"Thousands and thousands of potential terrorist attacks"

A top nuclear-proliferation expert says that the Bush administration's failure to safeguard almost 380 tons of high-tech explosives "borders on criminal negligence."

By Mark Follman
Published October 26, 2004 7:31PM (EDT)

It could prove to be the "October surprise" that nobody anticipated. While election watchers have speculated that the Bush campaign could announce the capture of Osama bin Laden or terrorist ringleader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the final week of the presidential race instead opened with a bombshell report that a huge cache of sophisticated explosives in Iraq had vanished and likely fallen into the hands of insurgents or terrorists.

Late Sunday, the New York Times reported that nearly 760,000 pounds of the explosive compounds HMX and RDX had disappeared from Saddam Hussein's al-Qaqaa weapons depot -- even though the United States had known that the site contained vast amounts of the high-tech explosives. American officials could not explain why they failed to guard the depot.

Joseph Cirincione, director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the destructive consequences of the administration's failure to secure the site could be almost incalculable. "This is thousands and thousands of potential terrorist attacks," Cirincione told Salon. "It's like they knocked off the Fort Knox of explosives."

Cirincione says that the Bush administration's desire to "punish" the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, was partly responsible for the disaster. "This is where the ideology of the administration has really hurt U.S. national security," he says. "The administration didn't like the inspection reports they were getting out of the IAEA before the war, and they were determined to punish and humiliate them."

Monday, the Bush administration downplayed the threat posed by the missing explosives and tried to shift the responsibility for safeguarding them to the Iraqi military. White House spokesman Scott McClellan pointed to the "more than 243,000 [tons of] munitions" already destroyed by U.S. forces. "The sites now are really ... the responsibility of the Iraqi forces," he added.

<But, as Cirincione notes, the warnings about the stockpile of explosives from the IAEA came long before the transfer of power from the Coalition Provisional Authority to the interim Iraqi government. It remains unclear when the site was actually looted.

On Monday, the Kerry campaign called the explosives debacle "one of the great blunders of [the Bush] administration" and another demonstration of the White House's "stunning incompetence and their incomprehensible failure to plan" for the postwar phase.

Cirincione says that the report of the missing explosives in Iraq, where violence escalated again over the weekend, could have a major impact at the voting booth next week, especially if it turned out that the materials are behind many of the attacks carried out on U.S. troops.

Cirincione spoke to Salon by phone Monday from his office in Washington.

Thus far the Bush administration hasn't offered much of an explanation for how this could have happened. How and why do you think the U.S. failed to secure these explosives?

That this happened is simply inexcusable. The administration knew the material was there. The IAEA warned them before the war. In their public statements to the U.N. Security Council on Jan. 29, 2003, the IAEA noted that there were over 200 tons of HMX stored in Iraq. They continued to warn the administration privately after the war began, about the need to secure it.

The administration knew it was there. Why didn't they do anything about it? It was arrogance. I think you have to say that this is not incompetence as much as it is arrogance. They simply did not believe that they were going to have an insurgent or terrorist problem after taking the country. Even when the insurgency began, apparently there was no effort to try to go back and secure these materials.

We don't know yet if HMX and RDX are behind the roadside bombs that are going off almost daily in Iraq. We've been told that they were artillery shells or other munitions, which is certainly possible. But now that we know that nearly 380 tons of this material was stolen, it seems that this is the most likely use for it by insurgents. It's lightweight, it's highly insensitive, so it can be kicked around without it detonating, it can be pressed into a variety of shapes -- it's ideal for the kinds of terrorist attacks U.S. troops and Iraqis have been experiencing.

An unnamed senior Bush administration official told the Times on Sunday that U.S. forces passed through the site during the initial race to Baghdad, and "went through the bunkers, but saw no materials bearing the IAEA seal." Apparently they left it behind and did not return. What do you make of that decision?

If in fact we learn that the bomb attacks that are killing U.S. troops almost daily are being carried out with this material, it borders on criminal negligence that the administration did not secure this material when they had the chance.

The administration knew about this material and was explicitly warned about its dangers. They did not dispose of or guard it, and I think we are likely to discover that as a result, American troops are now dying.

This now turns everyone to the question of, What kind of material was being used in all these bomb attacks, including the really powerful ones like attack on the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad last fall? I'm not aware of any public mention of HMX or RDX in previous stories about the bomb attacks in Iraq, but I'm sure that as of today a lot of people are going to be asking what was being used.

