Thursday, October 28, 2004

A Curious Defense

The Bush campaign, and the right-wing punditry, has been scrambling to perform some last minute damage control over the debacle of the missing 380 tons of high grade explosives from the infamous Al Qaqaa weapons cache in Iraq. The underlying logic of the defensive maneuvers is curious to me because I believe that it, in itself, admits the weaknesses of the Bush presidency.

When the story
first broke, there was speculation that the site had been looted in the aftermath of the invasion. Since then, the exact timeline of when the materials disappeared from the site has become a vaguer issue. Today's New York Times reported:

The last time that international inspectors saw the explosives was in early March 2003, days before the American-led invasion. It is possible, inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency say, that Saddam Hussein's forces may have tried to move the material out of the 10 huge bunkers at the Al Qaqaa facility where it was stored to save it if the facility was bombed.
President Bush was quick to seize on this uncertainty in a campaign appearance yesterday:

"One of [Kerry's] top foreign policy advisors admits he doesn't know the facts," Mr. Bush said. "He said, 'I don't know the truth.'
Bush is right to some degree. No one can be certain when the explosives disappeared, but that fact alone condemns Bush's leadership as commander in chief, and Donald Rumsfeld's as Secretary of Defense. The reason Bush can claim this uncertainty is precisely because he failed to send troops to secure the site immediately after the invasion. This should have been done with all haste, considering what was known about the Al Qaqaa facility. If he had sent troops to secure the site, as any competent commander concerned with so dangerous an arsenal would have, then we would know when the materials disappeared. We could say definitively that they were spirited out before our arrival, or we would have the material under lock and key today. Because Bush failed to direct his forces to this site, he can now plead ignorance as his defense. That is not exculpatory.

The Bush campaign and the right-wing punditry is also trying, speciously, to claim that troops were sent to secure the site, pointing out that a brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, with an embedded NBC reporter present, went to Al Qaqaa soon after the fighting began. Unfortunately, that was little more than a pit stop on the way to Baghdad, and the commander of those troops was not briefed or instructed as to the significance of Al Qaqaa.

The commander of the troops that went into the Al Qaqaa facility on the way to Baghdad in early April, Col. Joseph Anderson, of the Second Brigade of the Army's 101st Airborne Division, has said he was never told the site was considered sensitive, or that international inspectors had visited it before the war began.
That he was never told of the known contents of the bunkers at Al Qaqaa is, as Andrew Sullivan and Gregory Djerejian put it, "criminal negligence" of the highest order. Unfortunately, under Bush's leadership, this is not the only sensitive facility in Iraq to be left unguarded post-invasion. There was also the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center that was picked clean by looters who carried off radioactive material that could wind up as the basis for a dirty bomb. The pattern is the same: the facility had been contained and monitored by international inspectors for years, the Bush administration (and all interested parties) were well aware of the contents of the site and the dangers they posed, yet inexplicably, the site was left unguarded.

Considering that this war was justified on the grounds that Saddam could pass dangerous materials on to terrorists, I think that protecting these sites from looting should have been the absolute top priority. The reasons for the failure probably lie in Donald Rumsfeld's folly. His insistence on using the minimum amount of troops necessary, against the advice of the Army War College, State Department, and even the Army Chief of Staff General Shinseki, amongst a chorus of other voices, has had far reaching and devastating ramifications. The failure of his leadership in this regard, and that of the President's, his boss, is evident in the chaotic and unraveling situation in Iraq.

Which brings me to the second part of Bush's countermeasures. In typical Bush fashion, he refuses to take any responsibility for his actions, and in the process accuses Kerry of the very crime he is guilty of. Bush had this to say about Kerry's remarks concerning the missing explosives:

"The senator is denigrating the actions of our troops and commanders in the field without knowing the facts."

"You might remember that - he kept repeating that in the debates," Mr. Bush said at the Hancock County Fairgrounds in Findlay, Ohio. "Well, this is unjustified criticism of our military commanders in the field. This is the kind of, worst kind of Monday-morning quarterbacking."
Think about that statement for a moment. Bush is attributing the decision to leave those sites unguarded to the military, the men and women in uniform. Bush is blaming the military again for his mistakes, and then claiming it is Kerry who is committing such heresy. Kerry is saying no such thing. He, rightly, blames Bush's leadership and that of his closest advisors. Bush, once again, points his finger at the military as if he has no part in their operation - a victim of circumstances.

