Friday, October 29, 2004

Final Thoughts on al-Qaqaa

Simon X in commenting on this post refers to this ABC News report from Thursday night:

Barrels inside the Al-Qaqaa facility appear on videotape shot by ABC television affiliate KSTP of St. Paul, Minn., which had a crew embedded with the 101st Airborne Division when it passed through Al-Qaqaa on April 18, 2003 — nine days after Baghdad fell.

Experts who have studied the images say the barrels on the tape contain the high explosive HMX, and the U.N. markings on the barrels are clear.

Bush critics have seized on this report as "smoking gun" evidence that the missing explosives were taken after US forces arrived on the scene, and thus prove the case that the Bush Administration is horribly incompetent. Unfortunately, matters aren't quite so simple. Before I move on from the aptly-named al-Qaqaa "controversy", here's a final roundup.

-Paul at Wizbang is less than impressed with the KSTP video. Jim Geraghty at the Kerry Spot has questions as well.

-According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), there were 194 tons of HMX at al-Qaqaa. Even if you assume that it is HMX in the video, the amount shown is merely a fraction of what has been alleged to have been there originally.

-The IAEA has also stated that there are 377 total tons of missing explosives from al-Qaqaa. Yet in January 2003, the agency reported that there were only 221 tons of explosive materials at the site. The IAEA claims that the other 150 tons were stored at a satellite location. So even the IAEA isn't completely sure of how many explosives there were, and where they were located.

-Fox News reported today that the Pentagon has satellite photos from March and early April 2003 showing large trucks near the bunkers where the explosives were stored. This raises the possibility that the material was removed before or during the war.

-The bunkers containing the explosives were sealed by the IAEA. Yet the IAEA admitted in a January 2003 report that the seals were rather less than secure:

Of note was that the sealing on the bunkers was only partially effective because each bunker had ventilation shafts on the sides of the buildings. These shafts were not sealed, and could provide removal routes for the HMX while leaving the front door locked.

In other words, the Iraqis could have removed material from the bunkers while leaving the seals intact. Some safeguard.

-Power Line links to this Associated Press interview with Colonel David Perkins, commander of the brigade that first seized al-Qaqaa:

The infantry commander whose troops first captured the Iraqi weapons depot where 377 tons of explosives disappeared said Wednesday it is "very highly improbable" that someone could have trucked out so much material once U.S. forces arrived in the area.

Two major roads that pass near the Al-Qaqaa installation were filled with U.S. military traffic in the weeks after April 3, 2003, when U.S. troops first reached the area, said Col. David Perkins. He commanded the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division, the division that led the charge into Baghdad.

Perkins and others in the military acknowledged that some looting at the site had taken place. But he said a large-scale operation to remove the explosives using trucks almost certainly would have been detected.

-The Pentagon revealed today that a team from the 3rd Infantry Division removed and destroyed 250 tons of explosives and munitions from al-Qaqaa, starting on April 13. Some of the material may have been RDX, which is part of the alleged 377 tons.

-As Jim Geraghty has noted, "none of this explosive has to date shown up in any Iraqi insurgent attack."

-For the sake of argument, however, assume that all 377 tons of explosives were at al-Qaqaa, and were taken after we overthrew Saddam. These explosives are a drop in the bucket compared to the estimated 650,000 tons of munitions and explosives that Saddam had dispersed throughout Iraq. So far, we have secured 400,000 tons of this material. BTW, please spare me the ridiculous "we didn't have enough troops" argument. We could have sent the entire Army and Marine Corps to Iraq, and it wouldn't have been enough to find and secure all of these munitions. If we had stopped to gather and secure all this material as our first priority, Saddam and his forces would still be in Baghdad awaiting our eventual arrival.

-Finally, if the HMX and RDX held at al-Qaqaa was so much more dangerous than "ordinary explosives", then why was Saddam allowed to retain them? The New York Sun reported on Wednesday that then-UN weapons inspector Charles Duelfer urged the IAEA in 1995 to remove the al-Qaqaa explosives, but the agency refused.

In short, even if the KSTP video has been accurately reported, it is not the definitive evidence that has been claimed. There are substantial questions as to just how much material was at al-Qaqaa, and how much of it was still there when our troops arrived. By the testimony of a senior officer who was in the area, it is "highly improbable" that the explosives could have been taken after our forces captured the complex, at least in any large quantity. We don't know exactly what happened to the material, as Kerry's own foreign policy advisor, Richard Holbrooke, has admitted. To use this issue as the Kerry campaign has done is highly disingenuous.

Update: Simon X has posted some interesting additional information about al-Qaqaa in the comments section.


Blogger Simon W. Moon ksc said...

First, I'm flattered that you've taken the time to respond. Thank you very much. thank you also for your well written and thoughtfull site.

