What Are They Up To Now?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, April 25, 2008; 1:18 PM

Intelligence reports from this administration can't be taken at face value.

President Bush has built up a prodigious track record of selectively disclosing intelligence findings that serve his political agenda. And some of the most important of those findings, of course, turned out to be completely false.

The latest disclosure from the White House's intelligence apparatus -- that Syria secretly built a nuclear reactor with North Korean help -- is in many ways a blockbuster. But at the same time, its highly suspicious timing raises doubts about the motivation behind its announcement.

And even if everything the administration says is true, there are many elements of the emerging story that deserve scrutiny.

Consider, for instance, that the Syrians were still nowhere near being able to build a nuclear weapon when the White House tacitly approved Israel's attack on the facility. Did you think Bush's pre-emption doctrine was dead? Just listen to the administration officials yesterday speaking sympathetically of Israel's conclusion that it faced an "existential threat."

Another obvious question: Why now? Why is the White House going public more than seven months after Israel's attack?

Administration officials offered an explanation yesterday -- saying that they were initially worried about provoking Syrian retaliation, and that the disclosure could actually help the ongoing nuclear negotiations with North Korea.

But there are still some who suspect the announcement is the work of Vice President Cheney and other administration neocons who are trying to upset those negotiations -- and further ratchet up tensions with Iran. The White House statement about the Syrian installation insisted that "this development . . . underscores that the international community is right to be very concerned about the nuclear activities of Iran and the risks those activities pose to the stability of the Middle East."

The timing outraged even Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, who had this to say after his meeting with CIA briefers yesterday: "I think many people believe that we were used today by the administration because - not because they felt they had to inform Congress because it was their legal obligation to do that, but because they had other agendas in mind. . . . I think what we saw in the committee today, I think the chairman would agree that the relationship that we need to get international issues done, foreign policy issues done, a trusting environment between the administration and Congress, does not exist."

The Coverage

Robin Wright writes in The Washington Post: "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. . . .

"'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. . . .

"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. . . .

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