There has been a lot of speculation about what Iraq-related events could affect the presidential race in the last week. Would heavy U.S. military action against insurgents help Bush? Heavy U.S. casualties hurt him? Would Bush pull Zarqawi out of a hat and declare victory? Well, on this Monday morning, Bush is being forced to contend with Iraq news he probably didn't expect -- news that underlines the Kerry campaign's assessment that he makes a mess out of everything he touches. The front page New York Times story about the disappearance of 380 tons of munitions from a military installation in Iraq, despite warnings from the IAEA that the site needed security, is the Democrats' ammunition du jour.
Talk of the missing munitions was the first thing out of Howard Dean's mouth on CNN this morning. And John Kerry wove it into his stump speech at a rally in New Hampshire, saying: "George W. Bush, who talks tough -- talks tough -- and brags about making America safer has once again failed to deliver after being warned about the danger of major stockpiles of munitions in Iraq; this president failed to guard those stockpiles ... Today we learned these explosives are missing, unaccounted for and potentially in the hands of terrorists. Now we know our troops are less safe because this president failed to do the basics. ... This administration has put our troops at risk and this country at greater risk than we oughta be."
Indeed, the Kerry camp has been all over this since last night. We got a mass e-mailed statement from Joe Lockhart time-stamped at 1:15 a.m., and pasted below. (Note the dig at Condi Rice at the end. She is behind the curve on this national security problem, having just learned of the missing munitions in the last month, yet has been completely on top of campaigning for Bush's reelection.)
"Kerry-Edwards Senior Advisor Joe Lockhart issued the following statement on reports of missing explosives in Iraq:
"Today, the Bush administration must answer for what may be the most grave and catastrophic mistake in a tragic series of blunders in Iraq. How did they fail to secure nearly 380 tons of known, deadly explosives despite clear warnings from the International Atomic Energy Agency to do so? And why was this information unearthed by reporters -- and was it covered up by our national security officials?"
"These explosives can be used to blow up airplanes, level buildings, attack our troops and detonate nuclear weapons. The Bush administration knew where this stockpile was, but took no action to secure the site. They were urgently and specifically informed that terrorists could be helping themselves to the most dangerous explosives bonanza in history, but nothing was done to prevent it from happening."
"This material was monitored and controlled by UN inspectors before the invasion of Iraq. Thanks to the stunning incompetence of the Bush administration, we now have no idea where it is."
"We need to know what the administration knew about this and when. We need to know why they failed to safeguard these explosives and keep them out of the hands of our enemies. The National Security Advisor should be at her desk in Washington tomorrow to work this problem and answer these questions, instead of giving speeches in battleground states."
[UPDATE: Josh Marshall has more on the Iraq munitions story, pointing out that Iraqi officials say they warned Paul Bremer about the missing explosives back in May, while he was still the head of the U.S. occupation authority and before the "handover" of sovereignty to Iraq. It's unclear whom he told about the disappeared tons of munitions -- but the IAEA was not told while the U.S. was in power, and according to the Nelson Report, the Bush administration pressured the Iraqis to also not tell the IAEA.]