Wednesday, October 27, 2004

The RDX Story Develops

It seems fair to say that MSNBC is not saying that the missing RDX was already missing from al Qa Qaa when their embedded reporters arrived in Baghdad with US troops. So MSNBC cannot reasonably be used to support the contention the site had already been stripped of RDX..

Army officials told NBC News on condition of anonymity that troops from the Army’s 3rd Infantry did not arrive at Al-Qaqaa until April 4, finding "looters everywhere" carrying what they could out on their backs. The troops searched bunkers and found conventional weapons but no high explosives, the officials said. Six days later, the 101st Airborne Division arrived. Neither group was specifically searching for HMX or RDX, and the complex is so large — with more than 1,000 buildings — that it is not clear that the troops even saw the bunkers that might have held the explosives.

What the DOD is willing to say on the record is this:

McClellan said the Defense Department ordered an inquiry of the missing weapons, directing Multinational Force Iraq and the Iraq Survey Group to come up with a comprehensive assessment about what happened to them.

The Iraqi government reported an estimated 350 tons of missing explosives Oct. 10 to the International Atomic Energy Agency, a U.N. monitoring group that last inventoried the facility in January 2003.

During that visit, the U.N. inspectors counted the munitions and equipment and tagged them with IAEA seals that indicate they are "dual use," or have conventional-weapons applications. These munitions were generally permitted to remain in Iraq. In contrast, "single use" munitions with nuclear applications were destroyed or rendered harmless. The IAEA returned to the site two months later, in March 2003, and confirmed the equipment it had tagged was still there.

However, coalition forces found no evidence of the weapons in question when they first arrived at the sprawling Al-Quaqaa facility, 30 miles south of Baghdad, about April 10, 2003, according to a defense official. The troops searched 32 bunkers and 87 other buildings, finding some weapons and explosive material, but nothing close to the quantity reported missing by the Iraqi government, and none with IAEA seals, he said.

In an Oct. 10, 2004, letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammed J. Abbas, general director of the Iraqi Ministry of Science and Technology's Planning and Following Up Directorate, reported that 195 tons of high-melting explosive, 141 tons of rapid-detonating explosive, and 6 tons of pentaerythrite tetranitrate, another type of explosive commonly known as PETN, "registered under the IAEA custody were lost" after April 9, 2003.

Abbas blamed the loss on "the theft and looting of the governmental installations due to lack of security."

However, the defense official said there's no verification that looting ever occurred at the site. Citing lack of accountability over the materials between the March IAEA visit and April 10, he said it's possible that regime loyalists or other groups emptied the facility before coalition forces arrived in Baghdad.

The DOD is asserting that it did not find the 350 odd tons of explosive referred to in the IAEA report in its search of 32 bunkers and 87 buildings. Two things stand out in this account. First, the search was probably not comprehensive. If one accepts the estimate of 1,000 buildings on the site, then a visit to 120 structures does not constitute an exhaustive survey. Second, the missing material was a dual-use type of explosive whose possession had been permitted to Saddam. The UN under its terms of inspection, could have destroyed the RDX in the course of its inspection, but it judged that course of action to be improper. It may have occurred to Baradei in January 2003 that the impending war would necessarily break the chain of custody between the Saddam regime and the arriving US forces. But it was his judgement that the RDX did not, under his terms of reference, have to be destroyed, since it had potential civilian applications.

None of this establishes when the material was spirited away. There are three possibilities. First, the material disappeared before 3ID reached Baghdad; second, it vanished between the arrival of 3ID and 101st Airborne; third, it vanished afterward. Since an inquiry is under way, it is reasonable to say that no one knows for sure. The New York Times strongly implied, however, that it vanished afterward. In their article of October 25, the Times said:

The huge facility, called Al Qaqaa, was supposed to be under American military control but is now a no man's land, still picked over by looters as recently as Sunday. United Nations weapons inspectors had monitored the explosives for many years, but White House and Pentagon officials acknowledge that the explosives vanished sometime after the American-led invasion last year.

The New York Times later allowed that Pentagon officials said, or now said that the explosives may have gone missing before US troops reached it, but then imply this assertion is contradicted by the cursory inspection that followed.

White House officials reasserted yesterday that 380 tons of powerful explosives may have disappeared from a vast Iraqi military complex while Saddam Hussein controlled Iraq, saying a brigade of American soldiers did not find the explosives when they visited the complex on April 10, 2003, the day after Baghdad fell. But the unit's commander said in an interview yesterday that his troops had not searched the facility and had merely stopped there for the night on their way to Baghdad.

The commander, Col. Joseph Anderson, of the Second Brigade of the Army's 101st Airborne Division, said he did not learn until this week that the site, known as Al Qaqaa, was considered highly sensitive, or that international inspectors had visited there shortly before the war began in 2003 to inspect explosives that they had tagged during a decade of monitoring.

But a moment's reflection will show this account is essentially the same as MSNBC's. For the NYT assertion that the explosives vanished sometime after US custody to be true, the RDX would necessarily have to be present when 3ID and 101st got there. But if, as MSNBC emphasizes, we don't know what there was  -- didn't know they were not there -- then necessarily we don't know they were there. A null value cannot be true or false as one prefers. It is null. Nor should the menace of the material suddenly transform itself arbitrarily. The IAEA did not think them particularly dangerous in the hands of Saddam, who is after all, only going on trial for mass murder. Physically they are what they have always been but semantically they have been transmogrified.

The jury is still formally out on when the material actually vanished. IEDs and bombs are the most common cause of death or injury to American soldiers in Iraq. It is theoretically possible for soldiers and marines not to care about explosives reaching the hands of the enemy. But is not very probable.Considering the bulk of the explosive, its value and the natural human tendency to steal things before, rather than after you lose easy access to it (remember the currently sainted "resistants" were once the equally sainted Ba'athist high officials who had the keys to the explosives dump) it seems overwhelmingly probable the material was taken before, rather than after US custody.