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Syrian Nuclear Plant: Latest Developments

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Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 25, 2008; 1:00 PM

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.

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On Friday, Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of IAEA, the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, called the accusations against Syria "serious" and denied the allegations. "The Agency ... will investigate the veracity of the information," ElBaradei said in a statement.

Washington Post staff writer Robin Wright was online Friday, April 25, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the latest developments in the story.

A transcript follows.

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Robin Wright: I've signed on and ready to discuss the latest developments on this story. There are still a lot of unanswered questions both about Syria's program and North Korea's role. But as the Congressional reaction yesterday indicated, there are also ongoing questions about why the Bush administration waited almost 8 months to reveal its evidence and brief intelligence oversight committees and the American public.

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Arlington, Va.: Israel has a history of being right on nuclear development. In fact they seem to be more accurate then our own country. Does this mean we should pay more attention to their comments about Iran.

Robin Wright: Well, like the United States, Israel was also a country that believed Saddam Hussein still had an active weapons of mass destruction program in 2003 -- which proved, after the US invasion, not to be true.

As a reporter, it's very frustrating that Israel has yet to outline its own evidence about the Syrian program, North Korea's role and its version of events in the run-up to the attack on September 6.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you think ElBaradei's investigation will yield anything?

Robin Wright: The question is more likely to be: Will Syria cooperate? If it doesn't, it will be very difficult for the IAEA to get the whole story. The other key component is North Korea's declaration of its proliferation activities, which Pyongyang is supposed to provide as part of the deal in the Six-Party talks. It must outline the full scope of its involvement with Syria (as well as other countries) to fully comply.

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Fairfax, Va.: Why did the Bush administration wait eight months to reveal this?

Robin Wright: At the briefing for reporters yesterday, a senior administration official (we were not allowed to identify him) claimed that Washington feared that immediately revealing its evidence would add to the pressure on Syria and might lead it to retaliate. That could have triggered a wider conflagration in the Middle East, he said.

Other experts point out that this all played out as the US was planning for Annapolis peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians -- which the Arabs particularly wanted Syria to attend so it would feel invested in the process. I'm working with a colleague on a story to look at the other reasons for this delay. Congress is clearly quite unhappy about the delay, which triggered an interesting response even among Republicans on the Hill yesterday.

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Annapolis, Md.: What are the Six-Party Talks and how does this story apply? Please explain for the layman.

Robin Wright: The Six-Party talks involve the US, Russia, China, Japan, South Korea and North Korea. It is a diplomatic effort to get North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program, in exchange for diplomatic and economic incentives.

Under the terms worked out with Pyongyang, North Korea must disable the reactor in Yongbyon (which is supposedly very much like the Syrian reactor) and declare all of its activities in helping other countries acquire nuclear technology.

That effort is at a delicate stage and the revelations about Syria are timed in an interesting way, since there is a debate within the administration about whether the Six-Party effort is really going to work. The administration claimed yesterday that the revelations on Syria will force North Korea's hand by publicly showing its role in aiding other countries acquire WMD. But there are also many within the administration, particularly hardliners and neoconservatives, who feel that it is going nowhere. Some in Congress are also suggesting that it's time to curtail funding for the program to help North Korea.

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Washington, D.C. : We have an unfortunate effect of our unpopular president and his poor decisions of starting and not managing the Iraq war. As a former member of the military intelligence community, I can say without a doubt that if the Israelis were convinced enough to bomb the site, I have not doubt is was real. As a state sponsor of terrorism, it would not be a good thing for either Syria or Iran to get nuclear weapons.

Robin Wright: There doesn't seem to be a question in this comment, but nuclear proliferation -- particularly in a region that is already the most volatile in the world -- is obviously a huge issue.

One of the interesting reactions to the Syria/North Korea story is the skepticism among readers because of the US intelligence failure in Iraq. The Iraq experience shades other US claims about new weapons of mass destruction.

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Washington, D.C.: If the Israelis presented compelling evidence to the U.S prior to the airstrike, why didn't the Bush administration turn that evidence to the IAEA?

Robin Wright: That's a very good question. Israel has said nothing but given it's public position on the IAEA, I suspect -- and that's all it is -- that Israel decided the UN nuclear watchdog would not act fast enough or the Syrians would not cooperate with the IAEA or an investigation would not produce something soon enough.

The question is also why the US waited 8 months AFTER the Sept 6 attack to provide what it knew to the IAEA. That only happened yesterday.

