Some conservatives still believe there is evidence out there that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and actively collaborated with al-Qaida before the U.S. invasion -- the trouble is, we just didn't look hard enough. So earlier this year they persuaded Congress to take a vast trove of documents relating to Iraq and post them online. Given enough eyeballs, the argument went, we could find those WMD.
The hunt for the smoking gun never turned up much, though much was made in some right-wing quarters about documents included in the file that happened to be about al-Qaida but had no connection to Iraq.
Today, the New York Times reported that the online Iraq document dump did contain something of interest: "detailed accounts of Iraq's secret nuclear research before the 1991 Persian Gulf war." (My italics.) Experts say these documents could prove extremely helpful to anyone out there trying to figure out how to make a homemade bomb.
Oops. The entire file -- relevant documents having no doubt already been copied to hard drives of bomb-making students everywhere -- has now been pulled from the Net.
So the right's efforts to score political points have resulted in dangerously detailed nuke-building information being broadcast over the entire Internet. Instead of feeling chagrined, the conservative blogosphere is instead dancing a bizarre victory jig this morning: The presence of bomb recipes, the cry goes, proves that Saddam had dangerous nuclear information after all!
But no one ever argued that Saddam didn't have dangerous information about how to build nuclear weapons. The whole point of the U.S.-backed and U.N.-operated anti-proliferation regime was to prevent him from using that information to build bombs. We now know that that program successfully hobbled Saddam's WMD ambitions -- until the Bush administration decided to dismantle it in favor of a regime-changing invasion.
The documents in question date back before the 1991 Gulf War, at a time when liberals and conservatives alike agree that Saddam had nuclear ambitions. Recognizing that they are dangerous and should not be public proves nothing about the threat Saddam did or didn't pose to the U.S. in the post-9/11 era. Nor, despite what Glenn Reynolds says, does taking these documents seriously prove anything about the importance or authenticity of any of the other documents in the file.
The straw man being held aloft by the National Review's Jim Geraghty and others is that antiwar liberals never took the threat Saddam posed seriously, yet now we know he had a nuclear cookbook. But the real story here is that conservatives now believe that attempting to prove they were right about Saddam should take priority over keeping nuclear know-how out of terrorist hands.
House Intelligence Committee chairman Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., who led the release-the-documents move, blames the director of national intelligence for failing to censor the sensitive nuclear information. But Hoekstra says he's "pleased that the document release program continues to stimulate public discussion of these issues." I'm sure that bomb makers with Internet connections are equally pleased.