Forget Ernest Hemingway, Where's the RDX?
A Review of the Duelfer Report

November 13, 2004

Comment #530

Forget Ernest Hemingway, Where's the RDX?

By Werther*

November 13, 2004; Revised November 15, 2004

The Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq's WMD is commonly called "The Duelfer Report," after its director, Charles Duelfer. This long (966 page) three-volume report is the U.S. Government's final word on whether the government of Iraq under Saddam Hussein was pursuing chemical, nuclear, and biological weapons, as well as ballistic missiles of prohibited type and range.

Given the manifest political pressure from their superiors to document evidence of prohibited weapons programs, the report's authors spared no effort or expense. For 16 months, 1,500 U.S. and British inspectors searched Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction. The team was called the Iraq Survey Group. The cost of the search by these 1,500 personnel was $600 million. [1]

As the world now knows in abundant detail, the team found no evidence of the prohibited articles. But what illuminates the policy making process in the United States Government is the elephantine manner in which the report grudgingly comes to that conclusion.

As such, the report attempts to make lemonade out of lemons by providing long-winded "context" for the absence of any actual evidence of prohibited weaponry. The document – which ought to be first and foremost a painstaking inventory of physical evidence of weaponry – takes several lengthy detours into secondary or even irrelevant matters, as will be seen below.

It also displays a symptom of what appears to be a growing tendency of government documents that attempt to rationalize away the stupidity or misfeasance of government officials: the curse of "fine writing." Like its sister effort in alibi-making, the 9/11 Commission Report, [2] the Duelfer opus swathes inconvenient facts in the soft bandages of English Lit. Therefore, the paramount question – did Saddam Hussein develop weaponry banned by United Nations resolutions – recedes before a psychoanalytic portrait of a fiend in human form who obviously intended to get those weapons, regardless of the evidence to the contrary.

The report even hilariously quotes Ernest Hemingway (more an expert on the drinking emporia of Havana than contemporary Middle Eastern developments, surely) in order to illuminate the Beast of Baghdad's singular personality. It is as if in 1945, British Intelligence had dispatched a team of technical experts to defeated Germany for a report on the state of German rocketry and received instead a character study of Hitler. [3]

Such focus on Saddam is not merely misleading to the public who had a right to expect a dispassionate inventory of facts, it is also delusory in that it confirms the American governing class's obsession with demon figures as opposed to an acceptance of the fact that the current state system inevitably involves nations with clashing interests. The American equation of [fill in the blank with favorite dictator here] with Hitler not only allows the Washington elites to dupe themselves and the public that military action is not merely necessary but morally compulsory; it also fools them into thinking the "natives" will be properly grateful for having their property invaded and their houses bombed.

Likewise one senses that the report team's innumerable interviews with Iraqi scientists, military leaders, and government bureaucrats yielded rather less than claimed. It is certainly possible that the Nuremberg Syndrome revealed itself in the witnesses’ eagerness to say that they were mere putty in the hands of the capricious tyrant Saddam. If such were the case, lower level culpability would of course be conveniently removed. And since Saddam was maniacally secretive, it becomes impossible to prove he wasn't thinking about obtaining WMD. In a legal case, this would be the equivalent of the prosecutor going to enormous lengths to establish an alleged perpetrator's motives when there was no physical evidence a crime had been committed.

Another diversionary theme of the report is its hectoring reportage of the Saddam Hussein government's attempts to evade or legally end sanctions. This theme scratches numerous ideological itches, including: (1) the alleged futility of sanctions, particularly under the auspices of the U.N., as an alternative to pre-emptive military invasions; (2) the corruption of the U.N. itself as a convenient counterpoint to copious evidence of fraud and mismanagement by U.S. military contractors in Iraq; (3) the inherent perfidy of foreign governments, particularly the French. The ideological utility of these themes is apparent from Fox News's Herculean labors to make the oil for food program into the latest Whitewater scandal. Needless to say, Duelfer edited out the names of American companies that were violating sanctions in collusion with Saddam. It is certainly a refreshing precedent that, Patriot Act or no, the administration is showing a keen regard for privacy issues. [4]

