Four years after invading Iraq, the U.S. military still does not know how many tons of explosives were stolen from the country’s massive prewar stockpiles or how many weapons caches remain unsecured, according to a government audit made public Thursday.
Many of the looted munitions have since made their way into the roadside bombs and other improvised explosive devices responsible for the bulk of U.S. troop deaths in Iraq.
The Government Accountability Office report cites a lack of manpower, inadequate planning and misplaced priorities in the military’s failure to account for and immediately secure weapons during and after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The number of unaccounted-for munitions “could range significantly from thousands to millions of tons,” says an unclassified version of the report released at a congressional hearing.
The report warns that some weapons stockpiles still may be vulnerable to looting and could fall into the hands of insurgents and terrorists. As recently as October, government investigators could not confirm that all weapons sites had been physically secured, and said that there apparently had been no nationwide tally by the Defense Department.
“Such an assessment ... would assist [the department] in conserving lives and resources, and avoiding or mitigating unnecessary risks,” the GAO report’s primary author, Davi M. D’Agostino, testified at the hearing.
The report pins particular blame on several prewar assumptions that turned out to be incorrect, including a belief that Iraqi resistance would be short-lived and that Iraqi forces would immediately provide security.
It also faults the Pentagon for not setting up a program to manage and destroy conventional munitions until well after major combat operations were declared over. The military has destroyed more than 417,000 tons of munitions since the summe r of 2003 at a cost of more than $1 billion, according to the report.
A retired general involved in prewar planning told the panel he agreed that U.S. action on the munitions was inadequate.
“The GAO report is exactly right,” said retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Gregory S. Newbold, who was director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff from October 2000 to October 2002. He left the service partly in protest over the planning for the war. “A combination of the vacuum left by planning and inadequate forces fostered the insurgency. Combined with the unguarded munitions storage sites, you had the ingredients that put us where we are today.”
However, Newbold backed away from a GAO recommendation for a nationwide survey of weapons sites, saying it would only add to the “bloated bureaucracy” in Iraq.
At a Pentagon news conference, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates acknowledged that the military was having difficulty securing Iraqi munitions dumps, but said officers overseeing the military’s efforts to counter roadside bombs believed they had all the resources needed to develop countermeasures.
“Fundamentally, the entire country was one big ammo dump,” Gates said. “We’re doing our best to try and find them, but given the expanse of the country and all the other tasks which the military is trying to carry out there, it’s a huge task.”
The Pentagon declined to send officials to testify at the hearing. The Pentagon wrote the GAO about the report, saying the findings “are not new and military commanders in theater are aware of this issue.”
Victor Rostow, the Pentagon official who wrote the letter, said the GAO’s recommendation of a countrywide survey to locate unsecured weapons “is not feasible” without cutting into other war efforts. Rostow is currently on leave from the Pentagon and could not be reached for additional comment.
Lawmakers from both parties, as well as Newbold, expressed frustration that Pentagon officials had not responded to congressional requests to comment on the report. Rep. John F. Tierney (D-Mass.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee that held the hearing, threatened to subpoena Defense Department officials to compel them to testify.
“This seems to be another example of the administration basically thumbing its nose at Congress,” said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.). Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), meanwhile, expressed his “deep disappointment that representatives of the Department of Defense declined to appear.”
Times staff writer Peter Spiegel contributed to this report.