CIA: Reactor was near completion when hit

Even as US officials finally push Bush administration to reveal details, Israel keeps mum on Syrian site.

Syrian Reactor graphic (photo credit: Channel 10)
Syrian Reactor graphic
(photo credit: Channel 10)
Yielding to months of pressure from the US Congress, the Bush administration gave members briefings on Thursday indicating that on September 6, Israel destroyed an alleged Syrian nuclear reactor built with North Korean help. The classified briefings were expected to be followed by more public disclosures later in the day, including a statement by the White House and a video showing North Koreans operating inside a secret Syrian facility strikingly similar to a North Korean nuclear reactor. The Syrian facility was almost complete when it was attacked, and was far enough along to demonstrate a resemblance to the North Korean reactor at Yongbyon, which in the past has produced small amounts of plutonium and is supposedly now being dismantled, a US official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information. The official said no uranium fuel was evident on site. The briefings were held despite strong Israeli concerns that the revelations will compel Syrian President Bashar Assad to take some kind of retaliatory action against Israel. Even so, Israel said Thursday that its policy on the subject wouldn't change. Foreign Ministry spokesman Aryeh Mekel said there was "no change in the position of the government of Israel. We have no comment whatsoever on this matter." Until now, Israel has censored most information connected to September's IAF strike. Analysts in Jerusalem said the CIA's revelations, though, were not a completely negative development. According to the analysts, the fact that the US was revealing the information, and that Israel was not "crowing about it," should temper Assad's need to respond. The positive aspect of the testimony on the air strike, the analysts added, was that it would increase Israel's deterrence by showing the country's impressive operational abilities. In addition, with the information from US authorities, Israel's actions were now being considered as justified in some circles that had earlier questioned the attack. Syria signed an international nuclear nonproliferation treaty requiring it to disclose nuclear interests and activity but had not declared the alleged reactor to the International Atomic Energy Agency, nor was it under international safeguards, possibly putting Syria in violation of the treaty. Imad Moustapha, the Syrian ambassador to the US, denounced the allegations in a conversation with The Washington Post. "If they show a video, remember that the US went to the UN Security Council and displayed evidence and images about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq," he said. "I hope the American people will not be as gullible this time around." The Bush administration did not disclose its rationale for the timing of the disclosure, though White House Press Secretary Dana Perino suggested her office would address the issue later in the day and other government agencies were expected to brief reporters. Several members of Congress have long argued for the administration to disclose what it knew about the September 6 attack. Some of the loudest voices have been those of Republicans skeptical about the State Department's efforts to broker a deal with North Korea in the framework of the six-party talks to dismantle its nuclear program and have demanded the briefings in order to weigh in on the issue. Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Michigan), who as the ranking member of the House intelligence committee was one of the few members of Congress to have been briefed immediately following the Israeli strike, charged that the committee-wide briefings held Thursday were happening too long after the fact. "There's not a clear and compelling case as to why this information is being made available to the committee today. There has been no change in circumstances as to the reasons why we were not told eight months ago," he said. "I think many people believe that we were used today by the administration because - not because they felt they had to inform Congress because it was their legal obligation to do that, but because they had other agendas in mind." He said the briefings were needed because "we believe for Congress to be able to do its full oversight capabilities on an issue that is this critical to the issue of proliferation, to the situation in the Middle East, to what's going on in the six-party talks, and these types of things, Congress needed this information to be a full partner in those efforts." One Congressional aide told The Jerusalem Post that he thought the administration had finally acceded to the members' growing demands for a briefing because it would need congressional approval for the kinds of "sweeteners" - such as foreign aid - the US would have to provide North Korea to complete the denuclearization deal. "They can't avoid any longer the requirements that have been made by Congress to brief because they're going to need Congress soon if there is an agreement," he said. Herb Keinon and AP contributed to this report.