Al-Qaqaa hits the fan.

Media criticism.
Oct. 28 2004 12:15 AM

Al-Qaqaa Hits the Fan

The New York Times scoop raises as many questions as it answers.

Bombs away
Bombs away

The New York Times harvested a mighty scoop with its 2,600-word, Oct. 25 lead story about the 380 tons of high explosives missing from Saddam's Al-Qaqaa military-industrial complex ("Huge Cache of Explosives Vanished From Site in Iraq"). But like many mega-harvests, the Times' story leaves many half- and un-answered questions behind for gleaners to gather, inspect, and chew on.

The Times and other journalists chasing the story portray the disappearance of the high explosives (HMX, RDX, and PETN) from Al-Qaqaa as shocking news. Indeed, a mere pound of HMX in the hands of a terrorist could bring down an airliner, the Times explains. The explosives could be used in car bombs against U.S. troops in Iraq, be allotted to jihadists around the world, or, as the Times reports, "be used to trigger a nuclear weapon."

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The gist of the Times coverage seems to be, Why didn't Bush's troops prevent the looting of Al-Qaqaa during the invasion? John Kerry is pushing this angle on the stump this week to argue what a nimrod George W. Bush is. You can always count on a newspaper's competitor to generate a different slant, and the catch-up story in today's Washington Post ("U.S. Thinks Explosives Vanished in Spring '03," Oct. 27) does not disappoint: It quotes an administration spokesman whose generous timeline allows that the munitions might have been pilfered before U.S. troops arrived. If that's true, Bush is exonerated.

But setting aside for a moment the question of how the Al-Qaqaa revelations reflect Bush's prosecution of the war, what intrigues me is why we're hearing about the missing 40 truckloads of high explosives now, 18 months after their disappearance. It's a question the coverage has yet to address, which is odd seeing as how the international arms-control establishment has known all about the Al-Qaqaa stockpile since after the first Gulf War and about its vanishing since May 2003.

A waltz through Nexis and a skip through Google document the breadth of the public knowledge about the boom-boom Saddam stored at Al-Qaqaa. In 1989, an enormous explosion recorded there was widely reported to be a high-explosives accident related to Iraqi A-bomb research. (One ton of HMX-like explosive triggered the Nagasaki "implosion" A-bomb, according to the Times story.) In late 1991, after the first Gulf War, inspector Hans Blix recorded 255 tons of HMX at Al-Qaqaa.

The U.N. allowed Iraq to keep the high explosives for use in mining and construction, and in late 2002 when U.N. inspectors returned to Al-Qaqaa after a four-year absence they found about 35 tons of HMX missing: Iraqis told them they'd used it on civilian projects.

The Times scoop delineates the deep knowledge U.N. inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency had of the arsenal: The agency warned the United States about the Al-Qaqaa stash before the invasion; after the invasion (May 2003), the IAEA fretted in an internal memo about the "explosives bonanza" terrorists might be reaping; in May 2004, Iraqi officials say they warned CPA head L. Paul Bremer that Al-Qaqaa had most likely been looted. The Times also reports that the CIA listed the site as a "medium priority" on its list of 500 locations to be searched and secured.

If we want to criticize the Bush administration for failing to capture and guard the explosives after the IAEA gave them such a stern talking to, and want to knock Bush for failing to alert the world to the dangers posed by the explosives' loss—both completely justified, as far as I'm concerned—should we not also save a brick or two to fling at the IAEA? Granted, its inspectors have not been admitted into Iraq since the U.S. military took over the country, but couldn't they have spoken up in the last 18 months if they knew hundreds of tons of HMX, RDX, and PETN were on the loose and posing such a great danger? Shouldn't the press be asking the IAEA why it's been so silent?

A feisty but brief item in yesterday's (Oct. 26) Los Angeles Times helps explain why the story broke when it did and how it did. The paper reports that an unnamed source tipped both 60 Minutes and the Times to the Al-Qaqaa story on Wednesday, Oct. 20, and the two news outlets agreed to work on it together. When 60 Minutes couldn't prepare a filmed segment in time for its Oct. 24 broadcast, it freed the Times to publish its story.

The tipster may have clued the Times and 60 Minutes in in the October correspondence between the Iraqi government and the IAEA, which was asking about the whereabouts of the Al-Qaqaa explosives. The IAEA is still responsible for tracking such nuclear weapons-related material in Iraq; the Iraqi government essentially told the IAEA it had no idea where the stuff went.

Congratulations to the New York Times for breaking this story, but I'd still like to see it placed in context. For instance, Al-Qaqaa was one of the CIA's 500 "medium priority" weapons sites: How many of those sites were searched and secured? Are other dangerous caches missing? Was Al-Qaqaa the only HMX, RDX, and PETN depot in Iraq? Did U.N. inspectors allow the Iraqis to hoard other dangerous munitions?

Another "for instance": In a throwaway sentence, the Boston Globequotes former weapons inspector David Kay as saying that three major insurgent bombing sites tested positive for HMX or RDX. Is that true? When and where were they? Can these bombings be traced to the Al-Qaqaa stockpile?

Yet another "for instance": If we're terrified about 380 tons of explosives gone missing because of U.S. incompetence, shouldn't we be one-tenth as worried about the 35 tons of the "missing" HMX Saddam's people claim to have used on civilian projects? Did Iraq really use it on civilian projects, did it stockpile the stuff for future A-bomb research, or did it sell the explosives to terrorists?

Which brings us to my final "for instance": The Times explains that HMX and RDX can be disguised as "harmless goods, easily slipped across borders." I'd like to hear the IAEA explain what logic it used in deciding that hundreds of tons of high explosives could be trusted to the custodianship of Saddam Hussein.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.