So much for what the Duelfer Report covers, at numbing and Joycean length. What the report does not cover is also illuminating. It is true that Iraq's 377 metric tons of Cyclotrimethylenetrinitramine [RDX] and High Melting Point Explosive [HMX] that have gone missing – presumably by looting – are not chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. They are, however, one of four or five essential components in triggering nuclear weapons: HMX was developed specifically for that purpose, because its high energy would allow both a smaller nuclear weapon package and in order to trigger fission more efficiently.

Given that the insurgents in Iraq are making some pretty energetic bombs that are light and concealable (lugging low explosive to a site under cover and making a mine big enough to damage an Abrams tank is a lot more difficult than using stable, concealable plastic explosive) one can apply Occam's Razor and conclude that RDX and HMX were looted by insurgents and have been used locally ever since.

The big question is whether the explosives have leaked out internationally. The twin airplane disaster in Russia was probably plastique. If President Vladimir Putin were actually collaborating with Muslims to move plastic explosives around the world, as alleged by John Shaw, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense [5] it would be suicidally stupid of him.

One suspects that the author of the piece on Shaw's allegations, Washington Times reporter Bill Gertz, is effectively acting as Charlie McCarthy to the neoconservative faction's Edgar Bergen in a desperate attempt to muddy the waters. And Charles Duelfer's own comment that the looting of the plastic explosives was no big deal because it's only a small percentage of the explosives in pre-war Iraq is equally transparent and devoid of logic. It is the equivalent of saying the U.S. has an inventory of 10,000 nukes and who cares if a half dozen go missing

Granted, RDX and HMX are not nukes, but they are among the most energetic non-nuclear explosives. In addition to triggering fission in a nuclear warhead, they are also non-metallic, moldable, do not smell, and are stable in transport; i.e., they can probably go through most standard detectors. Less than a pound brought down the Boeing 747 over Lockerbie. The amount missing from the Iraq inventory would make approximately 800,000 Lockerbie bombs.

The reaction of the U.S. Government to the explosives looting – a mixture of nonchalant indifference, prickly defensiveness, and diversionary accusations – is particularly insulting given the security stakes involved. The government's own efforts to ban truck traffic on the streets proximate to key locations in Washington, D.C. and some other cities (in order to prevent a Tim McVeigh-style use of tons of low explosives in a truck) are potentially defeated by the availability of a much more energetic explosive, 50 lbs. of which could be hidden in a smaller vehicle.

The Duelfer Report's handling of the explosives fiasco is depressing. Volume I of the report makes on page 81 an incidental mention of RDX as one of several types of explosives that Iraqi Intelligence could use for covert assassinations. Oddly, though, the report's authors, who were otherwise so free with supposition about Iraqi intentions in other matters, did not surmise that this kind of tactic could be transferable to non-state actors, and that securing the stockpile was an urgent priority. The volume makes no mention of HMX.

In Volume II, on pages 14, 16, and 96, the report states that the composition of some Iraqi missile warheads was 30 percent RDX. There is no mention of HMX.

In Volume III on page 237 (page 11 of the glossary), the acronym RDX is defined. There is no mention in that volume of HMX.

By contrast, the much derided (or ignored) January 2003 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] on the state of Iraq's WMD is a model of concision: it contains all of 16 pages. [6] Yet this report, while economizing on literary quotations and psychoanalytic portraits, contains two substantive paragraphs on plastic explosives which I reproduce in full below with paragraph numbering as in the original:

2. HMX

53. The relocation and consumption of HMX (a high explosive of potential use in nuclear weapons), as described in Iraq's backlog of semi-annual declarations, has been investigated by the IAEA. In those declarations, Iraq stated that, between 1998 and 2002, it had transferred 32 of the 228 tonnes of HMX which had been under IAEA seal as of December 1998 to other locations. In addition, Iraq stated that a very small quantity (46 kg) of HMX had been used at munitions factories for research and development. At the request of the IAEA, Iraq has provided further clarification on the movement and use of the HMX. In that clarification, Iraq indicated that the 32 tonnes of HMX had been blended with sulphur to produce industrial explosives and provided mainly to cement plants for quarrying, and that the research and development using the small quantity of HMX had been in the areas of personnel mines, explosives in civilian use, missile warhead filling and research on tanks.

