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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Web Site Disclosed Nuclear Secrets

NEW YORK -- Last March, the United States set up a web site to make public a vast archive of Iraqi documents captured during the war. The administration of President George W. Bush did so under pressure from Congressional Republicans who had 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 are 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, 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 states like Iran develop nuclear arms, had privately protested 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" at the public disclosures.

On Friday morning, a spokesman for Gregory Schulte, the United States' permanent representative to the IAEA, denied that anyone from the agency had approached Schulte about the web site.

The documents, roughly a dozen in number, contain charts, diagrams, equations and lengthy narratives about bomb building that nuclear experts who have viewed them 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."

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 said the nation's spy agencies had failed adequately to analyze the 48,000 boxes of documents seized since the March 2003 invasion. With the public increasingly skeptical about the rationale and conduct of the war, the chairmen of the House and Senate intelligence committees argued that wide analysis and translation of the documents -- most of them in Arabic -- would reinvigorate the search for clues that Hussein had resumed his unconventional arms programs in the years before the invasion.

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

In a statement Thursday, 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."

A spokesman for the National Security Council, Gordon Johndroe, said: "We're confident the [Director of National Intelligence] is taking the appropriate steps to maintain the balance between public information and national security."