Congress getting evidence on suspected nuclear facility
By PAMELA HESS, Associated Press Writer
April 24, 2008

The Syrian nuclear reactor allegedly built with North Korean design help and destroyed last year by Israeli jets was within weeks or months of being functional, a top U.S. official said Thursday.

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.

However, no uranium — needed to fuel a reactor — was evident at the site, a remote area of eastern Syria along the Euphrates River.

The Syrian reactor was similar in design to a North Korean reactor at Yongbyon that has in the past produced small amounts of plutonium, U.S. officials said. Plutonium is highly radioactive and can be used to make powerful nuclear weapons or radiological bombs.

Top members of the House intelligence committee said Thursday after being briefed on the facility by intelligence and administration officials that the reactor posed a serious threat of spreading dangerous nuclear materials.

"This is a serious proliferation issue, both for the Middle East and the countries that may be involved in Asia," said Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich.

CIA Director Michael Hayden, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley briefed lawmakers, who were shown a video presentation of intelligence information that the administration contends establishes a strong link between North Korea's nuclear program and the bombed Syrian site. It included still photographs that showed a strong resemblance between specific features of the plant and the one near Yongbyon.

According to officials familiar with the presentation, it did not show moving images inside the facility or any North Korean workers, but included photographs that depict similarities between the North Korean and Syrian reactor designs.

Hoekstra and Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, told reporters after the closed meeting that they were angry that the Bush administration had delayed briefing the full committee for eight months.

"It's bad management and terrible public policy to go for eight months knowing this was out there and then drop this in our laps six hours before they go to the public," Hoekstra said.

President Bush's failure to keep Congress informed has created friction that may imperil congressional support for Bush's policies toward North Korea and Syria, he said.

"It totally breaks down any trust that you have between the administration and Congress," Hoekstra said. "I think it really jeopardizes any type of the agreement they may come up with" regarding North Korea.

The Syrian site has been veiled in secrecy until this week, with U.S. intelligence and government officials refusing to confirm until now suspicions that the site was to be a nuclear reactor.

White House press secretary Dana Perino said Bush stood by the statement he made in October 2006 when he described North Korea as one of the world's leading proliferators of missile technology, including transfers to Iran and Syria.

"The transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States, and we would hold North Korea fully accountable of the consequences of such action," Bush said then.

Perino refrained from describing what she thought the consequences could be.

"Let's let the briefings take place and the declaration take place and we'll move on from there," she said.

Perino said that the information being provided to lawmakers today will not come as a surprise to any member of the six-party talks.

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, the North is required to submit a "declaration" detailing its programs and proliferation activity, but the talks are 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.

By disclosing North Korean-Syrian cooperation to Congress, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog and the public, the administration may have overcome that impasse by giving North Korea a "concern" that it can acknowledge in the declaration.

North Korea was aware that the administration would be releasing the information and its Foreign Ministry said Thursday that a visit to Pyongyang this week by a U.S. delegation to discuss the declaration made progress. It did not elaborate.

At the same time, the administration's release of the intelligence shines light on alleged malfeasance by Syria, which has signed an international treaty requiring it to disclose nuclear interests and activity, and makes it easier for Israel to explain its decision to destroy the site.

Syria has not declared the alleged reactor to the International Atomic Energy Agency nor was it under international safeguards, possibly putting Syria in breech of an international nuclear nonproliferation treaty.

In the Syrian capital of Damascus, legislator Suleiman Haddad, who heads the parliament's foreign relations committee, told The Associated Press that the videotape does not deserve a response.

"America is looking for any problem in order to accuse Syria," Haddad said by telephone. "Do we need Korean workers to work in Syria?"

"It is regretful to say that America is putting us among its enemies and therefore this talk (at Congress) does not deserve a response. America is trying to create an atmosphere of war in the region," Haddad said. He did not elaborate.

Israeli warplanes bombed the site in Syria on Sept. 6, 2007. A new, larger building has been constructed in its place.

U.S. officials were also briefing members of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, at its Vienna headquarters. ___

Associated Press Writers Barry Schweid, Matthew Lee, Edith Lederer, and Bassem Mroueh contributed to this report.

Original article: Yahoo - AP
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