A video taken inside a secret Syrian facility last summer convinced the Israeli government and the Bush administration that North Korea was helping to construct a reactor similar to one that produces plutonium for North Korea's nuclear arsenal, according to senior U.S. officials who said it would be shared with lawmakers today.
The officials said the video of the remote site, code-named Al Kibar by the Syrians, shows North Koreans inside. It played a pivotal role in Israel's decision to bomb the facility late at night last Sept. 6, a move that was publicly denounced by Damascus but not by Washington.
Sources familiar with the video say it also shows that the Syrian reactor core's design is the same as that of the North Korean reactor at Yongbyon, including a virtually identical configuration and number of holes for fuel rods. It shows "remarkable resemblances inside and out to Yongbyon," a U.S. intelligence official said. A nuclear weapons specialist called the video "very, very damning."
Nuclear weapons analysts and U.S. officials predicted that CIA Director Michael V. Hayden's planned disclosures to Capitol Hill could complicate U.S. efforts to improve relations with North Korea as a way to stop its nuclear weapons program. They come as factions inside the administration and in Congress have been battling over the merits of a nuclear-related deal with North Korea.
Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha yesterday angrily denounced the U.S. and Israeli assertions. "If they show a video, remember that the U.S. went to the U.N. Security Council and displayed evidence and images about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. I hope the American people will not be as gullible this time around," he said.
U.S. officials said that Israel shared the video with the United States before the Sept. 6 bombing, after Bush administration officials expressed skepticism last spring that the facility, visible by satellite since 2001, was a nuclear reactor built with North Korea's assistance. Israel has a nuclear weapons arsenal that it has never declared.
But beginning today, intelligence officials will tell members of the House and Senate intelligence, armed services and foreign relations committees that the Syrian facility was not yet fully operational and that there was no uranium for the reactor and no indication of fuel capability, according to U.S. officials and intelligence sources.
David Albright, president of Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) and a former U.N. weapons inspector, said the absence of such evidence warrants skepticism that the reactor was part of an active weapons program.
"The United States and Israel have not identified any Syrian plutonium separation facilities or nuclear weaponization facilities," he said. "The lack of any such facilities gives little confidence that the reactor is part of an active nuclear weapons program. The apparent lack of fuel, either imported or indigenously produced, also is curious and lowers confidence that Syria has a nuclear weapons program."
U.S. intelligence officials will also tell the lawmakers that Syria is not rebuilding a reactor at the Al Kibar site. "The successful engagement of North Korea in the six-party talks means that it was unlikely to have supplied Syria with such facilities or nuclear materials after the reactor site was destroyed," Albright said. "Indeed, there is little, if any, evidence that cooperation between Syria and North Korea extended beyond the date of the destruction of the reactor."
The timing of the congressional briefing is nonetheless awkward for the Bush administration's diplomatic initiative to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear program and permanently disable the reactor at Yongbyon. The CIA's hand was forced, officials said, because influential lawmakers had threatened to cut off funding for the U.S. diplomatic effort unless they received a full account of what the administration knew.
Also, the terms of a tentative U.S.-North Korean deal require that North Korean officials acknowledge U.S. evidence about its help with the Syrian program, and so the disclosures to Congress are meant to preempt what North Korea may eventually say.
Following talks with the South Korean president last weekend, President Bush said that it was premature to make a judgment about whether North Korea was willing to follow through with a commitment to publicly declare its nuclear-related programs, materials and facilities.
Washington and Pyongyang still differ over what should be included in that declaration, a State Department official said. Sung Kim, the State Department director of the Office of Korean Affairs, is in Pyongyang for discussions about the contents.
Syria's top envoy to Washington said the CIA briefings were meant to undermine diplomatic efforts with North Korea, not to confront Syria. Why, Moustapha said, are "they repeating the same lies and fabrications when they were planning to attack Iraq? The reason is simple: It's about North Korea, not Syria. The neoconservative elements are having the upper hand."
He added, "We do not want to plan to acquire nuclear technology as we understand the reality of this world and have seen what the U.S. did to Iraq even when it did not have a nuclear program. So we are not going to give them a pretext to attack Syria."
Before the site was bombed, the facility included a tall, boxy structure like those used to house gas-graphite reactors and was located seven miles north of the desert village of At Tibnah in the Dayr az Zawr region, 90 miles from the Iraqi border, according to photographs released by the ISIS, a nonprofit research group.
The White House and the CIA declined to comment on the briefings.