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The al Qaqaa Missing Explosives Continue to Confound Experts

October 29, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: This is the al Qaqaa munitions compound just outside Baghdad, where some 380 tons of high-grade explosives reportedly disappeared. The story was first reported Monday by the New York Times and CBS News.

It’s provoked high-velocity charges and countercharges on the presidential campaign trail, with Sen. Kerry accusing President Bush of incompetence and President Bush calling those accusations “wild charges.” Charges and countercharges came from supporters of the main candidates. For example: This defense of the president from former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

RUDY GIULIANI: No matter how you try to blame it on the president, the actual responsibility for it really would be for the troops that were there. Did they search carefully enough?

RAY SUAREZ: Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards swiftly answered during a campaign stop in Iowa.

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: George Bush, you need to show America the order that you issued for our troops to secure these dangerous explosives. If you’re going to say they didn’t do their job, then you need to show us that order. George Bush refuses, as he has over and over, to step up and take responsibility.

RAY SUAREZ: But the question of whether the missing explosives were removed just before or just after the U.S. invasion took a new turn Wednesday night. ABC affiliate KSTP in St. Paul, Minnesota, broadcast footage its embedded journalists shot in April 2003, after the fall of Baghdad.

This footage, broadcast on ABC News last night, showed soldiers with the 101st Airborne Division examining what appear to be barrels of high explosives, some with the seal of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Iraqi officials told the IAEA earlier this month the high-grade explosives had vanished.

The IAEA then informed the Pentagon on Oct. 10. Of particular interest are the barrels seen here possibly containing the high explosive HMX; they were found inside sealed bunkers, sealed by IAEA inspectors just before the war. Weapons expert David Albright:

DAVID ALBRIGHT: The seal’s critical. The fact that there’s a photo of what looks like an IAEA seal means that what’s behind those doors is HMX; they only sealed bunkers that had HMX in them.

RAY SUAREZ: After the bunkers were open, the soldiers didn’t stay long, since they hadn’t been ordered to secure the facility, according to the KSTP report. The Pentagon also weighed in. Secretary Rumsfeld told the Voice of America: “The idea it was suddenly looted and moved out all these tons of equipment is I think at least debatable…”

Rumsfeld and other administration leaders have also speculated that the high explosives were taken from al Qaqaa before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Last evening, the Pentagon declassified a single satellite image taken of al Qaqaa two days after international inspectors left, right before the war. It shows truck activity outside one of the many storage bunkers, but doesn’t indicate what happened to the explosives after the image was taken.

Today the Pentagon responded to the latest reports. Major Austin Pearson, an army expert in ammunitions, spoke to reporters. He was at al Qaqaa in April 2003 and said his unit removed some 250 tons of weapons and explosives from the facility at that time, but he said he couldn’t confirm they were the same explosives now reported missing.

MAJ. AUSTIN PEARSON, U.S. Army: I did not see any IAEA seals at the locations that we went into. I was not looking for that. My mission specifically was to go in there and to prevent the exposure of U.S. forces and to minimize that by taking out what was easily accessible and putting it back and bringing it in to our captured ammunition holding area.

REPORTER: Can you tell us definitively that any of the material that your unit destroyed was among the 300 tons of high explosives under IAEA seal? Can you tell us that definitively?

LAWRENCE DI RITA, Defense Department Spokesman: You guys really want the definitive answer, and so do we. The difference is that that takes understanding facts, and we have tried to uncover facts over the last week at a point after which many people thought they had the definitive answer. And we simply do not.

RAY SUAREZ: The Pentagon insisted the weapons in question are a small fraction of those the U.S. Military has already disposed of.

RAY SUAREZ: For more, we turn to Mark Thompson, Time Magazine’s military correspondent. And, Mark, I’m wondering if the events of the past day have helped you fill in the chronology, you and all the other reporters trying to figure out the chain of events.

MARK THOMPSON: Well, basically, Ray, what we learned was in March of 2003, we knew the weapons were there. Until today we knew that by May of 2003, they were gone. What the Pentagon did today was come out and said, well, in April of 2003, you know, we actually went in there and we actually took out 250 tons of these weapons. But as we just saw, we really don’t know whether those 250 tons were part of the 377 tons that were under the IAEA seal.

