WASHINGTON -- Top Democrats and weapons specialists yesterday assailed the government's decision to publish details about Iraq's defunct weapons programs on the Internet, accusing the White House and the Republican Party of endangering national security to try to convince the public that Saddam Hussein resumed building an atomic bomb after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
The documents, first posted on a government web site in March, included blueprints on how to fashion a nuclear weapon. Senior intelligence officials and even the US government's senior weapons investigator in Iraq warned Washington about releasing the data, but the Republican-led Congress pressured the Bush administration by approving a measure that required thousands of those documents to be made public.
"They first tried to do this in 2003," said David Kay , who led the failed search for weapons of mass destruction after the US-led invasion in March 2003. "I opposed it at that time because I was concerned about documents that shed light on supply networks and details of the weapons."
The web site, Operation Iraqi Freedom Document Portal, was taken down late Thursday after The New York Times disclosed that the sensitive material was posted. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a statement saying it will review the material and the procedures used to post them on the web site.
Kay and other weapons specialists said the web site made it seem as though the documents were recently discovered. Critics said it was an effort to convince the public that Iraq had an active weapons program when US forces invaded three years ago, even though UN inspectors dismantled it 15 years ago.
The documents date from before the 1991 Gulf War; when the fighting ended, Hussein's government turned over the documents to the United Nations weapons inspectors who dismantled Iraq's weapons and missile programs in the early 1990s. But the material is dated and doesn't reveal any of Iraq's recent activities to obtain or build weapons of mass destruction -- the main rationale for the 2003 invasion.
Republican aides insisted yesterday that the information was posted to give historians and academics an opportunity to make their own judg ments about the threat Iraq posed to the United States. Putting the documents on line, the aides said, had nothing to do with the Bush administration's desire for hard evidence justifying the invasion .
Nevertheless, the documents were billed as a "full, final, and complete" history of Iraq's weapons activities since 1992.
"They wanted to keep alive the myth that Saddam had these weapons," Joseph Cirincione , a specialist at the Center for American Progress, said yesterday in a conference call with reporters organized by the progressive National Security Network.
With just three days before congressional elections and dwindling public support for the war, some Democrats saw a political opportunity. "Whoever authorized putting partisan political considerations above national security in this instance must be held accountable," Representative Nancy Pelosi said in a statement,
The documents were posted on the Internet after leading Republicans -- including Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Representative Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, his House counterpart -- lobbied John D. Negroponte , the director of national intelligence, to disclose more information about Iraq's weapons activities.
Kay said yesterday that key administration figures, including Paul D. Wolfowitz , then deputy secretary of defense, also wanted to release the classified information, especially when it became apparent that Iraq had not restarted its weapons programs. After warning him of the consequences about making bomb instructions public, Kay said Wolfowitz reluctantly agreed to keep the documents classified.
But powerful Republicans in the House and Senate pushed through a resolution earlier this year that forced intelligence agencies to review the material and publish as much of it as possible.
Hoekstra yesterday urged a stricter review of sensitive information, but he said only about 40 percent of the documents had been released. Some of the documents, including one that indicated Iraq may have been a year away from building a nuclear bomb before the first Gulf War, were critical in "understanding the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's regime" and the necessity of the Iraq war, he said.
It was such statements -- conflating decades-old intelligence about Iraq's efforts to build a nuclear bomb with the White House's rationale for the 2003 invasion -- that Democrats attacked as misleading.
Representative Edward J. Markey , a Malden Democrat, criticized the GOP for "revealing damaging details on the manufacture of nuclear weapons because it suits their current political purposes." Kay agreed, saying, "It is the same politicization that took place before the war. "
But Steve Aftergood at the Federation of American Scientists, which advocates for government openness, urged caution about how damaging the information might have been.
"I did a search two weeks ago of that website, and there was something like 18 documents that came up on nuclear weapons," he said. "I was not very impressed. They seemed hardly professional and a mixture of real data with secondhand borrowing from foreign literature."
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