U.S. experts: Suspected Syrian nuclear site far from operational
Report: Israel gave U.S. video showing Koreans at site; U.S. official: Syrian reactor posed proliferation threat.
Independent American nuclear experts have determined that a suspected nuclear facility in Syria was in its final stages of construction when it was destroyed last year, but was still far from being operational or active.
The site was destroyed in September 2007, reportedly by the Israel Air Force.
Intelligence officials within the Bush administration on Thursday presented intelligence to U.S. lawmakers claiming to show that North Korea helped Syria to build the suspected nuclear facility.
Experts David Albright and Paul Brannan, of the independent Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) said Thursday before the presentation that the site was close to being constructed, but nowhere near functional.
The two based their conclusion on a CIA document released earlier Thursday to American media. According to these experts, the U.S. also did not know how Syria was planning to activate its nuclear program nor does it have intelligence proving that North Korea has or plans to give Damascus the nuclear fuel required to activate the facility.
A senior U.S. official was quoted by foreign media as saying following the presentation that the site was within only weeks or months of being functional.
"The facility was mostly completed but still needed significant testing before it could be declared operational," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Another top member of the U.S. House of Representatives intelligence committee was quoted by foreign media as saying the classified information being shared with members of Congress shows that the Syrian nuclear reactor - allegedly built with North Korean help and destroyed by Israel last year - threatened to spread nuclear weapons technology.
"This is a serious proliferation issue, both for the Middle East and the countries that may be involved in Asia," said Republican Representative Pete Hoekstra.
The Syrian reactor was similar in design to a North Korean reactor that has in the past produced small amounts of plutonium, a U.S. official told foreign media, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information.
The reactor was not yet complete but was far enough along to demonstrate a resemblance to the North Korean reactor at Yongbyon, which supposedly is being dismantled. The official said no uranium, a reactor's fuel, was evident on site.
CIA Director Michael Hayden and other intelligence officials went to the Congress to brief lawmakers on the evidence related to the bombed Syrian facility. They had appearances scheduled before the House and Senate armed services, intelligence and foreign affairs committees.
The closed-door briefings conducted by Hayden and other intelligence officials breaks U.S. official silence on the matter and could complicate American diplomacy with North Korea and in the Middle East.
The Washington Post reported on its Web site Thursday that the White House was poised to unveil video images "it claims support allegations that North Korea was helping Syria to build a nuclear reactor."
A U.S. official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to discuss classified matters, said that among the intelligence the United States has was an image of what appeared to be people of Korean descent at the facility.
However, the official stressed that this image was only part of a wider array of information gathered from multiple sources on the suspected cooperation between Syria and North Korea.
According to the Washington Post report, the tape obtained by Israel also shows that the design of the Syrian site is similar to a North Korean nuclear reactor in Yongbyon, said the report.
The report quotes a U.S. intelligence official saying the Syrian facility bears "remarkable resemblances inside and out to Yongbyon." It also quotes a nuclear specialist calling the video "very, very damning."
Israel apparently showed the video to the U.S. prior to the September strike, according to the report, after the Bush administration said it doubted the site was built with North Korean assistance.
Syria denies rumors of N. Korea cooperation
Syria on Thursday dismissed U.S. accusations that North Korea was helping it build a nuclear reactor that could produce plutonium.
Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations Bashar Ja'afari told reporters on Wednesday that "there was no Syria-North Korea cooperation whatsoever in Syria. We deny these rumors."
Syria's ambassador to Britain, Sami al-Khiyami, told Reuters that the accusation was intended to put pressure on North Korea in talks about Pyongyang's nuclear program.
"This has nothing to do with North Korea and Syria. They just want to exert more pressure on North Korea. This is why they are coming up with this story," Khiyami said.
"This is political manipulation ahead of the talks with North Korea to exert more pressure on them."
The White House has said little about the possibility of such cooperation between the two since Israel conducted a mysterious September 6 air strike on Syria that media reports said targeted a nuclear site being built with Pyongyang's help.
The presentation to U.S. lawmakers was expected to include still photographs taken from videotape recorded inside the Syrian facility, another U.S. official said.
"Unfortunately the scenario of taking and retaking pictures looks like what happened before the Iraq war, when the U.S. administration was trying to convince the world that Iraq had nuclear weapons," Khiyami said.
"Instead of coming up with these ridiculous photos I think the U.S. administration should put all their effort into clearing the Middle East region of all weapons of mass destruction, starting with its closest ally Israel."
Israel is widely believed to have assembled the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal at Dimona, a plant out of bounds to foreign inspection.
Israel fears U.S. hearings will expose top-secret data
Defense officials in Jerusalem have expressed concern that classified details of Israel's bombing of a Syrian nuclear facility last September will be revealed during Congressional hearings on the incident Thursday in Washington.
The American administration is slated to provide Thursday, for the first time, extensive details about the nature of the compound destroyed by the Israel Air Force on September 6.
The Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday that Congress will hear from the Central Intelligence Agency that the facility destroyed in the Israel Air Force attack was a nuclear reactor for producing plutonium.
Israel, however, does not intend to break the official silence it has maintained on the matter for the past seven months. Security sources told Haaretz on Wednesday night that the government will not go public with new information in the case.
The Prime Minister's Office declined to comment on the matter Wednesday, and referred Haaretz to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's statements last week in his Pesach interview with media outlets, in which he said that "the Syrians know what our position is, and we know what their expectations are."