The closed-door hearings of the House Intelligence Committee regarding a site in Syria that the Israel Air Forces bombed last September were closely followed yesterday by senior officials in Israel.
Senior U.S. officials said yesterday that the Israeli strike destroyed a Syrian nuclear reactor built with North Korean design help.
Senior Israeli defense sources said last night that it was still early to gauge how Damascus would react to the news, but warned that the Syrians may now reconsider and decide to retaliate against Israel in some way.
In recent internal discussions, senior Israeli defense establishment officials expressed concern that the official American release of details about the strike would embarrass Syrian leader Bashar Assad, and lead him to take a more aggressive stance toward Israel.
Intelligence officials said that the reports on the nature of the site make Assad vulnerable, internationally and domestically. Most senior members of his regime in Damascus apparently were not aware that the country had a nuclear program, they explained.
Defense sources said last night that there was still risk of an escalation in the area and warned that Israel must be cautious and avoid embarrassing Assad unnecessarily.
Meanwhile, the Israeli government decided to maintain its silence over the September 6, 2007 strike.
However, yesterday's hearings may have raised a new problem in Israel: Members of Congress were shown a video recorded by an agent inside the Syrian nuclear plant prior to the attack. This exposure may lead the Syrians to the source of the leak that allowed Israel and the U.S. to gather intelligence on the nuclear site.
In Washington, a senior U.S. official said the facility in Syria was destroyed soon before it would have become functional, at which point testing would have begun. At the time of the attack, no uranium was evident at the site.
The Syrian reactor was similar in design to a North Korean reactor that has produced small amounts of plutonium, a U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information. The Syrian reactor was not yet complete, but it was far enough along to resemble the North Korean reactor at Yongbyon.
CIA Director Michael Hayden and other intelligence officials went to Capitol Hill to brief Congress on the evidence related to the bombed Syrian facility, scheduling appearances before the House and Senate armed services, intelligence and foreign affairs committees.
The reactor site was veiled in secrecy until this week. U.S. intelligence and government officials had refused to confirm suspicions that the site was to be a nuclear reactor.
The administration has thus far refused to reveal why it chose to release the information now, but the briefings come at a critical time in the diplomatic effort to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons.
As part of that process, North Korea is required to submit a "declaration" detailing its programs and proliferation activity, but the talks have stalled over Pyongyang's refusal to publicly admit the Syria connection. However, officials say the North Koreans are willing to accept international "concern" about unspecified proliferation.
Syria had not declared the alleged reactor to the International Atomic Energy Agency, nor was it under international safeguards, possibly putting Syria in breach of an international nuclear nonproliferation treaty.
House Foreign Affairs Middle East Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Gary Ackerman (Democrat-N.Y.) sharply criticized the administration for embargoing the information and the press leaks surrounding it.
"This is the selective control of information that led us to war in Iraq," he said.
U.S. officials were also briefing members of the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, at its Vienna headquarters.
In recent weeks, a debate has raged in Israel over which details of the attack should be revealed. In deliberations, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert argued that it is necessary to agree to the American request to reveal details pertaining to the nuclear ties between Syria and North Korea, but said the countries should decide jointly on what should be made public.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak opposed the release of any new details on the attack or the nuclear ties between Damascus and Pyongyang, arguing that this would only push the Syrians into a corner and would escalate tensions.
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