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Alexandria, Va.: I read in your story that Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R) was upset with the administration and that they had "other agendas in mind." What would be those other agendas?

Robin Wright: He was almost certainly referring to the North Korea diplomatic effort. He did not fully elaborate.

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Fairfax, Va.: This was an Israeli military action, not sure why anyone in this country should feel the Bush people need immediate and full discloser. The U.S. provides intelligence data to its allies on a regular basis.

Robin Wright: The US was aware of Syrian-North Korean cooperation in 2001 and last year concluded that the remote facility in the Syrian desert was a nuclear reactor capable of producing plutonium for a nuclear weapon.

Members of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee have suggested that the Bush administration had an obligation to notify it of the intelligence and its concerns - either before the Sept. 6 attack or after it.

The curious part of the delay is that the press reported on the attack and obtained pictures of the site both before and after the Israeli airstrike, but even the adminstration still said nothing.

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Tampa, Fla.: Two questions: First, I've read that the alleged nuclear plant could not have been used to make nuclear weapons. Is this correct? If so, has Israel decided that Arab states cannot have peaceful use of nuclear power?

AFP reports that --

AFP notes:

"They said U.S. intelligence had "high confidence" that the structure bombed by the Israelis was a nuclear reactor, "medium confidence" that the North Koreans were involved in building it, and "low confidence" that plutonium from it was for nuclear weapons."

Second, how could Syria begin to afford to build and maintain a nuclear arsenal? I can understand why Syria might want nukes, to counter Israel's extensive arsenal. But Israel can afford it, not Syria.

Robin Wright: US intelligence claims that the secret site was for a gas-cooled, graphite moderated reactor capable of producing plutonium for a nuclear weapon. It claims that the facility was not adapted to produce electricity, meaning it was not a peaceful nuclear reactor for energy use only. It also claims the site was not suited for research.

At the same time, US intelligence has acknowledged that there was no fuel for the facility yet, even while claiming it was nearly fully operational.

The "low confidence" was based on the fact that much of the evidence to conclude it was for a nuclear weapons program was largely circumstantial, since there was no fuel and no reprocessing plant - both essential elements in a weapons program. So the US relied on other deductive evidence to draw the conclusion that the site was part of a weapons plant, a senior US intelligence official told reporters yesterday.

Finally, you're right about the expense issue. One of the reasons I (and others) initially had doubts about the site was because Syria does not have the resources, technology, and qualified personnel to develop a weapons program. Other countries, notably Iran, do have very skilled engineers and scientists. Syria also is not a wealthy country and a nuclear program for either energy or a weapon would be a very significant drain on its budget.

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Arlington, Va.: Why did the CIA release a detailed 11-minute video regarding this activity in Syria -- and the place that I located this video was on the BBC Web site ....

Robin Wright: The Post also has the video on its website.

The CIA pulled together various photos from the ground and the air to make its case in a video with a voice-over narrating what the pictures purportedly showed. It was the basis of its briefings to congressional committees and to reporters.

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washingtonpost.com: Video: CIA Report on Syrian Nuclear Reactor Facility

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Stanton Park, D.C.: This past week there have been several overtures of renewed serious peace talks from both Israeli and Syrian officials based on the '01 Golan Heights for peace. How is the dynamic between Israel/Syria different from U.S./Syria as Israel seems to ready to move on and improve relations while the US seems ready for more strained relations?

Robin Wright: The dynamics may not be all that different, although some of the flashpoints between countries are.

Israel is focused on Syria as an existential threat, including for supporting extremist and radical groups targeting Israel.

The US is concerned about those issues, plus Syria's assistance to foreign fighters going into Iraq and its political meddling in Lebanon that has contributed to a delay in Beirut's presidential elections since last November.

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Charleston, S.C.: Do you have any information or speculation, from the U.S. gov't or otherwise, as to how Syria would have obtained uranium fuel? Any info on plutonium-separation facilities and weaponization design progress?

Robin Wright: The fuel issue is one of the biggest outstanding issues and the intelligence community shed no light on it yesterday, except to say the Syrian site did not have the fuel loaded yet.

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Fairfax, Va.: Regarding "Members of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee have suggested that the Bush administration had an obligation to notify it of the intelligence and its concerns -- either before the Sept. 6 attack or after it." I don't think Israel needs or wants help from the Senate Selct Committee. Don't you think this is just more politics during the election year?

Robin Wright: Isn't there a little bit of politics in almost everything this election year?

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washingtonpost.com: This concludes our discussion with Robin Wright. Thank you for joining in.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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