- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 24, 2008

Syria undertook extensive efforts to hide from spy satellites a nuclear reactor being built with North Korean help and then also tried to hide the bombed facility after it was destroyed by the Israelis, U.S. officials disclosed today.

Those efforts included removing all material and equipment from the site that would reveal it was a nuclear plant and then burying the reactor debris, the officials said on condition of anonymity. The Syrian nuclear reactor was built without the knowledge of the International Atomic Energy Agency and was so secret that it escaped detection by U.S. intelligence agencies during its construction.

Administration officials told The Washington Times yesterday that the plant in northern Syria, which would have produced plutonium, was nearly complete when it was bombed by Israeli warplanes Sept. 6.

Additionally, a high-level North Korean delegation of officials traveled to Syria after the raid to assist with efforts to cover up the two nations’ cooperation, said senior officials who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity. The cooperation also was outlined in a videotape report made public at the briefing.

The bottom line is the reactor was put out of commission before it was loaded with fuel or became operational, said a senior U.S. official with knowledge of intelligence regarding the Israeli raid into northern Syria.

U.S. intelligence believes that North Korea assisted this effort, a U.S. official said. And that assistance occurred both prior to and after the reactor was put out of 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 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, the officials said.

At the White House, presdential spokeswoman 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 today 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.”

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

The secret intelligence that had remained under wraps for seven months, a time gap that led top congressmen to criticize the Bush administration for its “veil of secrecy” and lack of trust in Congress regarding North Korea’s proliferation activities.

“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 themselves, saying that they prove 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 Pyongyangs nuclear programs and ensuring that North Korea does not transfer” nuclear material to others.

The Syrian reactor was identical in design to a reactor built by North Korea at its Yongbyon facility. Yongbyon is being dismantled by North Korea 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.

Until this week, the bombing raid and the nuclear cooperation has been couched in secrecy despite unofficial reports that Syria was working with North Korea on a nuclear facility.

Until this week, the Syrian nuclear program was suspected of being a covert nuclear research program based on uranium enrichment. Syria, according to a recent CIA report to Congress, was a recipient of goods provided by the Pakistani nuclear supplier network headed by A.Q. Khan, considered the father of the Islamabad’s nuclear program.

The CIA report said Syria has nuclear research centers at Dayr Al Hajar and Dubaya with the potential to be used in a weapons program.

  • Sean Lengell contributed to this report.

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