Wednesday, October 27, 2004

In the final days leading up to the election, John Kerry has decided to attack our troops for incompetence. He had a little help courtesy of International Atomic Energy Agency’s Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei and the New York Times, which has been running Democratic talking points for months now. To wit, on Monday the NYT reported that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq failed to safeguard a weapons cache at a military installation near Baghdad.

Before the war, the IAEA had monitored the 380 tons of high-grade explosives at al Qaqaa for years, last checking on it three weeks before the invasion. The very morning the story hit the paper, John Kerry took to the stump to talk about the “incredible incompetence of this president and this administration,” just as his campaign was busy making a TV ad about the story. Meanwhile, Internet bloggers began asking the question that the NYT reporters had not: How did someone, presumably a band of insurgents, cart away 380 tons (760,000 pounds) of material right under the nose of the coalition, which had land and air superiority? Answer: The explosives most likely were taken before the coalition invaded. As the NYT itself noted, it would have taken a fleet of 40 trucks carrying 10 tons each to move all 380 tons.

By Monday night, the story was already falling apart. NBC News reported that evening that its embedded reporters, who were traveling with the 101st Airborne as it rolled into al Qaqaa on April 10, 2003, didn’t see any explosives under IAEA seal. On Tuesday, the NYT ignored this report and instead ran a front-page story with this lead: “The White House sought on Monday to explain the disappearance of 380 tons of high explosives in Iraq that American forces were supposed to secure, as Senator John Kerry seized on the missing cache as ‘one of the great blunders of Iraq’.”

Never mind the facts, the story is now a campaign issue that the president must answer for.

Amid mounting pressure, the NYT reported yesterday that the commander of the 101st Airborne unit that supposedly searched the installation said his unit never conducted an investigation. Crack reporting, it was just a little late: Those pesky bloggers had already dug up a CBS News story from April 4, 2003, which reported that the Third Infantry Division beat the 101st to Al Qaqaa, conducted a search and didn’t find anything under IAEA seal either. As the Pentagon said on Tuesday, the 75th Exploitation Task Force searched all 32 bunkers at al Qaqaa on May 8, 2003, and found no IAEA marked material.

So what’s going on here? In a word, politics. In early October, the IAEA’s Mr. ElBaradei suddenly demanded that the Iraqi interim government account for the explosives at al Qaqaa. After monitoring the cache for a decade (and a year and a half after the fall of Baghdad), Mr. ElBaradei says he now wants answers. This of course has nothing at all to do with the U.S.-led opposition to Mr. ElBaradei’s hope for a third term as director-general, as reported by Agence France Presse in late September. It appears that from the IAEA on down to the New York Times and CBS News, which planned to run the story on Oct. 31, the whole point behind the missing-cache story was to create an “October Surprise” on the eve of the election.

The fact that 380 tons of dangerous explosives are missing is serious. Yet, as the Duelfer report noted, the United States has destroyed 240,000 tons of explosives and marked 160,000 more for destruction. The al Qaqaa cache represents less than 1 percent of the explosives we know Saddam Hussein had before the war. If that success represents incompetence, we need more of it.

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