Rmember, this is the same man who boasted about being a "war time president." This is the same man who claims that his leadership in war is what qualifies him for being president, and makes his opponent and unacceptable option. Well Mr. President, aren't you the commander in chief? Doesn't the buck stop with you? Are you only a war time president for photo ops, or are you really an engaged commander? At the very least, don't you think Donald Rumsfeld should lose his job for yet another example of failure? It wasn't a strategic decision by commanders in the field to leave these sites unguarded, it was a failure of senior leadership in the administration make this a priority, and to inform the commanders, like Col. Joseph Anderson, that Al Qaqaa was an important site that needed to be guarded.

[Update: Josh Marshall is diligently running down the many different versions of events surrounding the Al Qaqaa saga emanating from the White House and the right-wing punditry. He's getting quite a workout considering that they are floating a new rendition daily - if not more frequently. One such recent twist is the abandonment of the story of the NBC accompanied visit of the 101st Airborne that I cited above. I guess Col. Joseph Anderson's statement made that narrative a non-starter. Now they are floating a story about an even earlier visit by American troops, the Army's 3rd Infantry Division appearance at Al Qaqaa on April 3rd (the NBC visit was on the 10th of April). Unfortunately for the Bush administration, the commander of that force is, again, on record contradicting the White House's claims:

Col. Dave Perkins, then the commander of the 2nd Brigade of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, said the immediate concern when his troops reached the Al Qaqaa site on April 3, 2003, was to defeat a couple of hundred Iraqi troops who were firing from the compound as the Americans surged toward Baghdad...

Perkins said the key concern at the time was whether there were any weapons of mass destruction, particularly chemical weapons, and that a white powdery substance found at the site proved to be a WMD false alarm.
Perkins' account is consistent with news accounts written at the time. Quoting Josh Marshall, himself quoting from the Washington Post article:

In the first of yesterday's discoveries, the 3rd Infantry Division entered the vast Qa Qaa chemical and explosives production plant and came across thousands of vials of white powder, packed three to a box. The engineers also found stocks of atropine and pralidoxime, also known as 2-PAM chloride, which can be used to treat exposure to nerve agents but is also used to treat poisoning by organic phosphorus pesticides. Alongside those materials were documents written in Arabic that, as interpreted at the scene, appeared to include discussions of chemical warfare.

This morning, however, investigators said initial tests indicated the white powder was not a component of a chemical weapon. "On first analysis it does not appear to be a chemical that could be used in a chemical weapons attack," Col. John Peabody, commander of the division's engineering brigade, told a Reuters reporter with his unit.
And what was the white powder? Here's what the Associated Press was told the same day ...

A senior U.S. official familiar with initial testing said the powder was believed to be explosives. The finding would be consistent with the plant's stated production capabilities in the field of basic raw materials for explosives and propellants.
RDX and HMX are white powders.
So, to recap, we have a military unit at Al Qaqaa on April 3rd, who were primarily concerned with fighting Iraqi soldiers and looking for WMDs, who then conducted a test for biological and chemical weapons and found none. They did find a white powder believed to be explosives, and we know that RDX and HMX are white powders. Is this the best the White House could come up with? This is starting to look bad. This story actually makes it look like at least some quantity of the explosives were in fact at the site post-invasion, giving credence to the looting theory. Marshall provides further support for the looting theory, as well as a refutation of another White House argument. In response to the claim that the looting would have required a convoy of trucks, and that these could not have been using the roads after the invasion, Marshall quotes David Kay:

I must say, I find it hard to believe that a convoy of 40 to 60 trucks left that facility prior to or during the war, and we didn't spot it on satellite or UAV. That is, because it is the main road to Baghdad from the south, was a road that was constantly under surveillance. I also don't find it hard to believe that looters could carry it off in the dead of night or during the day and not use the road network.[italics added]
I think the Bush administration is starting to overreach on this one. This could get interesting.]

[Update II: Tim Dunlop at The Road to Surfdom links to a site with some pictures from Al Qaqaa taken by embedded journalists with the 101st Airborne. While certainly not conclusive evidence that the explosives were there after the fall of Saddam, it doesn't exactly look good either.]

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