- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Bush administration is set to tell Congress today that a nuclear facility in Syria built with North Korean help was nearly complete when Israel bombed it in September, but 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 facility has become a major 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.”

According to wire services, another U.S. official said the intelligence that will be presented to lawmakers would include “some pretty compelling before and after [aerial] pictures of the site.”

The presentation is expected to include still photographs taken from videotape recorded inside the Syrian facility, the official said, adding that the intelligence is expected to show that Syria was building a nuclear reactor complex much like the North Korean nuclear reactor complex at Yongbyon.

The Yongbyon reactor has been almost disabled by U.S. specialists. Both programs were based on technology to produce plutonium — a man-made element used to make the fissile core of atomic bombs.

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.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the administration will be able to discuss the issue publicly “soon,” but the 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.

U.N. officials said the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) could not confirm the administration’s conclusions because Syria refused access to the site in question, and the IAEA authorities needed to take ground samples and conduct interviews.

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 yesterday 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 the 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 was 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 after today’s briefings, members of Congress are likely to ask what North Korea’s behavior means for the future of the six-party talks. Even though they disagreed on the answer to that question, they all deplored the North’s assistance to Syria.

“It’s a very outrageous step, but what do you do 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?”

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 Yongbyon’s dismantling can at least begin before Mr. Bush leaves office in January.

Joshua Mitnick contributed to this report from Tel Aviv and Betsy Pisik from New York.

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