- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 24, 2008

The top members of the House intelligence committee criticized the Bush administration today for its “veil of secrecy” and lack of trust in Congress regarding North Korea’s proliferation activities, following a CIA briefing on a nuclear facility in Syria built with Pyongyang’s help.

Administration officials told The Washington Times on Wednesday that the plant, which would have produced plutonium, was nearly complete when it was bombed by Israel in September.

“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 committee.

CIA Director Michael V. Hayden and other intelligence officials are briefing several congressional committees in closed-door sessions today, breaking the administration’s silence on the issue.

The facility has become a major issue in six-nation negotiations to end the North’s nuclear programs.

“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,” said committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes, Texas Democrat.

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.”

The lawmakers declined to share details of the briefing, but administration officials said the Syrian facility was almost operational at the time of the Sept. 6 Israeli air strike that flattened it.

“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.”

Administration and congressional officials spoke about the Syrian facility in the 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 thought to have housed the reactor. The building is absent from photos taken afterward.

During the House briefing, intelligence officials were said to have used photos taken in the facility showing people of Korean descent.

The United States has insisted that North Korea disclose any nuclear assistance it has provided to Syria, as well as other countries, in a declaration that was due Dec. 31 as part of a deal reached in the six-party talks last year.

Pyongyang, however, has refused to do so, and the administration has looked for “creative” ways to help both countries save face but move the process forward, so that dismantling of the reactor at Yongbyon can at least begin before Mr. Bush leaves office in January.

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