Brown 2004 Bremer Report On Al Qaqaa

Brown: 2004 Bremer Report on al-Qaqaa Looting

Professor Nathan Brown of George Washington University writes:


In the dispute between the Kerry campaign and the Bush administration over the disappearance of explosives at al-Qaqaa, the core of the Bush defense is that we don’t know when the explosives disappeared; it could have happened before American troops arrived. President Bush stated today: “Our military is now investigating a number of possible scenarios, including that the explosives may have been moved before our troops even arrived at the site. This investigation is important and it’s ongoing, and a political candidate who jumps to conclusions without knowing the facts is not a person you want as your commander in chief.”

I have to admit that I am unsure why this is a defense. If the investigation is so important, why is it still ongoing? One CPA document (discussed below) makes clear that the extent of looting has been known—not merely suspected but documented and evaluated—for some time. The reason we don’t know when the explosives disappeared is that we were not securing or monitoring the site. In other words, our lack of knowledge about the date of the disappearance is itself an indication that nobody was watching one of the most important military production sites in the country. Thus, to proclaim now that we don’t know what happened is not evidence of an open mind; it is evidence of an open barn door. Why did Bush wait until October 2004 to look into the matter? The 18 ½-month gap is no more to Bush’s credit than the 18 ½-minute gap was to Nixon’s. It is the absence of evidence that is the problem.

But the absence of evidence is not evidence of absent-mindedness. There were people who said a year and a half ago that this needed attention. In particular, the IAEA was trying to examine the site from the very end of the war. We barred them. In other words, the failure to monitor was not an oversight but a policy decision. It may have been partly based on the size of the American force, but it was also based on an ideological hostility to the United Nations.

Actually, we do know a little bit more than has been reported. But the little evidence we do have hardly supports the Bush case. What has been widely reported is that during and immediately after the war, some American military units and journalists briefly visited the site. What has not been reported is that on 15 April 2004—a year after the war—CPA head Paul Bremer issued a regulation transferring the employees of some military industries to various parts of the Iraqi government. I assume the point was to ensure that these critical people would get paid and not defect to the insurgents. That regulation can be viewed here.

Annex A to the regulation mentions al-Qaqaa (see p. 3 of the annex) and the extent of damage and looting there. 37% of the buildings were destroyed and fully 85% of its machines were destroyed or looted.

In other words, the place was very utterly trashed as of this past April, a year into the Iraqi occupation.

What does this have to do with the flap between Bush and Kerry? Well, it seems to me that if damage to equipment was so remarkably extensive—with the vast majority of the equipment ripped out or destroyed—any of the military units or journalists visiting in April 2003 should have noticed it even in a cursory examination. One of the accounts (by Fred Wellman, a former spokesman for the 101st Airborne Division’s 2nd Brigade) does indeed mention that looting was underway on April 9. This was roughly when the Iraqi regime disintegrated and the looting began, so the observation makes sense. Looting was not mentioned in the accounts of the first American visit to the site, the previous week. I do not know how long it takes to loot such a site so thoroughly (according the original NY Times story, the looting was still going on quite recently), but it seems that almost all of it occurred during the period of the American occupation. When the explosives were taken cannot be ascertained from this. But we seem to have evidence that virtually everything at the site—even the stuff that was nailed down—was taken while it was under our nominal control.

- Nathan Brown