October 29, 2004

October 29, 2004 | Commentary on Middle East

The Case of the Missing Explosives

In the immortal words of Alfred E. Neuman, "What, me worry?"


The New York Times
created quite a stir on Oct. 25 when it reported that 380 tons of powerful explosives had disappeared from a storage site in Iraq. John Kerry immediately seized on the story, launching an ad that blamed President Bush and assuring Americans, "As president, I'll bring a fresh start to protect our troops and our nation."


But it's difficult to understand what all the fuss is about.


After all, even though Kerry wants to blame Bush for the missing explosives, they seem to have been missing before the coalition invaded Iraq. Let's review the timeline of the now infamous al Qaqaa weapons-storage facility:


In 1991 the International Atomic Energy Agency sealed storage bunkers that contained the high explosives HMX and RDX. They apparently remained in place until January 2003, when, shortly before the allied invasion, agency inspectors checked and resealed them.


Some time in March 2003, inspectors viewed the sealed explosives at al Qaqaa for the final time before pulling out of the country.


The site was first visited by American troops on April 3, when the 3rd Infantry Division secured it. The soldiers knew they were at a weapons facility and searched it carefully.


According to a CBS News report at the time, they "found thousands of boxes, each of which contained three vials of white powder, together with documents written in Arabic that dealt with how to engage in chemical warfare." But no mention of tons of high explosives, which certainly would have stood out.


On April 10, 2003 -- just one day after Baghdad fell, the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division took charge of al Qaqaa. An NBC News crew was embedded with those soldiers. That network noted that they also found plenty of conventional explosives -- but no HMX or RDX.


In fact, these explosives must have disappeared long before April. Remember, we're talking about hundreds of tons of explosives. One couldn't exactly smuggle them out in a shopping cart; it would require a fleet of trucks.


Reporter Lai Ling Jew was with the troops at al Qaqaa in April, and noted that roads were so crowded with military vehicles, "it would have been very difficult, I believe, for the looters to get there."


However, others could have carted the explosives away during the weeks between the final inspection and the actual invasion. We know truckloads of equipment were shipped from Iraq to Syria during the months-long long run-up to war, a period Kerry calls the "rush to war." Maybe these controversial explosives were on some of those trucks.


Also, let's consider why these dangerous explosives -- which we are now assured could be used against American troops -- hadn't been destroyed sometime between 1991 and 2003. The sad fact is that Saddam Hussein argued, as The New York Times put it, that Iraq "should be allowed to keep them for eventual use in mining and civilian construction," and the United Nations agreed.


So, under the eagle eyes of the U.N., these explosives were preserved when they could have been destroyed.


Oh, and by the way: If this cache of HMX and RDX really is dangerous, that would seem to refute another piece of Kerry's case against the president --
his insistence that Bush "misled" Americans about Iraq's weapons program.


To review: The senator who voted for the $87 billion before he voted against it now blames the president for losing explosives that were already gone when the war began. Explosives that could have been used in a program the senator also says never existed. Interesting. 


As Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the IAEA, put it, "Our immediate concern is that if the explosives did fall into the wrong hands, they could be used to commit terrorist acts and some of the bombings that we've seen." Well, if they made their way into terrorist hands, it happened during the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. So the only way to prevent future such distributions was to invade Iraq and disarm him.


Kerry has frequently opined that Iraq was merely "a profound diversion from the war on terrorism," rather than an important front in that war. So, using Kerry's logic, it seems unlikely that any weapons taken before April 2003 would have ended up in the hands of terrorists. So, this whole thing is really just a tempest in a teapot.


There. I feel better. Don't you?


Ed Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office