dick cheney .
(photo credit: AP)
Officials in the Bush administration are divided over the significance of intelligence provided by Israel that led to last month's strike inside Syria on a reported nuclear facility, the New York Times reported Wednesday.
According to the Times, at issue is whether intelligence presented by Israel months ago to the administration that Syria had begun work on a nuclear weapons program was conclusive enough to justify military action by Israel, and subsequently, a rethinking of American policy toward the two nations.
US Vice President Dick Cheney and other conservatives in the administration are portraying the Israeli intelligence as credible and argue that it should cause the US to reconsider its diplomatic overtures to Syria and North Korea.
By contrast, the Times reports, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her allies in the White House said they do not believe that the intelligence presented so far merits any change in the American diplomatic approach.
During a breakfast meeting on October 2 at the White House, Rice and chief North Korea negotiator, Christopher Hill, told Bush that the US faced a choice: to continue with the nuclear pact with North Korea as a way to bring it back into the diplomatic fold and give it the incentive to stop proliferating nuclear material; or to return to the administration's previous strategy of isolation, which detractors say left North Korea to its own devices and led it to test a nuclear device last October.
Cheney and National Security Advisor Stephen J. Hadley also attended the meeting but expressed unease at the decision last week by Bush and Rice to proceed with an agreement to supply the North Koreans with economic aid in return for disabling its nuclear reactor. They argued that the Israeli intelligence demonstrates that North Korea cannot be trusted. They also argue that the US should be prepared to scuttle the agreement unless North Korea admits to its dealing with the Syrians.
Several current and former officials, as well as outside experts, spoke to the Times on the condition of anonymity because the intelligence surrounding the Israeli strike remains highly classified.
"Some people think that it means that the sky is falling," a senior administration official said. "Others say that they're not convinced that the real intelligence poses a threat."
Besides Rice, officials said that Defense Secretary Robert Gates was also cautious about fully endorsing Israeli warnings. Others in the Bush administration remain unconvinced that a nascent Syrian nuclear program could pose an immediate threat.
One former top Bush administration official told the Times the Israelis were so concerned about the threat posed by a potential Syrian nuclear program that they told the White House they could not wait past the end of the summer to strike the facility.
Bruce Riedel, a CIA and National Security Council veteran and now a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution, said that American intelligence agencies remained cautious about drawing hard conclusions about the significance of the suspicious activity at the Syrian site.
However, Riedel said Israel would not have launched the strike if it believed Damascus was merely developing more sophisticated ballistic missiles or chemical weapons.
"Those red lines were crossed 20 years ago," Riedel said. "You don't risk general war in the Middle East over an extra 100 kilometers' range on a missile system."