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10/26/2004

RDX, HMX, &c.

What happened?

According to James Glanz, William Broad and David Sanger of The New York Times, as much as 380 tons of military grade explosive - mainly RDX and HMX - are missing from the Al Qaqaa military complex. The Iraqi Survey Group has been ordered to investigate the loss.

The explosives were acquired and manufactured by Iraq in the late 80s as part of its efforts to develop nuclear weapons. After the first Gulf War, the UN assumed control of the explosives, though it didn't destroy them "because Iraq argued that it should be allowed to keep them for eventual use in mining and civilian construction." The IAEA oversaw the explosives until 1998, when they were withdrawn. In late 2002, when they returned to Iraq, the vast bulk of the explosives were still there, and the IAEA inventoried them and reported their existence to the Security Council on Jan. 9, 2003. The RDX and HMX was frequently brought up prior to the invasion.

The IAEA left immediately prior to the US invasion. The Bush administration would not allow them back in, despite frequent IAEA admonitions, including a May 2004 missive to L. Paul Bremer warning that Al Qaqaa had probably been looted.

In early October, the IAEA asked "the interim Iraqi government to start the process of accounting for nuclear-related materials still ostensibly under I.A.E.A. supervision, including the Qaqaa stockpile." On October 10, Dr. Mohammed J. Abbas of the Iraqi Ministry of Science and Technology informed the IAEA that the HMX and RDX was gone. On October 15, the UN forwarded the letter to the US ambassador in Vienna.

When did the theft take place?

Bush campaignistration officials claim that we do not know when the explosives were taken, and that they may have been relocated by Saddam prior to the US invasion. This claim is "supported" by an NBC report that some embedded reporters visited the site during the invasion and did not see any explosives. There were circa 40 truckloads of materials stolen, yet no intelligence supports the claim that the explosive removal took place during the invasion.

The last time the IAEA actually examined the explosives was January 2003:

ElBaradei informed the Security Council on Monday that the last time IAEA inspectors were able to verify the presence of the explosives at Qaqaa was in January 2003, two months before the U.S. invasion began. [WP 10/26/04]
According to Melissa Fleming, the IAEA last saw the ubroken seals at al Qaqaa in March 2003:
"The most immediate concern here is that these explosives could have fallen into the wrong hands," IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said.

The agency first placed a seal over Al-Qaqaa storage bunkers holding the explosives in 1991 as part of U.N. sanctions that ordered the dismantlement of Iraq's nuclear program after the Gulf War. Inspectors last saw the explosives in January 2003 when they took an inventory and placed fresh seals on the bunkers, Fleming said. Inspectors visited the site again in March 2003, but didn't view the explosives because the seals were not broken, she said. [CST 10/26/04]
NBC reported last night that their embedded correspondent didn't see the explosives when the unit she was with made a pit stop at Al Qaqaa:
NBC television reported that one of its correspondents was embedded with the 101st Airborne Division which temporarily took control of the base on 10 April 2003 but did not find any of the explosives.

However, other US outlets, including NBC's own news website, quoted Pentagon officials who said a search of the site after the US-led invasion had revealed the explosives to be intact. [BBC 10/26/04]
Josh Marshall revived a contemporary account of American troops noticing the explosives on April 4th.

Mr. Marshall also posted an interview with the embedded reporter, Lai Ling Jew, who was in Al Qaqaa on April 10th:
AR: Was there a search at all underway or was, did a search ensue for explosive once you got there during that 24-hour period?

LLJ: No. There wasn't a search. The mission that the brigade has was to get to Baghdad. That was more of a pit stop there for us. And, you know, the searching, I mean certainly some of the soldiers head off on their own, looked through the bunkers just to look at the vast amount of ordnance lying around. But as far as we could tell, there was no move to secure the weapons, nothing to keep looters away. But there was - at that point the roads were shut off. So it would have been very difficult, I believe, for the looters to get there. [Josh Marshall]
The significance of the NBC story is now clear: the troops passed through Al Qaqaa without securing any of the explosives:
An NBC News reporter embedded with a U.S. army unit that seized an Iraqi installation three weeks into the war said Tuesday that she saw no signs that the Americans searched for the powerful explosives that are now missing from the site. [AP 10/26/04]
The explosives were apparently gone by May 2003:
Duelfer also said that a U.S. team inspecting the site in May 2003 turned up no evidence of explosives under U.N. seal. "My sense is, it's been looted, it's gone missing," he said of the material. "I don't know the specifics, but it's not there now. [WP 10/26/04]
Why did the theft take place?

There seem to be a number of cumulative rationales. We didn't have enough troops. We didn't adequately plan to secure critical facilities. We shunned the IAEA - which knew what needed protecting - going so far as to ignore their specific warnings.

Not enough troops, not enough concern:
David Kay, a former weapons inspector in Iraq for the US government who led the Iraq Survey Group that searched for weapons of mass destruction, said that although his team of 1,400 investigators found no such weapons, they found small amounts of HMX and RDX -- and hundreds of square miles of other conventional munitions -- at unguarded sites across Iraq.

