The U.S. delayed disclosing its intelligence on Syria’s nuclear program for months after an Israeli raid in order to give Damascus breathing room and avoid goading it into military retaliation, senior U.S. intelligence officials said yesterday.
The secret intelligence had remained under wraps for seven months, a gap that led top congressmen to criticize the Bush administration yesterday for its “veil of secrecy” and lack of trust in Congress regarding North Korea’s proliferation activities.
“Our first concern was to prevent conflict and broader confrontation in the Middle East,” said one of the top senior intelligence officials, who held a briefing with reporters late yesterday afternoon.
The official said if information regarding the details behind Israel’s strike on Syria’s Al Kibar facility on Sept. 6 had been released to the public earlier, “Syria would feel great pressure to retaliate” against Israel but added that “as time has passed, that assessment has receded.”
Intelligence officials also said that mounting evidence collected over the past 10 years revealed that North Korea and Syria had begun nuclear cooperation as early as 1997, during the prior Syrian administration led by Syrian President Hafez al-Assad.
But the officials emphasized that while evidence of a mature Syrian nuclear-weapons program existed, it was “in short supply.”
One official compared the strength of evidence to the difference between a clinical diagnosis and “a powerful chain of logic,” particularly emphasizing that the Syrian facility had no means of generating civilian electricity, but only “had a single purpose: to produce plutonium.”
The officials denied, however, that Washington had neither any direct involvement in the Israeli strike nor an approval veto over it.
“Israel made its own decision to take action without a green light from us,” said another top intelligence official.
A video made by U.S. intelligence officials, which included photographs of the nuclear reactor before and after it was destroyed, as well as photographic evidence of a top North Korean nuclear official visiting with Syria’s top nuclear expert, was given to reporters invited to the briefing.
The video was also shown to 22 top congressional representatives who were briefed yesterday.
The photo shows Chon Chibu, who oversees North Korea’s Yongbyon reactor-fuel plant and has participated in the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program, meeting in Syria with Ibrahim Othman, the head of Syria’s Atomic Energy Commission.
Officials said the disclosure of the intelligence is designed to force Syria to admit to the secret nuclear-arms program, which was evading International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) controls. The disclosure also seeks to pressure North Korea to abide by the six-nation talks on nuclear disarmament under which Pyongyang agreed to disclose all details of its nuclear activities, including its assistance to other nations, U.S. officials said.
Administration officials told The Washington Times on Wednesday that the plant in northern Syria, which would have produced plutonium, was nearly complete when it was bombed by Israeli warplanes.