The Bush administration released detailed photographic images on Thursday to support its assertion that the building in Syria that Israel destroyed in an airstrike last year was a nuclear reactor constructed with years of help from North Korea.
The administration said it withheld the pictures for seven months out of fear that Syria could retaliate against Israel and start a broader war in the Middle East.
The photographs taken inside the reactor before it was destroyed in an air raid on Sept. 6 clearly show the rods that control the heat in a nuclear reactor, one of many close engineering similarities to a reactor halfway around the world where North Korea produced the fuel for its nuclear arsenal.
While the photographs were not dated, some taken on the ground seemed to go back to before 2002.
But after a full day of briefing members of Congress, two senior intelligence officials acknowledged that the evidence had left them with no more than ï¿½low confidenceï¿½ that Syria was preparing to build a nuclear weapon. They said that there was no sign that Syria had built an operation to convert the spent fuel from the plant into weapons-grade plutonium, but that they had told President Bush last year that they could think of no other explanation for the reactor.
Among the photographs shown to members of Congress and reporters on Thursday was one of the manager of North Koreaï¿½s Yongbyon nuclear plant with the director of Syriaï¿½s nuclear agency. A car in the background has Syrian license plates.
When asked about North Koreaï¿½s motivation for the project, one of the senior intelligence officials said simply, ï¿½Cash.ï¿½ He refused to say how much.
The revelation of the plantï¿½s existence is not new; The New York Times reported in mid-October that Israel had brought the United States evidence that the Syrian building was a partly constructed reactor. But no more than a handful of lawmakers had ever been briefed on the attack.
A senior administration official, briefing reporters with the help of the two senior intelligence officials, said for the first time that the White House had extensive discussions with Israel before the airstrike in September. The official said the White House had raised the possibility of confronting Syria with a demand that it dismantle the reactor or face the possibility of an attack.
But that idea apparently never gained traction with the Israelis or some in the administration, and in the end, the official said, Israel cited satellite evidence to declare that the Syrian reactor constituted ï¿½an existential threatï¿½ to Israel because it might soon be ready for operation. The senior administration official, who was a central player in Mr. Bushï¿½s deliberations, added that Israelï¿½s attack proceeded ï¿½without a green light from us.ï¿½
ï¿½None was asked for, none was given,ï¿½ the official added.
While one of the senior intelligence officials said that the United States agreed that Syria was ï¿½good to goï¿½ in turning on the reactor, it would have been years before it could have produced weapons fuel.
It is unclear how the Syrians planned to get the uranium they needed. Once they got it, the reactor would have had to run for roughly 18 months before the fuel was ï¿½cooked.ï¿½ And then to turn it into weapons-grade plutonium, it would require reprocessing, presumably outside the country unless Syria found a way to build its own plant.
The announcement on Thursday closes one chapter of a secretive intelligence and military operation and opens several others that will play out over the remainder of the Bush presidency.
The crucial question now is how the North Koreans will react. Some officials said that they hoped the announcement would embarrass the North into admitting to nuclear proliferation activities, while others said it could prompt the North to walk away from the negotiating table ï¿½ and collapse the deal Mr. Bush was hoping to reach by the end of his presidency. In return for North Koreaï¿½s declaration of all its nuclear activities, the United States would lift sanctions and begin to negotiate the North Koreansï¿½ reward for turning over their fuel and weapons.
The announcement also raises the possibility of new tensions with Syria, as the White House on Thursday accused the Syrian government of a ï¿½cover-upï¿½ consistent with a government that ï¿½supports terrorism, takes action that destabilizes Lebanonï¿½ and allows militants to enter Iraq.
Last year, Mr. Bush ordered that knowledge of the Syrian project be limited to a few crucial officials, and he put the C.I.A. in charge of marshaling the assets of other intelligence agencies.
Still, the Americans were somewhat blindsided. By their own account, they suspected that North Korea and Syria were at work together in Syria, but only identified the plant at Al Kibar, named for the nearest town, after they received photos of the interior of the plant last spring from Israel, American and Israeli officials said last year.
