As he storms the swing states in the campaign’s closing days, George W. Bush assures us that the invasion of Iraq has made America safer. We are still in grave danger, of course, so the President warns that only he and his incomparable team can protect our future security. His swaggering certainty only seems to increase as each day brings fresh evidence of his administration’s awful mismanagement of the war.
At this late hour nobody expects Mr. Bush to confess error, or to honestly confront the perils created by his administration’s boggling mistakes. For those of us in the “reality-based” world, however, the disappearance of hundreds of tons of high explosives from Al Qaqaa—an enormous and notorious weapons complex south of Baghdad—again raises grave doubts about the competence of the President and his “war cabinet.”
We already knew that the nation’s most experienced military and diplomatic professionals advised Mr. Bush to prepare carefully for the war and its aftermath. We knew that those capable people warned repeatedly that the consequences of invasion would include widespread chaos and armed resistance—and urged the administration to deploy sufficient forces to pacify the country and restore order.
Now we know that the U.N. inspectors and the International Atomic Energy Authority provided ample information about the most dangerous sites that should have been guarded. And we are learning the consequences of the administration’s decision to ignore that sound advice.
Specifically, the IAEA turned over to the Pentagon a list of sites that should be guarded by the invasion forces, including the Al Qaqaa complex. The IAEA had monitored that site for more than a decade and placed its contents under seal, because the same HMX and RDX explosives so useful in making car bombs and roadside mines are also ideal for triggering a nuclear weapon.
Explaining how persons unknown could have absconded with 40 truckloads of exceptionally dangerous munitions in the midst of an American invasion is a challenge even for this White House.
The Pentagon’s spokesman has tried to suggest that the explosives vanished sometime between March 8, 2003, when the IAEA inspectors last visited the Al Qaqaa complex, and April 9, when the U.S. forces seized the Iraqi capital, 30 miles north of the complex. During that period, and for many months earlier, that suspect site had been under heavy surveillance by American satellites and aircraft. Could the Iraqis actually have loaded a convoy of trucks and departed carrying such deadly cargo without detection?
Available evidence doesn’t support that implausible theory. According to the Iraqi interim government, which reported this incident to the IAEA two weeks ago, the theft of the explosives occurred after American forces entered Baghdad on April 9, during the orgy of looting of “government installations due to lack of security.”
Former U.S. weapons inspector David Kay, a supporter of the war who was selected by the President to find those nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, also discounts the Pentagon’s theory. He told the Los Angeles Times that when he visited the Al Qaqaa complex in May 2003, it already had been “heavily looted …. The site was in total disarray, just like a lot of the Iraqi [munitions] sites.”
White House spokesman Scott McClellan uttered a few additional excuses, including a ridiculous attempt to deflect responsibility onto the Iraqi authorities. He acknowledged that in the invasion’s aftermath, Al Qaqaa just wasn’t a high priority compared to the oil fields.
What neither Mr. Bush nor his aides can deny is that the U.S. received timely information from the IAEA, which had inspected these places for years. We know they disregarded the agency’s pleas because they failed to guard not only Al Qaqaa, but the equally obvious nuclear waste site at Al Tuwaitha, where looters last year carried away uranium, cobalt and cesium. Those radioactive materials are the essential components of a primitive “dirty bomb,” like the weapon that alleged terrorist Jose Padilla was accused of planning to detonate in an American city.
Asked this week by an Australian journalist whether the IAEA had urged U.S. officials not to leave Al Qaqaa unguarded, the agency’s spokeswoman in Vienna confirmed the warning. “Yes, a couple of times we did,” recalled Melissa Fleming. “First of all, it’s important to note that it was a well-known site …. It was of concern directly after the invasion, when it was clear that the main nuclear site, Tuwaitha, was being looted. And so this was a site that we did alert the U.S. to as one important to protect.”
The IAEA never received any response from U.S. officials, Ms. Fleming added.
Our officials were very busy, of course, advancing photo ops on aircraft carriers and dispatching Republican operatives to the “Green Zone” in Baghdad. They weren’t inclined to pay much attention to international meddlers at the U.N. or the IAEA. Why would they listen to anyone else when they never make a mistake?