By Glenn Kessler and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, April 26, 2008
The Bush administration gambled this week that its detailed accounting of North Korean assistance to a Syrian nuclear program would help pave the way for a nuclear disarmament agreement with Pyongyang, but the allegations so angered Republican lawmakers that support for a deal may be seriously weakened.
To signal displeasure, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) placed a hold on an ambassadorial nomination of a former aide to the chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea, Christopher R. Hill. "People are very mad, very angry" about the prospect of an agreement with "a regime that has repeatedly demonstrated that its word is indistinguishable from a lie," said an aide to a key Republican lawmaker.
Despite the fresh accusations of North Korean wrongdoing, U.S. and North Korean officials said this week they were making progress on key aspects of the disarmament deal, which requires North Korea to declare how much plutonium it has made for its nuclear arsenal and to turn over thousands of documents concerning the inner workings of the Yongbyon nuclear facility.
A U.S. negotiator returned yesterday from three days of talks in North Korea aimed at meeting goals set by President Bush, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, officials said. Hill told reporters yesterday that the discussions were "lengthy" and "productive," echoing a statement by North Korea that "the negotiations proceeded in a sincere and constructive manner, and progress was made there."
But criticism of the administration's handling of the matter did not come only from Capitol Hill. Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, yesterday said the United States should not have waited so long before disclosing what it suspected about North Korea's assistance to Syria.
ElBaradei also reiterated his criticism of Israel for its "unilateral use of force" in a Sept. 6 bombing raid that destroyed the nuclear reactor Syria was allegedly building with North Korea's help, saying it prevented the agency from verifying whether undeclared nuclear activity had been taking place at the site.
Administration officials said yesterday that before the Israeli bombing, Rice and a majority of other senior officials had supported using information about the two countries' secret collaboration to squeeze Damascus diplomatically, with the aim of stopping its interference in Lebanon and halting the passage of insurgents through Syria into Iraq.
U.S. officials told Israel that it would benefit if Washington were able to get Syria to stop all its "nefarious activity," one official said. But Israel decided that Syria's Al Kibar facility was "an existential threat" and needed to be destroyed before reactor fuel could be loaded or processed, the official said.
Another official said the Israelis, having seen the long, inconclusive negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programs, had little interest in a solution involving the United Nations and the atomic energy agency. An Israeli official declined to comment on the U.S.-Israeli discussions.
"We looked at the possibility of talking to [the Syrians] on the diplomatic track," a senior administration official said yesterday, "using this to say, 'You need to comply with your international obligations, stop aiding foreign fighters going into Iraq, stop disrupting the situation in Lebanon, stop supporting Hezbollah and Hamas, stop repressing your own people, and stop this nuclear activity.' And telling them we would look at military options but we wanted to take the diplomatic track first. But all of our political discussions became moot when Israel acted."
Officials said they received their strongest evidence of a North Korean-Syrian connection a year ago, primarily from Israel, at about the time the North Koreans had inked a deal with the United States and its negotiating partners to proceed with dismantlement. Since then, U.S. negotiators had demanded and received North Korea's promise to acknowledge U.S. information about collaboration with Syria.
Key lawmakers nonetheless made it clear that unless the intelligence about Syria was described to them in detail, they would block funding for the deal and oppose a key waiver of a law preventing U.S. aid to a country that detonates a nuclear weapon.
Officials said the timing of the administration's disclosure was also influenced by a provision of the U.S. law governing state sponsors of terrorism, a list that has long included North Korea. Under the proposed nuclear disarmament deal, Washington has agreed to remove North Korea from the list, but the law requires that it first demonstrate that North Korea has not assisted another country on the list for at least six months. The intelligence presented this week indicated that North Korea helped Syria in removing equipment from the site through early October, meaning the six-month window only recently closed.
IAEA officials are not optimistic about the prospects for their own investigation into the Syrian facility. "It'll be very difficult to get to the truth," said a diplomat close to the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency. "If you give the IAEA information in a timely manner, as soon as you have it, and the verification body can credibly go in there and investigate on the ground, then you may someday know the truth. The way this was done, we have only their word and photographs."
North Korea, in its negotiations with U.S. officials, was told about key aspects of the U.S. intelligence on the Syrian site and had been warned that a public presentation would be forthcoming. But the State Department did not brief Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha until Thursday, in a session described as "cold and correct but not angry" by a senior State Department official.
At a news conference yesterday, Moustapha said the U.S. claims have no credibility at home or abroad. "This administration has a proven record of falsifying and fabricating stories about WMDs. They have done this before, they have done this yesterday, and they will continue to do this in the future," he said.
The facility was an vacant military building at the time of the Israeli airstrike and was not a secret from anyone, he said. "Every commercial satellite service available on Earth was able to provide photos of this so-called secret Syrian site for the past five, six years. I think something is very absurd and preposterous in the whole story."