A key question here is, Have U.S. officials known all along that these were the explosives that they were dealing with? People need to go back to Bush officials and start asking some hard questions about what kinds of explosives have been used.

And how does this all play into the threat of nuclear proliferation, and the specter of nuclear weapons getting into the hands of terrorists?

Making a nuclear weapon is complicated and you need a long list of ingredients. This stuff is one of them. If you have it, it makes your shopping list shorter. It's not the most essential ingredient -- obviously that's the plutonium or highly enriched uranium -- but after that, this material certainly makes the list of the top five ingredients that you need to make a nuclear weapon. It's used for detonation, to compress the material -- and because it's insensitive, it's especially useful: If you accidentally drop the bomb, it won't go off, which is a nice feature to have.

What do you make of the Bush administration's response to this news? And where is former Coalition authority Paul Bremer on it? Why aren't we hearing anything from him? Clearly he knew about this problem well before the transition of power -- the Times reported that numerous Iraqi officials warned him about potential looting of the Al Qaqaa site last May.

All the CPA and Bush officials are ducking and hiding on this and changing the subject. The administration has proved remarkably adept at shirking responsibility for anything that's gone wrong with the war and framing everything as a question of resolve and strength, rather than blame or accountability. The Bush administration hasn't admitted to being mistaken about anything. Why should they start now?

Why did Bush keep the IAEA out after they knew that this site could be a big problem?

This is where the ideology of the administration has really hurt U.S. national security. They wanted to make a point that they didn't need international inspections or the help of international authorities, that the U.S. could do it alone or in cooperation with its few selected Coalition partners who would play along. They rebuffed repeated IAEA requests to come in and help account for and secure the nuclear materials. Now we're suffering the price.

There was no security or logistical reason why the administration couldn't have let the IAEA back in -- it was ideology. The administration didn't like the inspection reports they were getting out of the IAEA before the war and they were determined to punish and humiliate them.

As it turns out, the IAEA was absolutely correct in its reports on Iraq before the war. The U.N. intelligence was far better than the U.S. intelligence. They got it right. We should've listened.

In terms of conventional weapons use, much of the focus right now is on how the looted materials from Al Qaqaa can be used against U.S. and Iraqi forces. But what about beyond that, in the hands of terrorists?

This material is ideally suited for a wide range of terrorist attacks. For example, it's very hard to detect through the standard airport security measures. It's non-metallic and fairly odorless. This is one of the reasons it was used in the Pan Am plane bombing.

I mean, you worry about the availability of this material in order: First, against U.S. and Iraqi government forces. Second, pounds or maybe even tons of it could be smuggled out of the country to attack U.S. bases and installations in the Middle East region. And third, it can be used in attacks against airplanes, office buildings and shopping malls.

And what is the scope of the problem in terms of the quantity of material that's missing?

Look, a couple of pounds of this stuff can cause a very large explosion. A small amount of this material brought aboard an airplane in the cargo hold, or in a carry-on bag, could blow a plane out of the sky. And we're talking about almost 380 tons of it. This is thousands and thousands of potential terrorist attacks. It's like they knocked off the Fort Knox of explosives. And they didn't have to work very hard to do it.

The administration failed to keep this problem quiet ahead of the election, but what else do you think we should be worried about that we don't yet know of?

Well, there could be all kinds of things! For example, there are still unanswered questions about the nuclear material from Tuwaitha [one of Saddam's main sites for developing nuclear equipment and materials]. We don't know where that went, either.

Is there reason to believe that there are a lot more problems like this that the administration isn't talking about?

Well, like Rumsfeld says, "We don't know what we don't know." But they've been peppered with questions about the nuclear sites, and they've just dodged them all along. We don't know what happened to a lot of the material from those places, some of which could certainly be usable in so-called dirty bombs. They are highly radioactive materials that could be used mixed in with conventional explosives -- such as RDX or HMX -- and dispersed over a wide area.

Do you think the news of this missing stockpile of explosives will have an impact on the last week of the presidential campaign?

It most certainly could, especially if it becomes clear that many of the explosions that have been killing U.S. troops have been caused by this material. That could really hurt President Bush's reelection chances, because it would be such a clear and dramatic example of how the mismanagement of the war has made the situation much worse than it might otherwise have been.

It's one thing if insurgents have been making bombs from artillery shells or munitions that they could've gotten from a hundred other sites. But it's something altogether different for them to have gotten possession of some of the most sophisticated explosives material ever made -- and in vast quantities. And to do so after U.S. forces had been warned about this and apparently had gone to the site and seen the material and still done nothing about it.

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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