Concerns mount over IAF strike briefing

Officials: Revelations could "embarrass" Assad, create pressure to attack Israel, postpone talks.

syrian raid site 224.88 (photo credit: Channel 2)
syrian raid site 224.88
(photo credit: Channel 2)
US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said Wednesday that the American public would "soon" learn the details of North Korea's nuclear involvement with Syria, despite fears in Jerusalem that such revelations could push Syria to attack Israel. Israel has registered its opposition to releasing details connected to the IAF's September 6 strike on what foreign media reports have said was likely a nuclear reactor being built in northeastern Syria with the help of North Korea. But members of Congress have been clamoring for briefings on what the administration knows about the incident and what it means for North Korean nuclear proliferation amid concerns over US concessions to the East Asian country in exchange for ending its nuclear program. Select congressional panels, including the Senate and House intelligence committees, are set to receive closed briefings Thursday on what the administration knows about North Korean-Syrian nuclear ties. Top defense officials expressed concern Wednesday that the details revealed in the congressional hearing would "embarrass" Syrian President Bashar Assad - who has refused to confirm reports on the nature of the site - and might create pressure from within his regime to respond militarily against Israel. "Syria thinks it owes us for what happened in September," a senior Israeli defense official said, adding that the congressional hearing could also force Assad to reject peace talks with Israel to show leadership in the face of growing internal criticism. "His public embarrassment will minimize the chances of him responding positively to the idea of peace talks with Israel," another official said. Defense Minister Ehud Barak transmitted these concerns last week to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whose office refused to comment Wednesday on the upcoming congressional hearing. Since the air strike, Israel has refused to publicly reveal details on the site, and the military censor has imposed tight restrictions on what details the Israeli press is allowed to publish. The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday that US intelligence officials would tell the US legislators that North Korea was helping Syria to build a plutonium-fueled reactor. Following the September 6 air strike, the Syrians razed the site. At a press briefing on Wednesday morning, Gates would not elaborate on the nature or timing of the revelations to be made public, beyond his statement that they would come "soon," and neither would spokesmen from the State Department and White House when asked later in the day about his comments. There has been speculation, however, that members of the media will be given information following the closed congressional briefings. US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said on Wednesday that he would not address media reports that the briefing was to be held Thursday, but spoke generally about the utility of such congressional briefings. "We have certain responsibilities to brief the Congress on matters of foreign policy and national security, and in this case [on] intelligence matters," he said. "There's a certain responsibility that goes along with the good governance and the functioning of our government. Certainly, we've committed to that and committed to working closely with Congress on matters related to national security, intelligence and foreign policy." One senior Bush administration official said Thursday's briefing was scheduled because intelligence agencies had been deluged for months with congressional requests for information about North Korean activity in Syria and the Israeli air strike, and felt it was now time to brief lawmakers. The official said, however, that there were also concerns that the revelations, if leaked or made public, could encourage opponents of the administration's attempts to negotiate an end to North Korea's nuclear weapons program. US diplomats are pressing North Korea to come clean about its nuclear cooperation with Syria as part of those talks but have had little success. Another official said Thursday's presentation would be a compilation of intelligence from more than one source that had been carefully analyzed over a period of months and by its nature came with caveats. Under an agreement reached last year with the United States, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia, the North is required to give a full accounting of its nuclear programs, including whether it spread nuclear technology. North Korea claims it gave the nuclear declaration to the United States in November, but US officials say the North never produced a "complete and correct" declaration. This week, a US delegation went to North Korea to press the government for a detailed list of its nuclear programs, the latest sticking point at international nuclear disarmament talks. The leader of the delegation is expected to report back to Washington on Friday. The United States recently has stepped back from its push for a detailed declaration addressing the North's alleged secret uranium enrichment program and nuclear cooperation with Syria. Now, the United States says it wants the North to simply acknowledge the American concerns and then set up a system to verify that the country does not continue such activity. AP contributed to this report.