White House claims N. Korea-Syria link

Joint work on nuclear reactor called `dangerous'

April 25, 2008|By Paul Richter and Greg Miller | Paul Richter and Greg Miller,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- U.S. intelligence officials showed satellite images, classified photos and other evidence to members of Congress yesterday in an unusual presentation intended to advance the American case that North Korea was helping Syria build a nuclear reactor before the facility was destroyed by Israeli warplanes last year.

CIA Director Michael V. Hayden and senior spy officials spent hours briefing key committees on Capitol Hill, publicly releasing much of the evidence later in the afternoon.

In detailing the alleged North Korean-Syrian cooperation and the destruction of the plant, the Bush administration broke a long silence on the issue, finally confirming the Israeli attack but denying U.S. involvement in its planning or execution.

A White House statement strongly condemned both North Korea and Syria for their alleged roles in the project. Syria responded by denouncing "false allegations that the current United States administration continually launches against Syria."

The evidence includes photos of Asian workers at a facility in a remote area of Syria, where intelligence agencies had for years tracked construction of a plant they said bore remarkable similarities to a nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, North Korea.

"There are images from within the facility," said a U.S. intelligence official familiar with the material. "But the key here is not that image, but the design features and components similarities between this facility and Yongbyon. And the fact that there has been for about a decade now a relationship in the nuclear sphere between Syria and North Korea."

The U.S. accuses North Korea of spreading nuclear weapons technology around the globe.

Administration officials said they were releasing the information to buttress the U.S. bargaining position in talks with North Korea that are aimed at removing nuclear weapons under the Communist nation's control.

Administration officials also hope to pressure Syria and Iran. They accuse Syria of supporting terrorism and destabilizing Lebanon, and they hope that the disclosures will show Iran that covert nuclear facilities can be detected and exposed.

The briefings centered on a video assembled by American spy agencies that includes images and other evidence linking North Korea to the nascent reactor at a site known as Al Kibar, about 90 miles from the border with Iraq.

The facility was destroyed in a secret strike Sept. 6 by Israeli warplanes, an operation the United States did not condemn and one Israeli officials have been silent about. U.S. officials said the facility was destroyed before it was loaded with nuclear fuel or became operational.

The White House statement said U.S. officials were convinced by a variety of information, including that the facility "was not intended for peaceful purposes. Carefully hidden from view, the reactor was not configured for such purposes."

The statement called North Korea's alleged secret cooperation with Syria a "dangerous manifestation" of Pyongyang's nuclear proliferation activities.

It demanded that the Syrian regime "come clean before the world regarding its illicit activities. The Syrian regime supports terrorism, takes action that destabilizes Lebanon, allows the transit of some foreign fighters into Iraq and represses its own people."

Syria should end these activities if "it wants better relations with the international community," the statement says.

The decision to release the intelligence after months of restricting it to a small circle of White House and congressional officials prompted speculation about the administration's motives.

Some observers, including some within the administration, theorized that the briefings were scheduled because administration hawks believed the disclosure would galvanize congressional opposition to U.S. talks with North Korea or cause North Koreans to break off negotiations.

Administration officials denied such a motive, saying they needed to release the information to win congressional assent and funding approval for the negotiations.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, emerged from one of yesterday's briefings saying that many lawmakers believed "that we were used today by the administration" and that the White House shared the data not out of a desire to keep Congress informed but "because they had other agendas in mind."

A U.S. official acknowledged that the negotiations with North Korea "could hit a bump over this" but indicated that it was necessary to keep lawmakers informed because of possible pending progress in those talks.

Paul Richter and Greg Miller write for the Los Angeles Times.

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