NY Times Story Leads to Shutdown of Iraqi Document Site

11.03.06 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The U.S. Government suspended public access to an online database of captured Iraqi documents after the New York Times presented claims from some nuclear experts that the documents included sensitive nuclear weapons design information.

The documents had already been reviewed and cleared for public release, but the experts consulted by the Times said they should not have been disclosed.

See “U.S. Web Archive Is Said to Reveal a Nuclear Primer” by William J. Broad, New York Times, November 3.

Everyone agrees that proliferation-sensitive data should be protected. The Federation of American Scientists does not publish detailed blueprints of functional nuclear weapons, for example, though such records can be found in the public domain.

But in Secrecy News’ estimation, the New York Times story failed to include an appropriate note of skepticism about the significance of the disclosures.

According to the Times, experts say that the Iraqi documents “constitute a basic guide to building an atom bomb.”

This is a trope that has surfaced repeatedly for decades, from the publication of the Smyth Report in 1946 and the Los Alamos Primer (pdf) some years later to the Progressive Case in 1979 and even the declassification of inertial confinement fusion in the 1990s, each of which supposedly compromised the secret of the Bomb.

While it is no doubt true, as former Energy Department classification official A. Bryan Siebert told the Times, that there are still nuclear weapons secrets, the basics of nuclear weapons construction have long been publicly available. And in case anyone hasn’t noticed, proliferation of actual nuclear weapons has been proceeding apace in North Korea, Iran and elsewhere, with or without captured Iraqi documents.

William Broad is the best of reporters and his stories pack a punch even when they are not on the front page of the New York Times.

But he also has a penchant for telling and retelling a sensational, counterintuitive story that the government is failing to protect sensitive national security secrets.

A January 13, 2002, front page story by Mr. Broad reported that the government was selling declassified documents describing the production of biological weapons. That story, like the one today, also referred to the documents in question as “cookbooks” for weapons of mass destruction, a cliched term that grossly exaggerates their significance and utility, in Secrecy News’ opinion.

The earlier story prompted the removal of many thousands of declassified documents from public access, which was probably prudent. But it also triggered a continuing expansion of official controls on unclassified information, culminating in a March 19, 2002, memorandum from White House chief of staff Andrew Card on “White House Guidance on Safeguarding WMD Information and Sensitive Homeland Security Documents.” One has to expect that the latest story will aggravate the problem.

The current Administration is not known for reckless disclosure of sensitive data, to put it mildly. The Times and its reporters know this. But today’s story does not account for the government’s supposed departure from its normal stinginess with information and its move towards indiscriminate revelation of precious nuclear secrets, if that’s what happened. Having been publicly scolded by the Times for this little experiment in public disclosure, officials are now even less likely to defy well-founded expectations of secrecy.

Last week, coincidentally, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission published a proposal to export some 15 kilograms of highly enriched uranium (93% U-235) to Canada, thereby perpetuating international traffic in actual bomb-grade materials.

The proposal was not reported in the New York Times.