By Joby Warrick and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 29, 2008
The Bush administration is pressing U.N. inspectors to broaden their search for possible secret nuclear facilities in Syria, hinting that Damascus's nuclear program might be bigger than the single alleged reactor destroyed by Israeli warplanes last year.
At least three sites have been identified by U.S. officials and passed along to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is negotiating with Syria for permission to conduct inspections in the country, according to U.S. government officials and Western diplomats. U.S. officials want to know if the suspect sites may have been support facilities for the alleged Al Kibar reactor destroyed in an Israeli air raid Sept. 6, the sources said.
The U.N. nuclear watchdog, which has been seeking access to the Al Kibar site since shortly after the bombing, has acknowledged receiving requests to expand the scope of its inspections, but provided no details.
U.S. government officials declined to describe the specific sites that have drawn interest, or to discuss how they were identified. However, the United States and other Western governments have long been interested in identifying possible locations for a facility in Syria that might have supplied nuclear fuel rods for a Syrian reactor. Although the Al Kibar site was described as nearly operational at the time of the Sept. 6 bombing, it had no clear source of the uranium fuel necessary for operation, according to U.S. intelligence officials and diplomats familiar with the site.
Syria, which has denied having a nuclear weapons program, has not yet responded to IAEA requests for a firm date for inspections.
U.S. intelligence officials contend that the Al Kibar facility was built with North Korean assistance, to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. CIA Director Michael V. Hayden said in an interview that the intelligence community's insight into Syria's nuclear ambitions has deepened since the Israeli raid.
"Do not assume that Al Kibar exhausted our knowledge of Syrian efforts with regard to nuclear weapons," Hayden said. "I am very comfortable -- certainly with Al Kibar and what was there, and what the intent was. It was the highest confidence level. And nothing since the attack last September has changed our mind. In fact, events since the attack give us even greater confidence as to what it was."
He predicted that Syria would "almost certainly attempt to delay and deceive" the IAEA. But he added: "We know what they did."
The absence of a clear fuel source for the reactor -- as well as a fuel-reprocessing facility for extracting plutonium -- has baffled experts who have studied the Syrian project. "It's like having a car but not enough gas to run it," said David Albright, a former U.N. nuclear inspector in Iraq and the president of the Institute for Science and International Security.
But weapons experts also noted that Western intelligence has had a mixed record on the reliability of leads provided to U.N. inspectors. "U.S. intelligence has had a serious credibility problem on weapons of mass destruction for a decade," said John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org, adding that "they have been known to be right on occasions."
Weapons experts also noted that IAEA inspectors face a difficult task in assessing claims about Syria's program. After the Sept. 6 bombing, Syria bulldozed the ruins of the Al Kibar facility and erected a new building on the same spot. "I think by now they've had enough time to cover their trail," Pike said.
In recent weeks, the Bush administration has increased diplomatic pressure on Syria. Yesterday, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said Syria was caught last year trying to procure equipment that could have been used to test ballistic missile components.