalypse Now – it has been an interesting week. Here at the Orange County Register, where I work, we did an editorial on Tuesday bouncing off the New York Times story on Monday about the 380 or so tons of missing explosives that had been at the military facility of al-Qaqaa, south of Baghdad. Then all hell broke loose.

As somebody who has worked for a long time writing editorials for a newspaper that prides itself on being controversial and generally hostile to most of the powers that be, I’m hardly a stranger to receiving hostile phone calls. But the level of anger, apparently arising from the impression that we had decided to make ourselves part of the cabal led by the sinister New York Times, to pull an "October surprise" on President Bush and drive him out of office. A number of our readers suggested (some rather strongly) that we had jumped the gun and "rushed to judgment" in relying on a New York Times story that anybody in their right mind knew was a shabbily-reported hit piece. Here’s a reasonably typical example of an outraged conservative, from National Review Online.

Well, I wouldn’t be surprised if some people at the Times intended it to hurt Dubya’s reelection chances. From what I have been able to learn about how the story developed, however, it looks more like competitive journalistic juices, with perhaps the chance to hurt the incumbent as a side benefit – although the timing made it less likely to be harmful than if it had broken, say, on Saturday. As of now, I would be hard put to predict whether the story will help or hurt Bush. Although Bush himself was slow to respond, the counter-spinning, almost surely helped along by phone calls from Bush campaign staffers to people in the media expected to be sympathetic, began almost immediately. Or perhaps the sympathetic people in the media were way ahead of the Bush people.

Whose Dastardly Plot?

Even so, it was a potentially significant story, even if the real story was that Mohammed ElBaradei or somebody at the International Atomic Energy Agency was out to influence the U.S. presidential election. In writing the editorial, I noted that Marina Ottaway at the Carnegie Endowment, who has been a well-informed source for me over the years, suggested it was old news rather than breathless breaking news. Everyone knew there had been extensive looting from Iraqi ammunition dumps. We went on to say that this was far from the most dismaying news from Iraq in the past week; the execution-style killing of 50 Iraqi soldiers on their way home from training, which indicated that the "new" Iraqi security forces were thoroughly infiltrated by bad guys, seemed much more alarming.

What we actually took from the Times story still holds up pretty well.

As of now, nobody is denying that those explosives, which by all accounts were there and sealed by the International Atomic Energy Agency in January 2003, are gone. Nobody is denying that from early April, when Saddam’s regime fell, until sometime in May, al-Qaqaa, along with hundreds of other weapons depots, was not secured or guarded by the (militarily) victorious American forces.

Perhaps that can be explained by any number of the usual "fog of war" justifications, which are not always specious. War is never as organized or efficient as it appears it will be in the planning stages or as it seems in the histories written later that tend to impose more order than is warranted on the chaos of battle. However, failure to secure known military facilities filled with weapons – al-Qaqaa was well known to both UN weapons inspectors and U.S. war planners – could also have something to do with not having enough troops on the ground to accomplish the various missions. It has become increasingly clear that the administration overruled numerous top military officers who tried to make the case for having more troops in Iraq to handle the post-invasion occupation.

Who’s Rushing?

If anybody was rushing to judgment, seizing on anything that might have served to discredit the Times story – or the image of the Times story as a huge hit-piece; in fact it was not all that devastating and might have disappeared in a day or so if the reaction hadn’t been so intense – it was administration supporters and spokespeople.

Administration supporters seized on a report that an NBC reporter embedded with the 101st Airborne Division was in al-Qaqaa on April 10, 2003 said they didn’t see those explosives as proof positive that they were gone before the Americans got there and the Americans bore no responsibility. But it turned out, as the reporter, Dana Lewis (now with Fox News), told Fox’s Brit Hume, that the 101st used al-Qaqaa as a "pit stop" on the way to the real action in Baghdad, included nobody trained in weapons inspection, and did not do a systematic survey of the mammoth (three miles by three miles) al-Qaqaa facility.

For a fairly comprehensive dissection of both the story and the frantic effort to counterspin it, a good place to visit is Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo, which has been chronicling the affair in more detail than I can manage here since the beginning of the week. Josh, who also writes for Washington Monthly, is a bit of a liberal and a die-hard critic of the Bush administration, so keep that in mind. But he does a pretty good job of sorting through the facts, and has lots of links to original sources, and extensive quotes from White House press secretary Scott McClellan in full spin mode.

Marshall raises and pushes the point that the United States had Iraq under full aerial and satellite surveillance from well before the invasion phase of the war began, and should have been in a position to detect – and perhaps to bomb – the number of huge trucks it would have taken to cart 380 tons of stuff away from the site before military operations began, if it is true that Saddam’s regime spirited the explosives away to Syria or somewhere else before the invasion began or before U.S. troops reached Baghdad.

