WASHINGTON -- Two or three undercover agents believed to be working for Israel in a Syrian-based terrorist group were unmasked and killed last fall, not long after the United States gave the Damascus government information about terrorist activities in the country, several Bush administration officials say.
The link between the two events has not been proved. But officials said U.S. experts believe that terrorists obtained the intelligence information given to Syrian leaders and used it to track down the agents within the terrorists' ranks.
The identity of the terrorist group involved in the killings of the agents could not be determined.
Several officials said that the disclosures appeared to have sprung from a strong protest about Syrian terrorist activities that Secretary of
State James A. Baker III personally delivered to President Hafez el Assad of Syria in a meeting in Damascus Sept. 14.
The meeting was said to have been preceded by a sharp debate between intelligence experts and Bush administration officials, led by the State Department, over how strongly the United States should confront Mr. Assad with evidence of Syrian involvement in terrorism.
Officials said the administration argued that Mr. Assad should be given an unusually detailed briefing about the actions of Syrian-based terrorists, to impress upon him the weight of the evidence against his government. Intelligence officials are said to have warned that such a briefing would put undercover agents and methods of gathering information at risk.
"It was quite an argument," said one official. "The intelligence guys finally told them, 'OK, but the blood
will be on your hands if something happens.' "
Asked about the deaths, Mr. Baker's spokeswoman, Margaret D. Tutwiler, issued the following statement: "Any suggestion that Secretary Baker handed over a demarche that led to the death of any individual is categorically untrue."
She refused to confirm that any deaths had taken place. She added that the United States had also received a "credible and serious threat"against an American ambassador in the region last year.
She said, "Any demarche that may have been passed on such a subject would have been done solely to protect the life of an American ambassador and would be fully coordinated within this government, including our intelligence community."
Some officials did not exclude the possibility that the agents' deaths were coincidental to administration contacts with Syria.