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  U.S. Web site said to reveal nuke info
Government posted secret Iraqi papers

New York Times | November 3, 2006
By Willliam J. Broad

Last 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 prewar dangers posed by Saddam Hussein.

But in recent weeks, the site has posted some 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 an atom bomb.

On Thursday 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 like Iran develop nuclear arms, had privately protested last week to the U.S. ambassador to the agency, according to European diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity. One diplomat said the agency's technical experts "were shocked" at the public disclosures.

The documents, roughly a dozen in number, 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, as well as the radioactive cores of atom 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."

Earlier warnings

The government had received earlier warnings about the contents of the Web site. Last 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 was mounted by conservative publications and politicians, who argued the nation's spy agencies had failed to adequately analyze the 48,000 boxes of documents seized in Iraq since the 2003 invasion began.

With the public increasingly skeptical about the rationale and conduct of the war, the chairmen of the House and Senate intelligence committees told the 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 Negroponte, had resisted establishing the Web site, which some intelligence officials believed 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 his statement Thursday 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 thousands of documents included everything from a collection of religious and nationalistic poetry to instructions for the repair and maintenance of parachutes to handwritten notes from Hussein's intelligence service. It became a popular quarry for bloggers and amateur historians.

Among the dozens of documents in English were Iraqi reports written in the 1990s and in 2002 for UN inspectors in charge of making sure Iraq abandoned its unconventional arms programs after the Persian Gulf war. Some experts said at the time preceding the invasion that Hussein's scientists were on the verge of building an atomic bomb, possibly being as little as a year away; other experts disputed that.

European diplomats said this week that some of those nuclear documents on the Web site were identical to the ones presented to the UN Security Council in late 2002, as the U.S. 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 arms.

The deletions, the diplomats said, had been done in consultation with the United States and other nuclear powers.

`It's a cookbook'

In Europe, a senior diplomat said atomic experts there had studied the nuclear documents on the military Web site and judged their public release as potentially dangerous. "It's a cookbook," said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of his agency's rules. "If you had this, it would short-circuit a lot of things."

The New York Times had examined dozens of the documents and asked a half-dozen nuclear experts to evaluate some of them.

Peter Zimmerman, a physicist and former U.S. government arms scientist now at the war studies department of King's College, London, called the posted material "very sensitive, much of it undoubtedly secret restricted data."

Ray Kidder, a senior nuclear physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, said "some things in these documents would be helpful" to nations aspiring to develop nuclear weapons and should have remained secret.

A senior U.S. intelligence official who deals routinely with atomic issues said the documents showed "where the Iraqis failed and how to get around the failures." The documents, he added, could perhaps help Iran or other nations making a serious effort to develop nuclear arms, but probably not terrorists or poorly equipped states. He called the papers "a road map that helps you get from point A to point B, but only if you already have a car."

Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, a private group at George Washington University that tracks federal secrecy decisions, said the impetus for the Web site's creation came from an array of sources--private conservative groups, congressional Republicans and some figures in the Bush administration--who clung to the belief that close examination of the captured documents would show that Hussein's government had clandestinely reconstituted an unconventional arms programs.

"There were hundreds of people who said, `There's got to be gold in them thar hills,"' Blanton said.

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