Finally, if the HMX and RDX held at al-Qaqaa was so much more dangerous than "ordinary explosives", then why was Saddam allowed to retain them? I'll have to double check, but I think that at least RDX is used in oil drilling.

Hussein was also allowed to keep somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 tons of yellowcake uranium. IIRC, this stuff was removed and dispersed through non-official channels by local entrepreneurs. Some radioactive containers turned up in scrap metal heaps over the ocean. Apparently, the US military's estimate is that a minimum of 250,000 more tons (of various explosives one supposes) remain unaccounted for.

According to the Iraqi Survey Group's Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the Director of Central Intelligence on Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction Vol2 p 72 (79) Iraq kept some secrets about the plant for "fear that the UN would destroy the plant, virtually closing Iraq’s extensive munitions industries."

According to the IAEA al-Qa'qa'a was "the main high explosives storage facility in Iraq."

Of note as well is the fact that rather than gainsay the reports that these items were removed on our watch in Iraq, Team Bush et al have generated merely some non-denials and negative pregnant statements such as the declassified photo that was released for some inexplicable reason ("We take no view of the purpose of these trucks." "All we're saying is this is two big trucks in front of a bunker."*) and Rumsfeld's vigorous, "The idea it was suddenly looted and moved out, all of these tons of equipment, I think is at least debatable," combine with Major Pearson's inability to address specific issues of concern to render an odd picture of the guys in charge. Either they really don't know despite being the people with access to some of the most detailed info in the world re US actions in Iraq, or they do know and are trying to artfully dodge the issue.
(Why didn't they get the guys in Pearson's outfit who actually were the ordinance techs to come and explain what exactly they destroyed rather than the unit's logistical safety officer who could only provide vague answers to specific questions?)

If Team Bush had juist come out originally and said, "Yeah, there's some stuff that's gone missing. We've secured 2/3 of what's here in Iraq and we may have lost this fraction that's less than 1% of what we've secured. We don't know what has happened to it yet, but we're looking into it," the whole issue would've been dead by Tues am. However, once the Admin referenced a news report (instead of official US military reports or other official what-have-yous) as a way of implying (not stating mind you) that the stuff wasn't there when we took control of the area, that was like blood in the water. Then the hullabulloo over the release of nearly unrelated photos and the presentation of nearly unrelated commentary was like a little chum thrown into the water as well. (Not to mention the Russian angle promulgated by Mr. Shaw in the Acquisitions department whose authority to speak to the issue was unclear.)
People wonder, "Why the dog and pony show? Why not just out with whatever there is (even if it's just that there's no info on the subject) if it's not that big of a deal?"

The attempts to imply without specifically asserting explanantions other than the one actually being discussed make it look fishy.

* The "trucks near the bunkers" that you mentioned.

3:27 AM  
Blogger Simon W. Moon ksc said...

Corrections for clarity made sheepishly:


Apparently, the US military's estimate is that a minimum of 250,000 more tons of explosives (of various sorts one supposes) remain unaccounted for.


Iraq kept some secrets about the al-Qa'qa'a for "fear that the UN would destroy the plant, virtually closing Iraq’s extensive munitions industries."


Why not just come out with whatever there is (even if it's just that there's no info on the subject) if it's not that big of a deal?"

8:12 AM  
Blogger Simon W. Moon ksc said...


The question arises why haven't we been able to secure the remaining 200,000 - 550,000 tons of explosives in Iraq?Are the troops over-tasked?

2:07 PM  
Blogger Dave said...


Thank you for you kind words and thoughtful comments. Good points in particular on the yellowcake and details on al-Qaqaa. Several points (and you're right, the preview feature does suck):

-I doubt we've even found much of the remaining munitions. Remember that Saddam dispersed the stuff everywhere; mosques, schools, hospitals, we've even found Migs buried in the desert. Rick Leventhal, a Fox News correspondent embedded with Marines during the initial invasion, has some excellent thoughts on this.

-You're right that the troops probably are overtasked. While troop levels are a legitimate overall cricitism of the Iraq campaign, I don't think it's that important in this case. Iraq was awash in dangerous materials, and considering our intelligence, we had little idea how much was there and where it was. As I wrote in the initial post, we could have sent the entire Army and Marine Corps, and still not found and/or secured all of the material.

-I would agree that the Bush Administration and its supporters such as myself responded somewhat defensively to this issue. After CBS's effort to slam Bush based on early 1970's Microsoft Word documents, those of us on the right side of the blogosphere are on edge regarding the elite media. Unfortunately, IMO this story would have been an issue regardless of how the administration responded. The problem is that it was raised as a page one "Big Story" just one week before the election, before all the facts were in. It's one thing if the NYT had ironclad proof that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi showed up with a big convoy of trucks and hauled it all away. But no one knows exactly if all the material was at al-Qaqaa, and if so exactly when it was taken and by whom. By running the story when it did, as prominently as it did, the Times guaranteed that this would become a campaign issue.

12:37 AM  

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