Fearing nuclear peril, U.S. closes Web site

November 03, 2006|By New York Times News Service

In March, the federal government set up a Web site to make public a vast archive of Iraqi documents captured during the war.

The Bush administration did so under pressure from congressional Republicans who said they hoped to "leverage the Internet" to find new evidence of the dangers posed by Saddam Hussein before the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

But in recent weeks, the site has posted documents that weapons experts say present a danger themselves: detailed accounts of Iraq's secret nuclear research before the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The documents, the experts say, constitute a basic guide to building a nuclear bomb.

Last night, the government shut down the Web site after The New York Times asked about complaints from weapons experts and arms-control officials.

A spokesman for the director of national intelligence said access to the site had been suspended "pending a review to ensure its content is appropriate for public viewing."

Officials of the International Atomic Energy Agency, fearing that the information could help nations such as Iran develop nuclear arms, protested privately last week to the U.S. ambassador to the agency, said European diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity. One diplomat said the agency's technical experts were shocked by the public disclosures.

The dozen or so documents contain charts, diagrams, equations and lengthy narratives about bomb-building that the nuclear experts say go beyond what is available elsewhere on the Internet and in other public forums.

For instance, the papers give detailed information on how to build nuclear firing circuits and triggering explosives, and information on the radioactive cores of nuclear bombs.

"For the U.S. to toss a match into this flammable area is very irresponsible," said A. Bryan Siebert, a former director of classification at the federal Department of Energy, which runs the nation's nuclear arms program. "There's a lot of things about nuclear weapons that are secret and should remain so."

The government had received earlier warnings about the contents of the Web site. In the spring, after the site began posting old Iraqi documents about chemical weapons, United Nations arms-control officials in New York won the withdrawal of a report that gave information on how to make tabun and sarin, nerve agents that kill by causing respiratory failure.

The campaign for the online archive came from conservative publications and politicians, who argued that the nation's spy agencies had failed to analyze adequately the 48,000 boxes of documents seized in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion.

With the public increasingly skeptical about the rationale for and conduct of the war, the chairmen of the House and Senate intelligence committees told the Bush administration that wide analysis and translation of the documents - most of them in Arabic - would reinvigorate the search for evidence that Hussein had resumed his unconventional arms programs in the years before the invasion.

U.S. search teams never found such evidence in Iraq.

The director of national intelligence, John D. Negroponte, had resisted establishing the Web site, which some intelligence officials felt implicitly raised questions about the competence and judgment of government analysts. But President Bush approved the site's creation after congressional Republicans proposed legislation to force the documents' release.

In a statement last night, Negroponte's spokesman, Chad Kolton, said, "While strict criteria had already been established to govern posted documents, the material currently on the Web site, as well as the procedures used to post new documents, will be carefully reviewed before the site becomes available again."

The Web site, "Operation Iraqi Freedom Document Portal," was a constantly expanding portrait of prewar Iraq. Its many thousands of documents included things as varied as a collection of religious and nationalistic poetry, instructions for the repair and maintenance of parachutes and handwritten notes from Hussein's intelligence service.

Among the dozens of documents in English were Iraqi reports written in the 1990s and in 2002 for U.N. inspectors in charge of making sure Iraq abandoned its unconventional arms programs after the Persian Gulf War.

Some experts said that before the 2003 invasion, Hussein's scientists were possibly as little as a year away from building an atomic bomb. Other experts disputed that.

European diplomats said this week that some of the nuclear documents on the Web site were identical to the ones presented to the U.N. Security Council in late 2002 as the United States prepared to invade Iraq. But unlike those on the Web site, the papers given to the Security Council had been extensively edited to remove sensitive information on unconventional weapons.

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