WASHINGTON — The nation’s top intelligence official took down a government Web site with captured Saddam Hussein-era Iraqi documents, after questions were raised whether it provided too much information about making atomic bombs.
In a statement Thursday night, a spokesman for National Intelligence Director John Negroponte said his office has suspended public access to the Web site “pending a review to ensure its content is appropriate for public viewing.”
The action came after The New York Times raised questions about the contents of the government site, called the “Operation Iraqi Freedom Document Portal.” The Times reported Thursday night on its Web site that weapons experts say documents posted on the government site in recent weeks provided dangerous detail about Iraq’s covert nuclear research before the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
Two intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told NBC News that outside experts, including the director of the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, informed the Bush administration that it might have inadvertently publicized how-to-manuals for making nuclear bombs.
A diplomat affiliated with the IAEA said its inspectors were “shocked by the explicitness of the content” on the Web site and that a senior agency official conveyed the concerns to U.S. diplomats in Vienna, where the agency is based.
But Matthew Boland, spokesman for the U.S. mission to the IAEA, said Friday that “Ambassador (Gregory) Schulte did not receive any protest or expression of concern from the IAEA on this issue.”
Officials acknowledge that sensitive documents — with information on nuclear triggers and other technology — could have been on the public Web site, which had some 16,000 documents in it.
One official working on the problem said that as few as a dozen documents might be in the sensitive category.
Outside nuclear experts suggested to the New York Times that the documents could have helped rogue states like Iran with their nuclear programs.
But the U.S. officials were doubtful, telling NBC News that Iran's nuclear program was already highly sophisticated last spring and summer when it was cited for violations by U.N. inspectors. The most sensitive captured Iraqi documents were not posted until September. The sources said that makes it very unlikely the documents contributed anything to Iran's nuclear program.
The Iraqi documents include information on Saddam's nuclear program — most of which dates back to the first Gulf War. Two CIA weapons experts — first David Kay and then Charles Duelfer — concluded in 2004 and 2005 that while Saddam might have wanted to revive his nuclear program, it effectively ended with the first Gulf War.
That said, a top official told NBC News that Iraq's program was relatively sophisticated — and that the documents could have been helpful to terrorists or others trying to develop nuclear weapons.
Lawmakers wanted release
Pressed by Republican members of Congress, Negroponte’s office last March ordered the unprecedented release of millions of pages of Iraqi documents, most of them in Arabic, collected by the U.S. government over more than a decade.
Intelligence officials had objected at the time — but were overruled by President Bush.
According to the Times, conservative politicians and publications hoped analysis of the some 48,000 boxes of documents seized in the Iraq invasion would reinvigorate the search for proof that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.
Bush cited concerns about that as a major cause for the Iraq invasion. No such weapons have been found.
Until this week, the information had been posted gradually on public Internet servers run by the military. In announcing the postings, Negroponte’s office said the U.S. government had made no determination regarding the authenticity of the documents, their factual accuracy or the quality of any translations, when available.
NBC News' chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell as well as The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.