RAY SUAREZ: So the Pentagon stopped short of saying that the material that is reputed to be lost, missing, unaccounted for is the material that this exploitation team took away.

MARK THOMPSON: Right. I mean, basically you can suggest the reason the Pentagon did what it did today was at least to point out the fact that, “Hey, we might have gotten some of this.” But that’s pretty much as far as they could go, and they actually came right up to the line and stopped and wouldn’t clear that last threshold.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the major, who is an ammunitions handling expert– was billed as such in today’s briefing– gave a partial inventory of the things he took away, but he didn’t mention the explosives that are reputed to have been in that storage area.

MARK THOMPSON: He mentioned white phosphorus and detonation cords and he did mention plastic explosives. And the Larry Di Rita, the Pentagon spokesman, was very quick to point out that plastic explosives and RDX, which is one of the three types of explosives sealed by the IAEA, were used interchangeably in the theater. So, plainly, the Pentagon was interested in at least raising the notion that they got some, if not all, of this stuff out and destroyed it in mid- April.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, then I guess that brings up the question if the Pentagon has been consistent in its handling of this story. To have the secretary of defense speculating it was taken away before the invasion even began and then to have a very high public information officer today hint that it was taken out by American forces, does that… where does that leave you?

MARK THOMPSON: I think it leaves us knowing that there is a lot we don’t know about this story. And you get the feeling at the Pentagon and talking to military officers that they don’t know what the answer is. They’re so close to the election it seems they’re desperate to come up with some story that makes sense.

And Rumsfeld did suggest it left before the Americans got there, and today we did hear, well, maybe the Americans took some of them out. But neither one is clear and convincing.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammed ElBaradei, has also been speaking publicly. Is his version of events different or similar to what the United States military is saying?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, basically, he has only said that up until March– we put the seals on in January of 2003; went back just before the war began– in March 2003, we’re convinced that stuff was there when the Americans invaded Iraq.

After that, we really don’t know what happened. The Iraqis have come back recently and said, “Listen, this was gone after April 9, 2003, when the Americans invaded and it went away because of a lack of security.” The interim government in Iraq that George Bush helped put into power plainly is now fingering him as a culprit for the loss of these weapons.

RAY SUAREZ: Now Mr. Di Rita today at the Pentagon sort of equated tonnages with each other; he was talking about tons of bullets, rounds for rocket-propelled grenades, other kinds of explosives. Are the kinds of things that are reputed missing, looted from the site, different in a way that would make them not really… it’s not apples to apples or oranges to oranges?

MARK THOMPSON: It’s not quite the same. A couple of things: No. 1, the insurgents who are trying to kill American soldiers are much more interested in rigging booby traps using old artillery shells made of heavy metal that when they explode, they spray this metal out.

The sealed explosives weren’t of that nature. They were in bulk, so they would be very good, experts say, to put a lot of them in a truck– like Timothy McVeigh did in Oklahoma City– and make one huge bomb, which we really haven’t seen, not for use in just these smaller roadside bombs, these IED’s that continue to pick off American troops.

RAY SUAREZ: But terrorists in the past have used these explosives.

MARK THOMPSON: Yes, definitely. Plastic explosives are very good to use. But these are not ready and able to go. All they need is a detonator, but they also need in some way to be fashioned, to be tooled, to be weaponized. That’s not yet done.

RAY SUAREZ: The journalists from KSTP say that after they were there with the American forces in this arms dump, they looked around for a while and left with the soldiers and didn’t leave a part of that force behind. How does that match with what was done in other ammo dumps around Iraq?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, there are some 10,000 weapons caches that have been found in Iraq. And in the wake of the invasion, many nights we had helicopters up and guys onboard with night vision goggles watching these ammo dumps being looted.

There were simply not enough troops around that country to protect secure these explosives and the ammunition. I don’t think what happened at al Qaqaa is any different than what happened at all of the other sites across Iraq.

RAY SUAREZ: Mark Thompson, thanks for being with us.