54. IAEA inspectors have been able to verify and re-seal the remaining balance of approximately 196 tonnes of HMX, most of which has remained at the original storage location. The movement of the blended HMX and the other small quantity of HMX has also been documented by Iraq. However, it has not been possible to verify the use of those materials, as all of it is said to have been consumed through explosions and there are no immediately available technical means for verifying such uses. The IAEA will continue to investigate means of verifying the Iraqi statements about the use of the HMX and blended HMX.

It is nice to know that with only $600 million and a thousand pages at their disposal, the loyal servants of the American people are almost up to the standards of a 16-page U.N.-sponsored report written in haste while Saddam was still in control of Iraq.

The distressing saga of the looted plastic explosive, and the government's studied incompetence and denial in dealing with the issue, illustrate in bold, primary colors how Washington's elites squander the public's money to make us all less safe while at the same time coercing the bureaucracy to write bogus reports justifying their actions.


As expenditures for the conquest and occupation of Iraq approach $200 billion, Time magazine reports that the rate of illegal immigration into the United States has actually increased since September 11, 2001. [7] And now that the election is over, the administration's proposal to amnesty up to 10 million illegal aliens is back on the table – a proposal which Customs and Border Protection agents say has already stimulated an increased flow of illegal immigration.

Consider carefully what your government is doing: (1) by besieging foreign towns like a medieval army, it is providing the anti-American motive to millions of people who were heretofore favorable or indifferent to the United States and its people; (2) by following the crackpot military theories of Donald Rumsfeld – thereby providing too few troops to guard munitions depots (but not the oil ministry) – it has provided the means for those angry millions to take revenge upon us; and (3) by leaving our border open so as to reward Wal-Mart, agribusiness, and other interests who show their gratitude in the form of political contributions, it is providing the opportunity for those vengeful persons to strike in the homeland of their enemy.

If, God forbid, such a fearful scenario eventuates, we can be sure that an aspiring Tom Keane or Charles Duelfer will be summoned from the bench to explain in beautiful prose that it wasn't the government's fault.

* Werther is the pen name of a Northern Virginia based defense analyst.


[1] This was the amount budgeted for the purpose in the fiscal year 2004 Iraq supplemental appropriation (P.L. 108-106).

[2] Literary connoisseurs were so taken by the 9/11 Report's description of the blue of the sky that they failed to notice that nowhere in the report's 567 pages is any individual in government condemned for nonfeasance, misfeasance, or malfeasance, nor is any removal for cause recommended.

[3] Which is in fact what the British got: MI6 operative and historian Hugh Trevor-Roper's The Last Days of Hitler has enough Wagnerian Sturm und Drang for the most jaded palate. Alas, Lord Trevor-Roper's expertise did not prevent him from pronouncing the fake Hitler diaries as genuine during the 1980s.

[4] To spare the reader the suspense, the American companies whose names were blacked out in the report are Chevron, Mobil, Texaco and Bay Oil as well as three individuals: Oscar S. Wyatt Jr. of Houston, Samir Vincent of Annandale, Virginia, and Shakir al-Khafaji of West Bloomfield, Michigan. These companies and individuals were given vouchers and got 111 million barrels of oil between them from 1996 to 2003. The vouchers allowed them to profit by selling the oil or the right to trade it.

[5] "Russia Tied to Iraq's Missing Arms," The Washington Times, 28 October 2004.

[6] The report is available online here:

[7] "Who Left the Door Open?" Time, 20 September 2004.

Chuck Spinney

"A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives." - James Madison, from a letter to W.T. Barry, August 4, 1822

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