Only selected pictures were released by the intelligence agencies on Thursday, including a video that combined still photos and drawings, and had a voice-over that gave the presentation the feel of a cold-war-era newsreel about the Korean War. In fact, it was intended in part, officials said, to try to draw that war ï¿½ in which the United States and North Korea never signed a peace treaty ï¿½ to a close.
But inside the administration, the battle over whether to try to strike a deal with North Korea or keep it under sanctions in hopes of setting off the collapse of its government continues into the last months of Mr. Bushï¿½s term. Representative Peter Hoekstra, a Republican from Michigan, expressed annoyance on Thursday that the administration waited seven months to brief Congress.
ï¿½I think many people believe that we were used today by the administration,ï¿½ he said.
At the C.I.A., Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the agencyï¿½s director, told employees on Thursday that they should ï¿½take heart because our team effort on the Al Kibar reactor is a case study in rigorous analytic tradecraft, skillful human and technical collection, and close collaboration.ï¿½
But even this victory, some experts note, raises questions about the agencyï¿½s focus. The reactor was built within 100 miles of the Iraqi border yet never identified even though the administration was searching for any form of such arms programs in Iraq.
Moreover, even some senior officials of the administration acknowledge that they are likely to leave Mr. Bushï¿½s successor with a North Korea with roughly 10 nuclear weapons or fuel for weapons, up from the one or two weapons it had when Mr. Bush took office in 2001.
ï¿½Iï¿½d say the score is Kim Jong-il eight, and Bush zero,ï¿½ said Graham Allison, a Harvard professor and author of ï¿½Nuclear Terrorism,ï¿½ who was in Washington on Thursday to testify about Iranï¿½s nuclear program. ï¿½And if you can build a reactor in Syria without being detected for eight years, how hard can it be to sell a little plutonium to Osama bin Laden?ï¿½
2. US Envoy Hill Says NKorea, Syria Not Cooperating Now
(for personal use only)
US chief nuclear negotiator Christopher Hill said North Korea and Syria were no longer cooperating in nuclear work despite the US administration's allegations of help on a secret reactor.
President George W. Bush's administration went public Thursday with video they said showed that a nuclear reactor in Syria built with North Korea for military purposes was nearing completion when Israel destroyed it in September.
The US accusations came a day after North Korea sounded upbeat after a long stalemate in implementing a six-nation deal negotiated by Hill on ending the communist state's nuclear drive.
Hill, speaking Thursday in New Haven, Connecticut, suggested that such North Korean activities with Syria were in the past.
"It is the judgement of the United States that there is not an ongoing cooperation with Syria in this area," Hill told reporters in footage broadcast Friday on Japanese television.
"We will deal with this issue as we do with many other issues in the six parties," Hill said.
US lawmakers after being briefed on the administration's allegations said that developments could wreck the six-nation deal, hailed last year as a breakthrough by the Bush administration.
US media have suggested the timing of the Syria allegations could be an effort by conservatives within the Bush administration unhappy with Hill to bring down the deal which they see as too weak.
The six-party deal reached last year would grant North Korea energy aid and major diplomatic and security benefits in return for full denuclearisation.
But the talks have been stalled over the requirement that the North declare all its nuclear activities by the end of 2007. The North said it delivered the documentation last November but the US said it was incomplete.
Hill, in talks over the deal with his North Korean counterpart earlier this month in Singapore, reportedly offered to allow Pyongyang to keep private its reply to certain US allegations, including over cooperation with Syria, while publicly responding on other areas.
The six-party talks group the two Koreas, the US, Russia, Japan and China.
Japan has been the most critical member of the six-nation talks and has refused any funding due to a feud over North Korea's past kidnappings of Japanese civilians.
Japan has strongly opposed US offers to take North Korea off a list of state sponsors of terrorism in exchange for progress in the six-nation deal.
Hill said there was no connection between the delisting issue and the allegations of cooperation with Syria.
"The criteria for the delisting is quite a separate matter," Hill said.
Iran has agreed to answer contentions stemming from American and other intelligence reports that it studied how to design nuclear weapons, the chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency said Wednesday.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the agencyï¿½s director general, called the gesture a ï¿½milestone.ï¿½ Iran previously denied the reports but declined to address them in detail.
