By David Morgan
The Bush administration closed a government Web site set up to publicly display pre-war Iraqi documents on weapons of mass destruction after experts said its content included details for building a nuclear bomb, officials said on Friday.
The unclassified site was established by U.S. intelligence chief John Negroponte in March under pressure from Republicans, who believed the captured documents would illustrate the dangers of Saddam Hussein during an election year marked by increasing voter disaffection over the Iraq war.
But Negroponte's office shut down the site, known as the "Operation Iraqi Freedom Document Portal," after the New York Times informed the Bush administration about expert concerns over posted accounts of Iraq's nuclear research before the 1991 Gulf War.
The New York Times, which broke the story late on Thursday, reported that the site's contents in recent weeks had begun to "constitute a basic guide to building an atom bomb."
Negroponte's office said in a statement on Friday that it had suspended access to the site "pending a review to ensure its content is appropriate for public viewing."
"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 statement said.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, asked about the issue in a radio interview, suggested the controversy supported President George W. Bush's assertion that Saddam harbored dangerous nuclear ambitions before the March 2003 invasion.
"The interesting thing is that there clearly were an awful lot of nuclear documents floating around Iraq which suggest that this is someone who'd not given up on his ambitions," Rice said in the interview.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, Republican chairman of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee and a leading proponent of the Iraq documents' release, said he welcomed the public discussion generated by the debate.
"This only reinforces the value of these documents in understanding the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's regime," he said in a statement.
Meanwhile, independent experts and diplomats expressed shock at the appearance of the material on a U.S. Web site.
A diplomat affiliated with the watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency told Reuters IAEA inspectors were "shocked by the explicitness of the content" on the Web page and that a senior agency official conveyed the concerns to U.S. diplomats in Vienna.
U.S. officials denied that U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA Gregory Schulte had received any protest or expression of concern from the IAEA.
"For the U.S. to toss a match into this flammable area is very irresponsible," former U.S. Energy Department official A. Bryan Siebert told the New York Times.
Negroponte warned in Senate testimony last February that al Qaeda was actively seeking WMD for use against the United States. He said nuclear proliferation posed the greatest concern for U.S. national security.
Hoekstra and Republican Sen. Rick Santorum (news, bio, voting record) of Pennsylvania spearheaded the lobbying campaign for the release of the documents.
The captured material had already been examined by the CIA's Iraq Survey Group. But Republicans wanted it released quickly to the public, including political "blogs," saying it could provide fresh details about pre-war Iraqi WMD or links between Saddam and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network.
Those allegations helped justify a war that has become increasingly unpopular among U.S. voters who will decide next week whether Republicans retain control of Congress.
No WMD have been located in Iraq and independent investigators have found no evidence that Saddam had a collaborative relationship with al Qaeda.
(Additional reporting by Sue Pleming in Washington and Mark Heinrich in Vienna)
Copyright 2006 Reuters Limited.
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