Friday, October 29, 2004

Are they RDX or HMX?

The substance in the bunker is HMX, at least according to David Kay. In an interview with CNN, Kay analyzes the material seen in the video. The close up of the white powder stored in barrels described by David Kay is in this still from Fox News.

BROWN: I don't know how better to do this than to show you some pictures, have you explain to me what they are or are not, OK? First, I'll just call it the seal and tell me if this is an IAEA seal on that bunker at that munitions dump.

KAY: Aaron, as about as certain as I can be looking at a picture, not physically holding it, which obviously I would have preferred to have been there, that's an IAEA seal. I've never seen anything else in Iraq in about 15 years of being in Iraq and around Iraq that was other than an IAEA seal of that shape.

BROWN: And was there anything else at the facility that would have been under IAEA seal?

KAY: Absolutely nothing. It was the HMX, RDX, the two high explosives.

BROWN: OK. Now, I want to take a look at the barrels here for a second and you can tell me what they tell you. They obviously to us just show us a bunch of barrels. You'll see it somewhat differently.

KAY: Well, it's interesting. There were three foreign suppliers to Iraq of this explosive in the 1980s. One of them used barrels like this and inside the barrel is a bag. HMX is in powdered form because you actually use it to shape a spherical lens that is used to create the triggering device for nuclear weapons.

And, particularly on the videotape, which is actually better than the still photos, as the soldier dips into it that's either HMX or RDX. I don't know of anything else in al Qa Qaa that was in that form.

BROWN: Let me ask you then, David, the question I asked Jamie. In regard to the dispute about whether that stuff was there when the Americans arrived, is it game, set, match? Is that part of the argument now over?

KAY: Well, at least with regard to this one bunker and the film shows one seal, one bunker, one group of soldiers going through and there were others there that were sealed, with this one, I think it is game, set and match.

There was HMX, RDX in there. The seal was broken and quite frankly to me the most frightening thing is not only is the seal broken and the lock broken but the soldiers left after opening it up. I mean to rephrase the so-called (UNINTELLIGIBLE) rule if you open an arms bunker, you own it. You have to provide security.

BROWN: That raises a number of questions. Let me throw out one. It suggests that maybe they just didn't know what they had.

KAY: I think quite likely they didn't know they had HMX, which speaks to the lack of intelligence given troops moving through that area but they certainly knew they had explosives.

And to put this in context, I think it's important this loss of 360 tons but Iraq is awash with tens of thousands of tons of explosives right now in the hands of insurgents because we did not provide the security when we took over the country.

The Belmont Club received an email from reader N, who says he is a retired EOD officer. It is reproduced below.

As a retired Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) officer I have some problems with the Channel 5 story. It appears to me that they are in a bunker filled with blasting agents (slower detonation rates for moving rock, see link below on detonation rates) . First we see boosters, (they would commonly be inserted into a bag of ANFO(ammonium nitrate fuel oil) or nitro starch for blasting. Then we see what is described as dynamite but is more likely TNT or wrapped nitro starch (see GI story below) and lastly those big cardboard barrels which appear to be a white powder. Note the number beside the 1.1D placard on the barrel, it says 239. Now 239 may very well be the U. N. number system for ammunition and explosives (see first link below). The U. S. does not utilize the U. N. system nor does the former USSR or it's satellites. When I was in Bosnia we put the Bosnians on the UN system to get some organization established for safety purposes. Please note the first site below from Australia and we can see they are most probably on the UN system: (239 NITROSTARCH, dry or wetted with less than 20% water, by mass). Common sense to me would be that HMX, one of the most powerful and expensive explosives WOULD NOT BE PACKAGED IN CARDBOARD BARRELS!

The much anticipated testimony from 3ID personnel that they moved explosives from Al Qa Qaa does not clarify matters much. Fox News reports that:

WASHINGTON — A U.S. Army officer came forward Friday to say a team from his 3rd Infantry Division took about 250 tons of munitions and other material from the Al-Qaqaa (search) arms-storage facility soon after Saddam Hussein's regime fell in April 2003. Explosives were part of the load taken by the team, but Major Austin Pearson was unable to say what percentage they accounted for.

The Pentagon believes the disclosure helps explain what happened to 377 tons of high explosives that the International Atomic Energy Agency (search) said disappeared after the U.S.-led invasion. Pentagon spokesman Larry DiRita acknowledged the Defense Department did not have all the answers and could not yet account for all of the missing explosives, but stressed that the major's disclosure was a significant development in unraveling the mystery. "We've described what we know, and as we know more we'll describe that," said DiRita.

The Washington Post has more:

Maj. Austin Pearson, speaking at a press conference at the Pentagon, said his team removed 250 tons of TNT, plastic explosives, detonation cords, and white phosporous rounds on April 13, 2003 -- 10 days after U.S. forces first reached the Qaqaa site. "I did not see any IAEA seals at any of the locations we went into. I was not looking for that," Pearson said.

Di Rita sought to point to Pearson's comments as evidence that some RDX, one of the high-energy explosives, might have been removed from the site. RDX is also known as plastic explosive. But Di Rita acknowledged: "I can't say RDX that was on the list of IAEA is what the major pulled out. ... We believe that some of the things they were pulling out of there were RDX."

This does not bear directly on what was in the 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS video, because we have no way of knowing whether Major Pearson is talking about the same bunker. Here's the data so far.

March 17, 2003 DOD overhead showing trucks loading material from the Al Qa Qaa IAEA site
April 4, 2003 A 3ID searches the area, finds thousands of boxes containing 3 vials of white powder and chemical warfare instructions.
April 10, 2003 An NBC news team embedded with 101st Airborne tours through the area. Sees little.
April 13, 2003 Major Austin Pearson removes 250 tons of explosive from the area. Sees no IAEA seal.
April 18, 2003 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS team shoots video showing a bunker with what looks like an intact IAEA seal, plus video of carboard barrels with small bags of material which David Kay identifies as RDX.

The unknowns are:

  1. What were in those cardboard barrels? How much HMX could have been in them?
  2. Did Pearson examine the same bunker the 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS team videotaped? How did the seals get back on if so.
  3. What bunker was being unloaded in the DOD video? Was this the same bunker the 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS team entered?