The Bush administration will tell Congress tomorrow that a nuclear facility in Syria built with North Korean help was nearly complete when Israel bombed it in September, and that Pyongyang has not provided any further nuclear assistance to the hard-line Arab nation, at least at that site, U.S. officials said.
CIA Director Michael V. Hayden and other intelligence officials are expected to brief several congressional committees in closed-door sessions, breaking the administration’s silence on the issue.
The Syrian facility has become a key issue in six-nation negotiations to end the North’s nuclear programs.
“The belief is that the reactor was nearing completion,”? said one official familiar with the content of the briefings. “It would have been able to produce plutonium.”?
Another official said that the facility in Syria was similar to North Korea’s main nuclear complex at Yongbyon, which has been almost disabled by U.S. experts.
Both programs were based on technology to produce plutonium, a man-made element that is the most common ingredient used to make the fissile core of atomic bombs.
Administration and congressional officials spoke about the Syrian facility in past tense.
One official said it was “good that it was put out of commission,”? and others added that the Israeli air strike occurred before fuel “had been placed in the reactor.”?
Satellite photos taken before the Israeli strike show a large cubical building that was believed to have housed the reactor. The building is absent from photos taken afterward.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the administration will be able to discuss the issue publicly “soon,”? but official spokesmen for the main national security agencies refused to comment on the matter and only offered general statements.
“We have certain responsibilities to brief the Congress on matters of foreign policy and national security, in this case, intelligence matters,”? State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters.
The chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea, Christopher R. Hill, has said that Pyongyang insists it is not currently engaged in proliferation activities and will not be in the future.
Asked today whether the North has assisted Syria’s nuclear program since the Sept. 6 bombing, officials said, “not at that site.”? They declined to elaborate.
The officials, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said they based their conclusions on “very good intelligence derived from a variety of sources.”?
They added that the Israeli government had been informed about the congressional briefings.
However, Yuval Steinitz, a member of the Israeli Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee said that no such information had been provided to legislators.
“This is inconsistent with the standard procedure,”? he said. “I’m upset with our government. It is not healthy that such a briefing is taking place in another parliament, even if it is a friendly parliament like the U.S. Congress.”?
Administration officials and outside analysts said that members of Congress are likely to ask what North Korea’s nuclear cooperation with Syria means for the future of the six-party talks.
Even though they disagreed on the answer, they all deplored the North’s assistance to Syria.
“It’s a very outrageous step, but what do you now? Throw away the whole process? That’s a conundrum,”? a former administration official said.
Another former official, John R. Bolton, who was undersecretary of state for arms control and international security during President Bush’s first term, said: “North Korea is outsourcing its nuclear weapons program. And if you want to hide your activities from inspectors in North Korea, what better place than in Syria?”?