Catholic scold Rick Santorum thinks Julian Assange is a "terrorist"—and ought to be prosecuted as such—for his role in releasing thousands of pages of classified documents on the internet. He ought to know: In 2006, Sen. Rick Santorum literally forced the U.S. government to dump thousands of pages of classified records concerning Iraq onto the web, including detailed plans for building a nuclear weapon, so that right-wing bloggers could search them for evidence of Saddam Hussein's phantom WMD.

The story of the "Operation Iraqi Freedom Documents" is one of the more maddening and irrational detours that the neocons took on their long march toward catastrophic geostrategic failure. During the course of the invasion of Iraq, U.S. forces confiscated more than 48,000 boxes of Iraqi government documents—intelligence reports, military plans, etc. As the invasion quickly turned sour and no WMD's turned up, panicked war proponents turned to the documents with hopeful eyes—surely there would be some scrap of paper in there somewhere to justify the increasingly disastrous adventure?

Douglas Cox tells the tale in an impeccably researched post at his blog, Docex (that's for "document exploitation"):

The drive towards this unprecedented doc dump arose in earnest in late 2005 and early 2006 when the continuing public debate over the justifications for the 2003 Iraq invasion turned towards the possibility of untapped evidence in the captured documents from Iraq. Could they contain, for instance, "smoking gun" evidence of links between Saddam and al-Qaeda? Stephen F. Hayes at the Weekly Standard, for example, had an impressive series of pieces during this period on his attempts to obtain access to some of the captured Iraqi documents both via the Pentagon press office and via repeated FOIA requests.

Trouble is, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which maintained control over the documents, thought it might be more prudent to assess the documents for intelligence before simply dumping them on the public. But the neocons, apparently still drunk on their blogospheric takedown of Dan Rather, came to the belief that the Iraqi documents would be better analyzed by right-wing bloggers than intelligence professionals.

Which is why, on March 14, 2006, Santorum introduced a bill forcing the ODNI to publish the documents online. The mere threat of legislation was enough to spur action, and within two days the whole mess was online in the form of the "Operation Iraqi Freedom Document Portal."

Did it contain evidence of WMD? Sort of. There were no documents definitively linking Hussein to al Qaeda, or demonstrating the existence of an active WMD threat. There was, however, "a basic guide to building an atom bomb," published on the internet, by the United States, at the insistence of Rick Santorum. As the New York Times put it:

The documents, roughly a dozen in number, contain charts, diagrams, equations and lengthy narratives about bomb building that nuclear experts who have viewed them say go beyond what is available elsewhere on the Internet and in other public forums. For instance, the papers give detailed information on how to build nuclear firing circuits and triggering explosives, as well as the radioactive cores of atom bombs.

No less an authority than former Bush chief of staff Andrew Card said at the time that the release was stupid, and that Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte had opposed Santorum's push for release: "John Negroponte warned us that we don't know what's in these documents, so these are being put out at some risk, and that was a warning that he put out right when they first released the documents."

ODNI of course took the documents down, but not before they were grabbed by anyone and everyone who may have been interested in designing a nuclear weapon.

A spokesman for Santorum did not respond to a request for comment.

[Image via Getty]