The Russian Angle

The Washington Times‘ Bill Gertz did a story yesterday alleging that Russian special forces "moved many of Saddam Hussein’s weapons and related goods out of Iraq and into Syria" just before the war. His sources are John A. Shaw, deputy undersecretary of defense for international technology security, and a second unnamed Pentagon official. Gertz does seem to have good official intelligence sources, but he has been known to be used to spin information to the benefit of the administration. He has done scare stories about mysterious terrorists fairly regularly, and while some of them might have been potential threats, few have transmogrified into actual attacks.

The Russians have denied the story angrily. Neither government has made evidence public. I don’t trust either government.

If there is anything to the story, however, it should once again call Dubya’s judgment into question. Remember how he told us he could look into Vladimir Putin’s eyes and see into his soul and know he was a good guy we could do business with? The guy’s penchant for trusting his gut and ignoring all the evidence that his gut is flat wrong (or perhaps rumbling because of something he ate) is flatly astonishing.

More Theories

On Wednesday, Col. David Perkins, the infantry commander whose troops first captured al-Qaqaa April 3, (then left it after two days, during which they discovered some vials of white powder that might have been explosive but didn’t do an exhaustive search), said it is "very highly improbable" that somebody could have snatched the explosives (it would have taken 40 ten-ton trucks) after April 3. Why? The roads were filled with U.S. military traffic; other trucks would have been noticed.

The most popular theory among administration supporters – and who knows, it might turn out to be true when all is said and done – is that somehow or another those explosives were spirited away before U.S. troops got there. That theory might be put in doubt by a story from a Minneapolis-St. Paul TV station, Channel 5 (an ABC affiliate). In a story on their Web page yesterday, they tell of what their own "embeds" did. The station, using GPS technology, "has determined the crew embedded with the troops may have been on the southern edge of the al-Qaqaa installation, where the ammunition [explosives, actually, according to almost every other account] disappeared." The news crew was based just south of al-Qaqaa, and drove two or three miles north of there with soldiers on April 18, 2003.

"During that trip, members of the 101st Airborne Division showed the 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS crew bunker after bunker of material labeled ‘Explosives.’ Usually it took just the snap of a bolt cutter to get into the bunkers and see the material identified by the 101st as detonation cords.

"’We can stick it in those and make some good bombs,’ a soldier told our crew.

"There were what appeared to be fuses for bombs. They also found bags of material men from the 101st couldn’t identify, but box after box was clearly marked ‘explosive.’"

This was April 18, nine days after the 101st made its "pit stop" at al-Qaqaa. (There are pictures on the Web site, which the station says have been forwarded to security experts in Washington to determine if they are of the same stuff that has gone missing.) The story goes on to note that the entire installation was completely unsecured. The nearest military people were miles away.

"’At one point there was a group of Iraqis driving around in a pickup truck,’ [Channel 5 reporter Dean] Staley said. ‘Three or four guys we kept an eye on, worried they might come near us.’"

Then there’s this weird one. On Thursday, a group called al-Islam’s Army Brigades released a video that claimed it had a lot of those explosives, and had obtained them with the connivance of "the American intelligence." That seems like false bluster to me, a chance to milk a little masked notoriety out of the situation, or perhaps just to sow confusion, but who knows?

Missing and Dangerous

I‘ve heard today that some aerial surveillance photos have been released that purport to show Russians spiriting away weapons and explosives, but I haven’t seen them so I don’t want to judge just yet. It is prudent to remember that Colin Powell’s presentation to the UN just before the invasion included photos that at first appeared quite persuasive.

I would also like to hear from L. Paul Bremer, who was in charge of the Coalition Provisional Authority until the end of June. If the Iraq Survey Group knew the weapons were missing in May 2003, what did Jerry Bremer know and when did he know it? Is it conceivable that he would have been kept in the dark?

It’s for sure that the American people were kept in the dark.

There are several possible bottom-line lessons, and others that might become apparent in the days and weeks to come. The first is that those explosives are missing – and although it’s true that the U.S. has destroyed lots of other weapons, it’s not an insignificant fact. If a pound or half-pound of HMX took down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, one doesn’t even want to think about what 377 tons could do.

It’s also not insignificant that in a war justified (at least rhetorically) by the desire to neutralize Saddam’s weapons, securing weapons sites seems to have been a secondary priority at best. If that was because there weren’t enough troops, those who decided to proceed with fewer troops – Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, seduced by his "lean and mean" military theories, and ultimately President Bush – bear some responsibility.

Ivan Eland of the Independent Institute, author of the terrific new book, The Empire Has No Clothes – get it and read it if you haven’t already – reminded me of the real bottom line that transcends all the "when and how did the stuff disappear" discussions.

It was the U.S. invasion of Iraq that made it possible for those explosives and weapons to get into the hands of terrorists, guerrillas and insurgents able to use them to harm Americans. Those weapons were locked up. It is impossible to predict with complete accuracy, of course, what would have happened to them if Saddam had stayed in power. Perhaps he would have given them to terrorists eventually. But insofar as they are in the hands of terrorists, or available to terrorists now (which is not certain, the mystery is still mysterious), it is because the United States decided to launch an unprovoked attack on an internationally recognized sovereign nation that posed no immediate threat to us.

Talk about blowback.

Read more by Alan Bock