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.
A top U.S. intelligence official elaborated yesterday that while the facility was "nearing completion," it had not been loaded with uranium fuel.
Syria undertook extensive efforts to hide from spy satellites the nuclear reactor and then also tried to hide the bombed facility after it was destroyed by the Israelis, U.S. officials said yesterday.
"We are convinced, based on a variety of information that North Korea assisted Syria's covert nuclear activities, both before and after the reactor was destroyed," U.S. intelligence officials said.
The Syrian reactor was identical in design to a reactor built by North Korea at its Yongbyon facility, which North Korea is dismantling as part of the six-nation nuclear talks. That reactor was fueled by natural uranium to produce the plutonium now contained in North Korea's nuclear bombs.
The efforts after the Israeli raid included removing all material and equipment from the site that would reveal it was a nuclear plant and then burying the reactor debris, U.S. officials said on the condition of anonymity.
The Syrian nuclear reactor was built without the knowledge of the IAEA and was so secret that it escaped detection by U.S. intelligence agencies during its construction.
CIA Director Michael V. Hayden and other intelligence officials briefed several congressional committees in closed-door sessions yesterday, breaking the administration's silence on the issue, a point that led to harsh criticism from several of the top lawmakers on intelligence issues.
"It's bad management and terrible public policy to go for eight months knowing this was out there and then drop this in our laps six hours before they go to the public," said Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the ranking Republican on the intelligence committee.
Rep. Silvestre Reyes, Texas Democrat and panel chairman, echoed those comments.
"The challenge that we are having, particularly with the administration today, is that there's a veil of secrecy that gets in the way [of] our committee feeling comfortable that we are getting the kind of information that we are supposed to have in order to carry out oversight responsibilities," he said.
Mr. Hoekstra warned that the administration's delay in informing lawmakers amounts to a lack of trust that could make it harder for Congress to approve any future nuclear agreement with North Korea.
The delay has "really damaged the relationship between Congress and the administration," Mr. Hoekstra said. "And that's a big disappointment, but I think that's something that we heard consistently from all of our [committee] members today." But other congressmen focused on the revelations, saying that they prove that the U.S. needs to maintain its tough stance against North Korea.
"Unless we are able to confirm that North Korea is no longer in the nuclear-proliferation business, the United States should not lift sanctions on the North," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who also said the six-party talks should continue and that U.S. goals must remain "both shutting down Pyongyang"s nuclear programs and ensuring that North Korea does not transfer" nuclear material to others.
White House press secretary Dana Perino called on Syria to disclose the nuclear program.
"The Syrian regime must come clean before the world regarding its illicit nuclear activities," Mrs. Perino said.
Imad Moustapha, Syria's ambassador to the U.S., dismissed the claims as ridiculous, telling CNN that he had been called yesterday into the State Department, where officials "told me a ridiculous story about an alleged Syria nuclear project."
Syria's ambassador to Britain, Sami al-Khiyami, told reporters that the U.S. and other nations "just want to exert more pressure on North Korea. This is why they are coming up with this story."
• Sean Lengell contributed to this report.