"The RDX, HMX, is a superb explosive for terrorists," Kay said. "The danger is that it's gone somewhere else in the Middle East."

However, Kay's team had a mandate only to search for weapons of mass destruction, not to secure conventional arms, so he could do little beyond referring the caches to the US-led coalition.

"The military did not view guarding these sites as their responsibility," Kay said, recalling that he witnessed US troops guarding the gates of the Tuwaitha nuclear facility while Iraq civilians carried away radioactive pipes and metal drums through other exits.

"There just were not enough troops to guard the number of sites. It was just crazy."

At the time, there was no major insurgency and US military officials felt the war had been won, Kay said, so the Department of Defense did not fear that the weapons that disappeared in widespread looting would be used against US soldiers. [Boston Globe 10/26/04]
They knew that the explosives were there:
Kay said he stressed the danger of leaving the weapons sites unguarded in his testimony to Congress. Since late fall of last year, the military has put out contracts seeking companies that will secure and destroy the weapons, Kay said, but the process has gone slowly.

The location of the explosives at Qaqaa had been so well known to inspectors that they appeared routinely in reports written by ElBaradei to the Security Council.

"Qaqaa was a well-known site even before the first Gulf War as a place where Iraqis were doing nuclear research," said Milhollin, who said he learned that in 1989 the Department of Defense had brought three Iraqis from the site to Oregon to train them in HMX detonations. "It was certainly a leading candidate to be inspected after the first Gulf War and to be secured after the second." [Boston Globe 10/26/04]
They just didn't care:
"After the collapse of the regime, our liberation, everything was under the coalition forces, under their control," Dr. Omar said. "So probably they can answer this question, what happened to the materials."

Officials in Washington said they had no answers to that question. One senior official noted that the Qaqaa complex where the explosives were stored was listed as a "medium priority" site on the Central Intelligence Agency's list of more than 500 sites that needed to be searched and secured during the invasion. "Should we have gone there? Definitely," said one senior administration official.

In the chaos that followed the invasion, however, many of those sites, even some considered a higher priority, were never secured. [NYT 10/25/04]
The IAEA's attention was a negative for the ideologues in the administration:
Melissa Fleming [spokeswoman for the International Atomic Energy Agency] says the IAEA was concerned about the stockpile, which was held 30 kilometres south of Baghdad, and the agency made warnings about it at the time of the Iraq invasion last year.

MELISSA FLEMING: Yes, a couple of times we did. First of all, it's important to note that it was a well-known site. It was inspected frequently and often by the IAEA, and it was mentioned in several statements by Mr ElBaradei to the Security Council. It was of concern directly after the invasion, when it was clear that the main nuclear site, Tuwaitha, was being looted. And so this was a site that we did alert the US to as one important to protect.

DAVID HARDAKER: And what was the response from the United States at the time?

MELISSA FLEMING: It received this information, there's been… there was no comment.

DAVID HARDAKER: So there was no assurance that they were in fact securing it, or were aware of the need to secure it?

MELISSA FLEMING: No. We, in many instances, raised our voice and our concern about the potential for looting in general at sites that contained material and items that were under IAEA verification previously, and that could have either proliferation significance or that could be dangerous for the population. [Australia BC 10/26/04]
Cirincione says that the Bush administration's desire to "punish" the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, was partly responsible for the disaster. "This is where the ideology of the administration has really hurt U.S. national security," he says. "The administration didn't like the inspection reports they were getting out of the IAEA before the war, and they were determined to punish and humiliate them." [Salon 10/26/04]
The administration knew it was there. Why didn't they do anything about it? It was arrogance. I think you have to say that this is not incompetence as much as it is arrogance. They simply did not believe that they were going to have an insurgent or terrorist problem after taking the country. Even when the insurgency began, apparently there was no effort to try to go back and secure these materials. [Salon 10/26/04]
This is where the ideology of the administration has really hurt U.S. national security. They wanted to make a point that they didn't need international inspections or the help of international authorities, that the U.S. could do it alone or in cooperation with its few selected Coalition partners who would play along. They rebuffed repeated IAEA requests to come in and help account for and secure the nuclear materials. Now we're suffering the price.

There was no security or logistical reason why the administration couldn't have let the IAEA back in -- it was ideology. The administration didn't like the inspection reports they were getting out of the IAEA before the war and they were determined to punish and humiliate them.

As it turns out, the IAEA was absolutely correct in its reports on Iraq before the war. The U.N. intelligence was far better than the U.S. intelligence. They got it right. We should've listened. [Salon 10/26/04]
The significance of the theft:
"This is not just any old warehouse in Iraq that happened to have explosives in it; this was a leading location for developing nuclear weapons before the first Gulf War," said Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project, a nonprofit organization that has followed Iraq's attempts to procure weapons of mass destruction for more than a decade. "The fact that it had been left unsecured is very, very discouraging. It would be like invading the US in to order to get rid of [weapons of mass destruction] and not securing Los Alamos or [Lawrence] Livermore [National Laboratory]." [Boston Globe 10/26/04]
Joseph Cirincione, director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the destructive consequences of the administration's failure to secure the site could be almost incalculable. "This is thousands and thousands of potential terrorist attacks," Cirincione told Salon. "It's like they knocked off the Fort Knox of explosives." [Salon 10/26/04]
While the White House sought to minimize the importance of the loss of the HMX and RDX - two commonly used military explosives that can also be used to bring down airplanes or to create a trigger for nuclear weapons - the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, took the unusual step on Monday of writing to the United Nations Security Council to report that the explosives were gone. He usually sends a report every six months, and his last was just a few weeks ago.

