We continue our Al QaQaa rowback watch: this Saturday Times story tells us that "Mr. Bush has been on the defensive all week over reports that the United States might have failed to secure nearly 400 tons of high explosives in Iraq after the invasion last year.
And let's look for John Edwards use of a qualifier:
And in Toledo, Mr. Kerry's running mate, Senator John Edwards, was hitting the same notes, telling a crowd, "It is reckless and irresponsible to fail to protect and safeguard one of the largest weapons sites in the country. And by either ignoring these mistakes or being clueless about them, George Bush has failed. He has failed as our commander in chief; he has failed as president."
Gregory Djerejian recaps a week of fun at the Times. To his criticism we would add the following:
First - Buried Story Lines - The Times never told us that IAEA head ElBaradei is seeking a third term, and is being opposed by the US. They also ignored their own reporting of Oct. 20, in which they described Saddam's plan to disperse munitions in anticipation of an insurgency.
Second - Hey Dude, Where's My RDX? The Times piece on Friday is all about HMX. But of the 380 tons of missing explosives, 154 tons were RDX. Que pasa?
UPDATE: Ah ha! In the finest tradition of announcing bad news on Friday, the Times has a huge rowback piece by Sanger and Broad, hidden on p. A12 of the Saturday edition. Golly, the initial story was front-paged on a Monday - go figure.
I will excerpt all of the questions they address, and cherry-pick their answers:
If the whole country was an ammunitions dump, how could anyone expect to secure it all?
In Iraq, commanders say it would be an impossible job...
The officers also note that weapons were not just in depots. Much was dispersed by Mr. Hussein before the war, or in its early days. Much has been looted since. And the arms still in the depots might not alter battle on the ground, since the insurgents already are well armed.
Moreover, the HMX and RDX at Al Qaqaa may be available elsewhere in the country. "There's probably a lot of stuff that is chemically identical to this all around Iraq, but it wasn't under seal because it wasn't located at a place previously associated with nuclear work," said one senior administration official.
[That touches on the Saddam-dispersal theory]
Why didn't the international energy agency blow this material up in the 1990's?
[They didn't. Who cares?]
Who saw it last?
[IAEA inspectors, Pentagon photos of trucks, Army ordnance teams, news crews - all inconclusive.]
Does the satellite photo that the Pentagon released show Iraqi trucks removing high-grade explosives from Al Qaqaa before the American invasion?
[No, and the Penatagon did not claim that.]
Is there any reason that the coalition troops should have known to look for the explosives?
[Yes, no, maybe, so what - we were looking for WMDs, we had many missions.]
Is anyone looking for the explosives now?
It is unclear. Many explosives are being rounded up. But identifying HMX takes experience, and in granular form it can be easily divided up and hidden.
Isn't there a huge discrepancy between the nearly 350 metric tons of high explosives that the energy agency claimed were at Al Qaqaa and what was actually there, especially for the explosive known as RDX?
[This is the "Hey Dude, Where's My RDX question"]
No, weapons experts say. A Iraqi government letter of Oct. 10 identified the lost stockpile as containing 194.7 metric tons of HMX, 141.2 metric tons of RDX, and 5.8 metric tons of PETN.
On Wednesday, ABC News reported that it had obtained a confidential document from the energy agency showing that its inspectors in January 2003, had reported the existence of a little more than three tons of RDX explosives at Al Qaqaa - not the 141.2 metric tons in the Iraqi letter.
Melissa Fleming, an agency spokeswoman, said Friday that the confusion about the quantities arose because Al Qaqaa had more than one site for RDX storage. Three tons were kept at Al Qaqaa, she said, while 125 tons under Al Qaqaa administrative control were kept at Muaskar al Mahawil, about 30 miles away. So the total recent RDX inventory was 128 tons - 13 tons less than the Iraqi ministry wrote in their letter this month.
While Mr. Hussein was still in power, Ms. Fleming said, Iraq told agency inspectors before the war that it had used 10 tons of the RDX between late 1998 and late 2002, when the United Nations did not monitor Al Qaqaa. So the discrepancy, she said, boiled down to three tons.
"We were in the process of verifying and reconciling the three missing tons when the war erupted," she said.
[Oh, so when the Times says at the start of this paragraph that there is no discrepancy, what they mean is, there is no discrepancy once you adjust their original story to account for different locations and different amounts. Whatever.]
Why is this coming out in the week before the election?
[This is the buried story line about ElBaradei. Finally.]
The answer depends on whom you ask. The memorandum from the Iraqi interim government to the energy agency was dated Oct. 10. It was sent in response to a request from the agency for an accounting of missing materials. The Bush administration says it smells a political motive: the head of the agency, Mr. ElBaradei, was told a few months ago that the United States would not support him for another term. They suspect an effort at retribution.
Mr. Bush's political strategist, Karl Rove, said this week that he believed The Times deliberately published the story the week before the election in an effort to harm Mr. Bush's candidacy. Bill Keller, executive editor of The Times, said that the paper first obtained a copy of the Iraqi letter early in the week of Oct. 18, and that its reporters and CBS began asking questions about the explosives in Baghdad, Vienna and Washington during that week. The article was published on Oct. 25. The White House said President Bush was told of the Iraqi warning to the energy agency around Oct. 16.
MORE: Howard Fineman on the strategy of each campaign for the final week. Kerry made a quick shift to Al QaQaa, and this tells why.