To address a few of the questions that have been raised about the looting of hundreds of tons of high explosives:
Is this just a normal screw-up?? I don't think so. The fact that this site had been secured by the IAEA means that we knew exactly where it was and what it contained. In principle, we might have (inexplicably) failed to figure out that we should have secured this site; however, this can't be the reason: according to the New York Times, "the International Atomic Energy Agency publicly warned about the danger of these explosives before the war, and after the invasion it specifically told United States officials about the need to keep the explosives secured, European diplomats said in interviews last week." So we had been told what was at the site, where it was, and why it was important.
Also, as I wrote in my earlier post, it would be comprehensible if something small had vanished from a site we knew we needed to protect -- something like a document or a backpack full of explosives. But what vanished was 350 0r 380 tons of high explosives. To carry away that amount of material would have required a convoy of trucks, and probably also forklifts and so forth. It is not credible to me that anyone could have succeeded in making away with that amount of stuff had we been making any effort at all to guard it.
Finally, these explosives are not only the sort that blew up the plane over Lockerbie, and can be used to take down entire buildings; they are also used in nuclear weapons. And, of course, they can be used in the kinds of bombs that have been blowing up our troops. In addition, according to the Times, "The I.A.E.A. ... has reported that machine tools that can be used for either nuclear or non-nuclear purposes have also been looted."
Since we knew where this site was, and what it contained, we could have planned to protect it. Apparently, we didn't. Why not? According to the Times, "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." (Further support for the claim that we did not even try to guard this site.) One might ask: why wasn't this a high priority site? What, exactly, did we think was more important than keeping hundreds of tons of dual-use high explosives out of the hands of (a) terrorists, (b) insurgents, and (c) Iraq's neighbors? (The answer can't be 'sites with actual fissile material', since they were looted too.) I want to leave this interesting question to one side, however, since it involves speculation, and see what we can infer from the known facts.
If this senior administration official is right, then there are, as far as I can see, only two possibilities. First, suppose for the sake of argument that there really were other, more urgent priorities that had to be guarded, and we just didn't have enough troops to guard those more urgent sites and this one too. Worse, we didn't have enough troops to guard sites that were higher priority than this one. If so, that seems to me to constitute conclusive evidence that we did not go into Iraq with nearly enough troops.
Second, suppose that there were not other, more urgent sites to be guarded; that this one should have been given a higher priority; but that someone screwed up. In that case, not only did someone make a huge mistake in planning for the war, but no one caught that mistake. How did that happen? Again, this site was on the list of IAEA secured sites containing dual-use materials. Did no one ask, at any point in the war planning, whether we had made plans to secure all those sites? Or at least the ones that contained really, really bad stuff, like fissile material or hundreds of tons of explosives that could be used against our troops? If someone did ask, then the failure to secure this site cannot be an oversight; it must have been a deliberate decision. If no one did, then that seems to me to speak volumes about the quality of the planning for the war.
The timing of this story: In the comments to my last post, someone wondered why this story was coming out right before the election. As I wrote there, the Iraqi government reported this to the IAEA on October 10. The IAEA officially informed the US on October 15. The Times has apparently been working this story for about a week, along with (apparently) 60 Minutes. If their source were either someone in the IAEA or someone in the administration who had not previously known about this (and, according to the NYT, Condoleeza Rice was only informed 'within the last month'), the timing would make perfect sense.
The more interesting question is why the Iraqis only just informed the IAEA. The Nelson Report (as quoted by Josh Marshall) claims that the administration pressured them to keep it secret. According to the Times, the IAEA started putting serious pressure on the Iraqi government to submit reports on the status of weapons sites "early this month", which seems to have prompted the Iraqis to inform them. In any case, we know this much: the looting seems to have occurred in April 2003, during the initial stages of the occupation. The United States did not inform the IAEA of this fact, even though (NYT) "in May 2004, Iraqi officials say in interviews, they warned L. Paul Bremer III, the American head of the occupation authority, that Al Qaqaa had probably been looted."
Moreover, the idea that the administration did not know well before May 2004 that the sites had been looted is not credible. We controlled the country. We knew about this site. If, in addition to not bothering to secure the site, we didn't even bother to check it for over a year, despite repeated warnings from the IAEA, that in itself would require some serious explaining. If, on the other hand, the administration did know that the site had been looted but didn't bother to inform anyone, then the idea that one of their purposes was to keep the news of this screw-up hidden from us, the American public becomes a lot more credible. (What is not credible to me is the idea that we needed to keep this secret for a year and a half to prevent our enemies from finding out about it. Our enemies, the ones with the forklifts and trucks, presumably know exactly what happened. Maybe some other enemies don't, but I can't see that this justifies not informing the IAEA for a year and a half.)
Josh Marshall is reporting various occasions on which these types of explosives have been used since last April. And Juan Cole, writing about the dual-use equipment that was stolen, writes: "How bad a job Bush is doing is clear when we consider that we might well be relieved to know that this equipment went to Iran, since that means Bin Laden doesn't have it."
As I said before, it defies belief.