By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 25, 2008
The Bush administration charged Thursday that a secret Syrian nuclear reactor was within weeks or months of completion before Israel bombed it on Sept. 6 and demanded that North Korea and Syria publicly acknowledge their collusion on a facility that could have produced plutonium for a nuclear weapon.
"It was nearing operational capability," a senior intelligence official told reporters yesterday at one of a series of briefings on the reactor organized by the administration.
Senior intelligence and administration officials told lawmakers that Washington suspected Syria and North Korea were working on a secret project as far back as 1997, but experts were uncertain of its purpose. Senior North Korean officials from the Yongbyon nuclear complex visited Syria several times before construction began at a remote desert site on the Euphrates River in 2001, they said.
Not until last year were experts certain the compound was for a gas-cooled, graphite-moderate reactor, they said, a conclusion that hinged partly on pictures taken of the interior of the facility before its completion. The pictures depicted a site similar to the one at Yongbyon, which produces plutonium for nuclear weapons, but unlike any other nuclear reactor constructed in the past 35 years, officials said.
"We are convinced, based on a variety of information, that North Korea assisted Syria's covert nuclear activities," which were "not intended for peaceful purposes," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said in a statement. A senior U.S. intelligence official told reporters that the alleged reactor was not configured to produce energy and was "ill-suited" for research.
At the same time, a senior U.S. official acknowledged that the U.S. intelligence experts had formally assigned only "low confidence" to the possibility that the site was at the heart of a Syrian nuclear weapons program, because it lacked basic components such as a reprocessing plant. The sole photograph shared with reporters depicting Syrian and North Korean officials together did not appear to be the Al Kibar reactor site.
The Bush administration's conclusion that the isolated site was not meant for peaceful use was based in part on the secrecy that surrounded the project, officials said. Constructing such a reactor without international notice constitutes a violation of treaty obligations for both Syria and North Korea, officials noted.
After the Israeli airstrike, Syria used a controlled demolition explosion on Oct. 10 to destroy the rest of the facility, which exposed reactor equipment that Syria had tried to hide, the U.S. officials said.
David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector, called the evidence on the reactor "compelling. But the lack of other facilities, such as plutonium separation plant, has to give pause before accusing Syria of having an active nuclear weapons program."
Several members of Congress complained yesterday that the administration was too slow to share the intelligence and warned that it undermined future cooperation with the White House. Others said the CIA intelligence did not change their support for U.S. diplomatic efforts to persuade Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear program.
Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, charged Thursday that the administration had improperly imposed a "veil of secrecy" around intelligence it was required to share with the oversight committees.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra (Mich.), the ranking Republican on the House intelligence committee, told reporters that the briefing was "eight months later than what it should have been." Hoekstra told reporters that the end result was that "many people believe that we were used today by the administration because . . . they had other agendas in mind."
"They have really damaged the relationship between Congress and the administration," Hoekstra said. "That's something that we heard consistently from all of our members today."
U.S. officials said the delay was necessary because they feared that any detailed public comment immediately after the Israeli raid could have provoked Syria to retaliate militarily. As time has passed, a senior intelligence official said, the administration concluded that the risk had decreased and disclosure might actually help sensitive negotiations with North Korea on dismantling its nuclear program.
In a statement, the Syrian Embassy in Washington denounced the U.S. claims as "false allegations" designed to "misguide" Congress and international public opinion and produce support for Israel's surprise airstrike in September, "which the U.S. administration may have helped execute."