Resolving whether Iran secretly tried to ï¿½weaponizeï¿½ nuclear materials is central to the agencyï¿½s ability to complete an inquiry into Iranï¿½s nuclear program. Iran has refused to suspend work on enriching uranium for nuclear fuel. Iran says the work is for peaceful energy purposes, but the United States and other nations say it is a quest to develop nuclear weapons.
The agreement ï¿½is a certain milestone, and hopefully by the end of May weï¿½ll be in position to get the explanation and clarification from Iran as to these alleged studies,ï¿½ Dr. ElBaradei said during a visit to Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital.
His spokeswoman said the deal was struck in Tehran on Monday and Tuesday between Iranian leaders and Olli Heinonen, the atomic agencyï¿½s top investigator.
Iran had called the talks with Mr. Heinonen positive but had not said what they involved.
Iran has rejected the intelligence about weapons experiments, saying it was fabricated.
But the agency has insisted that Iran back up its denials with proof. American intelligence findings said Iran researched bomb designs until 2003, and other countries have said the illicit work continued more recently.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Wednesday in a televised speech that Iran would ï¿½slap on the mouthï¿½ countries that demanded that Iran halt its nuclear program.
An unidentified Iranian official in the delegation that met with Mr. Heinonen did not mention the deal in remarks released by the official news agency IRNA. ï¿½Iranï¿½s door is open for negotiations with I.A.E.A. legal representatives, and Iran will continue its cooperation with the agency like before,ï¿½ the official said.
Areva SA, the world's biggest maker of nuclear reactors, said first-quarter sales rose 12 per cent on higher demand for reactors equipment and spent-fuel recycling.
Revenue climbed to 2.77 billion euros, or $4.41 billion (Canadian), from 2.47 billion euros a year earlier, the Paris-based company said in a statement yesterday. Analysts had expected 2.79 billion euros. Areva reiterated 2008 targets of "strong growth" in orders and revenue, and an increase in operating profit.
The state-run French reactor maker, which competes with General Electric Co. and Toshiba Corp.'s Westinghouse, aims to build a third of the estimated 300 reactors needed worldwide by 2030, chief executive officer Anne Lauvergeon said Dec. 19.
Areva in November won an eight billion euro contract to supply two reactors and uranium to China.
It is more than a little suspicious that the ever-secretive Bush administration has suddenly decided to go public with what it knows about North Koreaï¿½s nuclear connection with Syria. After seven months of refusing to acknowledge Israelï¿½s air strike last Sept. 6 on a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor, the intelligence community has now provided Congress with video images showing North Koreans inside the secret facility.
It is another example of this administration insisting that information be withheld for national security reasons ï¿½ until there is a political reason to release it.
So why now? It is no secret that Republican hard-liners are outraged over a State Department-negotiated deal intended to eventually shut down North Koreaï¿½s nuclear weapons program. They are desperate to stop it, either by getting President Bush to pull back or provoking the easily provoked North Koreans into doing something stupid, like walking out of the talks.
Thursdayï¿½s presentation to certain Congressional committees will also make it harder to win approval for aid to dismantle North Korean nuclear facilities ï¿½ an essential part of the agreement.
As we said recently on this page, the deal is imperfect, not least because it does not require Pyongyang to come clean on the Syria deal. But at this point it is probably the best chance of moving North Korea toward a much more important goal: fully accounting for and eventually giving up its plutonium stocks and weapons. The North Koreans have already shut down their reactor at Yongbyon ï¿½ the source of their plutonium ï¿½ but there is a lot more work to be done.
North Koreaï¿½s willingness to sell nuclear technology and know-how to Syria is extremely worrisome. Israelï¿½s attack has at least ensured that the Syrian reactor will not be a threat. As for Pyongyangï¿½s promises to forsake any future sales, that must be vigilantly monitored and verified along with all of its nuclear activities. Scuttling the agreement now will guarantee less transparency, not more, and will only increase Pyongyangï¿½s nuclear appetites and its incentive to sell more of its wares.
For six years, President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney refused to seriously negotiate with North Korea. The result? North Korea tested a nuclear device and went from having enough plutonium for one or two weapons to eight or more. Weï¿½ve seen that movie. The world canï¿½t afford a sequel.
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