The US government has shut down a website containing Iraqi documents from the Saddam Hussein era, after complaints - including one from the United Nations' nuclear watchdog - that they amounted to a manual on how to build an atomic bomb.
Access to the website was suspended after The New York Times newspaper contacted the directorate of national intelligence to ask about the complaints. A review has now been launched, a DNI spokesman said, "to ensure its content is appropriate for public viewing". The material deals with Iraq's nuclear research before the 1991 Gulf War. The UN weapons inspectors who subsequently investigated Saddam's WMD programmes were at the time startled to discover how much progress he had made.
According to the Times, the documents in question contain charts and diagrams that give information going well beyond what exists elsewhere on the internet, including details of how to build firing circuits for a bomb, as well as their core of fissile material. Not only did the documents illustrate the technical problems encountered by the Iraqis, they also showed the way a would-be bomb constructor could get round them.
Their precise value, however, is unclear. In the words of one intelligence official quoted by the paper, the material amounted to "a road map that helps you get from point A to point B - but only if you have a car."
The whole affair is nonetheless rich in irony. One of the most forceful complaints came from the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, the very body criticised in the past by the Bush administration for its alleged laxity in pursuing the weapons programmes of Iraq.
Instead, a "shocked" IAEA is said to have delivered a private protest to the US last week, saying that the material could speed Iran's suspected quest for a nuclear bomb. In other words, the country that warns most urgently about the perils of "rogue" states and terrorist groups obtaining nuclear weapons may have unwittingly helped the proliferation it is trying to prevent.
Another irony is that the trove of 48,000 boxes of documents was made public largely at the urging of Iraq war hawks in Congress and the press, who believed they might contain the elusive proof that Saddam was developing nuclear weapons.Reuse content