"He doesn't do that to report trivia," a European diplomat familiar with Dr. ElBaradei's views said. "It's something that is considered grave."

Dr. ElBaradei said his agency, whose inspectors were barred from returning to Iraq by the Bush administration after the invasion, had informed the multinational force in Iraq of the disappearance 10 days ago, hoping for "an opportunity to attempt to recover the explosives before this matter was put into the public domain." However, he noted Monday's news coverage and said he had to inform the full Security Council. [Sanger NYT 10/26/04]
What is the Bush Campaignistration saying about it?

Mr. Bush:
Mr. Bush never mentioned the disappearance of the high explosives during a long campaign speech in Greeley, Colo., about battling terrorism. Instead, evoking images of the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and traveling with Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor, at his side, Mr. Bush made an impassioned appeal to voters to let him "finish the work we have started." But he also charged that his opponent had abandoned the defense principles of Democrats like John F. Kennedy. [Sanger NYT 10/26/04]
Bush didn't address the missing explosives. [KR 10/26/04]
Cheney:
Meanwhile, Vice President Dick Cheney also neglected to mention the missing weapons cache in Iraq while campaigning in western Minnesota, a conservative part of a key swing state.

Instead, Cheney questioned Kerry's truthfulness, citing a report that cast doubt on Kerry's assertion that he had met independently with members of the United Nations Security Council before the war in Iraq. [KR 10/26/04]
Scott McClellan:
In several sessions with reporters, the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, alternately insisted that Mr. Bush "wants to make sure that we get to the bottom of this" and tried to distance the president from knowledge of the issue, saying Mr. Bush was informed of the disappearance only within the last 10 days. White House officials said they could not explain why warnings from the international agency in May 2003 about the stockpile's vulnerability to looting never resulted in action. At one point, Mr. McClellan pointed out that "there were a number of priorities at the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom." [Sanger NYT 10/26/04]
The Republicans mounted a similarly vociferous counterattack, charging Mr. Kerry with seizing on the loss of 380 tons of high explosives and never mentioning what Mr. McClellan called "more than 243,000 tons of munitions" that had been destroyed since the invasion. "Coalition forces have cleared and reviewed a total of 10,033 caches of munitions; another 163,000 tons of munitions have been secured and are on line to be destroyed," he said. [Sanger NYT 10/26/04]
Dan Bartlett:
Asked about accusations from the Kerry campaign that the White House had kept the disappearance secret until The Times and CBS broke the story on Monday morning, Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, said the White House had decided "to get all the facts and find out exactly what happened in this case, and then whether there are other cases."

Ms. Bartlett went on to say, "So doing it piecemeal - I don't think that would have been the responsible thing." He said that so far, no other large-scale cases of looting of explosives had been found. [Sanger NYT 10/26/04]
Ken Mehlman:
On Monday afternoon, Ken Mehlman, the Bush campaign manager, wrote a letter to supporters saying that "every day brings a new charge against the president and every charge is pulled right from the headlines of The New York Times."

"John Kerry will say anything he believes will help him politically," Mr. Mehlman wrote, "and today he is grasping at headlines to obscure his record of weakness and indecision in the war on terror." [Sanger NYT 10/26/04]
Karl Rove:
Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser, also contended that The Times had chosen to run the article at the end of the campaign, though he argued that the explosives probably disappeared about 18 months ago. The Times article said it was based on a letter reporting the missing explosives dated two weeks ago, on Oct. 10, sent to the International Atomic Energy Agency by the Iraqi interim government. The Times and CBS confirmed the facts in the letter in an interview with the Iraqi minister of science and technology, Rashad M. Omar. [Sanger NYT 10/26/04]
Nicolle Devenish:
On Monday evening, Nicolle Devenish, the spokeswoman for the Bush campaign, noted a section of the Times report indicating that American troops, on the way to Baghdad in April 2003, stopped at the Al Qaqaa complex and saw no evidence of high explosives. Noting that the cache may have been looted before the American invasion, she said Mr. Kerry had exaggerated the administration's responsibility.

"John Kerry presumes to know something that he could not know: when the material disappeared," Ms. Devenish said. "Since he does not know whether it was gone before the war began, he can't prove it was there to be secured." [Sanger NYT 10/26/04]
Adam Ereli:
State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said that securing the site had been ''a priority" but that ''given the number of arms and the number of caches and the extent of militarization of Iraq, it was impossible to provide 100 percent security for 100 percent of the sites, quite frankly."

Ereli said the US military had destroyed 243,000 tons of munitions and was in the process of destroying 160,000 tons more. [Boston Globe 10/26/04]

 

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