Intel Experts: Video Shows Nuclear Activity in Syria

Intelligence officials Thursday showed members of Congress videotape and other evidence to support their case that Syria was building a nuclear reactor with help from North Korea. The site was bombed by Israeli planes last year.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Seven months ago, Israeli war planes bombed a remote complex in the desert of Syria. That news was followed by silence from the Bush administration until yesterday when senior intelligence officials went to Capitol Hill to say that the mystery building was a nuclear reactor being built with the help of North Korea. And they brought photos to back up their claims. NPR's Tom Gjelten has more.

TOM GJELTEN: It's hardly a secret that Syria has long turned to North Korea for military help. North Korean Scud missiles have been part of the Syrian arsenal for many years. But the Bush Administration now says North Korea helped Syria build a nuclear reactor. In briefings yesterday, intelligence officials said they think the Syrian reactor was built to make plutonium for a nuclear weapons program. To back up those claims, the Bush administration prepared a DVD, including photographs said to have been taken by a spy inside the Syrian facility. The interior photographs suggested the structure was indeed a nuclear reactor similar to one in Yongbyon, North Korea.

(Soundbite of DVD)

Announcer: This photograph shows the top of the reactor vessel in the reactor hall.

GJELTEN: The DVD complete with narration was played yesterday for members of Congress and later for reporters.

(Soundbite of DVD)

Announcer: Note the similar arrangement of vertical tube openings in the top of the Syrian reactor on the left and North Korea's Yongbyon plutonium production reactor on the right.

GJELTEN: The intelligence officials estimated that North Korea's nuclear cooperation with Syria began more than a decade ago. The DVD presented some supporting evidence of the Syria-North Korea ties.

(Soundbite of DVD)

Announcer: We obtained this photograph for example showing the head of North Korea's nuclear reactor fuel manufacturing plant in Yongbyon together in Syria with the head of the Syria Atomic Energy Commission.

GJELTEN: The photograph is of two men posing cheerfully on a city street. A car in the background has Syrian license plates. The North Korean man is known to U.S. diplomats who have met with him during the ongoing international talks over North Korea's nuclear program. The intelligence officials acknowledged they lack definitive evidence for their conclusion that the Syrian reactor was built as part of a nuclear weapons program, but they said there was no other obvious purpose for the reactor because it was ill-suited for research and not configured to produce electricity. They also pointed out that Syria kept its construction secret in violation of international treaty commitments to declare all nuclear related activity. In a statement yesterday, the Syrian Embassy in Washington said it utterly denies the Bush administration's allegations saying they were made to misguide the U.S. Congress. Nuclear expert Joseph Cirincione from the Ploughshares Fund says the Administration makes a good case that the Syrian facility was in fact a nuclear reactor, but he says that hardly means the Syrians were on the verge of producing a nuclear bomb.

Mr. JOSEPH CIRINCIONE (President, Ploughshares Fund): They may have decided they want to create a piece of a nuclear weapons program, a reactor, but that's just one piece. You really need quite a large complex to be able to burn the fuel and create plutonium and then you need it very large and difficult to construct facility to handle the fuel and extract the plutonium from it. So the reactor alone doesn't give them weapons capability.

GJELTEN: A senior administration official yesterday said the United States initially considered using the threat of military action to persuade Syria to dismantle the reactor on its own. But he said the United States understood Israel's decision to destroy the facility before it became operational. The official said the United States did not share its intelligence about the Syrian reactor earlier in part because of a fear the allegations might prompt Syria to retaliate against Israel. Yesterday's presentations came as the United States and other countries were in the late stages of talks with North Korea over its nuclear program. Under the deal being negotiated, the North Koreans would be obliged to reveal what nuclear assistance they have provided to other countries. The senior administration official said he hoped the new information about North Korea's alleged role in Syria would prod it to be more open. Other officials said the disclosures could anger the North Koreans and prompt them to abandon the negotiations.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: And you can see the video evidence released to reporters at npr.org.

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Evidence Said to Link Syrian Reactor, North Korea

This Aug. 5, 2007, satellite image shows a suspected nuclear reactor site in Syria. i

This Aug. 5, 2007, satellite image shows a suspected nuclear reactor site in Syria. Israeli aircraft bombed the facility on Sept. 6. AP/DigitalGlobe hide caption

itoggle caption AP/DigitalGlobe
This Aug. 5, 2007, satellite image shows a suspected nuclear reactor site in Syria.

This Aug. 5, 2007, satellite image shows a suspected nuclear reactor site in Syria. Israeli aircraft bombed the facility on Sept. 6.

AP/DigitalGlobe

The Bush administration told U.S. lawmakers on Thursday that a site in Syria that Israel bombed in September was a nuclear reactor in the final stages of construction and that it was built with the help of North Korea.

The White House said there was "good reason to believe the Syrian reactor was not intended for peaceful purposes."

Tom Gjelten, NPR's U.S. diplomacy and military affairs correspondent, tells Melissa Block that intelligence officials at the briefing were trying to make three points: that the facility was a nuclear reactor meant to produce plutonium; that it was built with North Korean help and modeled after a reactor in North Korea; and that the purpose of the Syrian facility was to create fuel for a nuclear weapons program.

Gjelten says the officials are confident in the first two points, but don't have strong evidence to support the belief that the reactor was intended to create fuel for a bomb.

The officials offered photos taken inside the facility — presumably by an Israeli spy — that show it was a nuclear reactor. There were no photos of North Koreans inside the plant. There was, however, a picture of a senior North Korean official involved in the nuclear program in Syria meeting with Syrian officials.

U.S. officials said they did not know about the Syrian facility until they received initial intelligence from Israel, and that the U.S. did not give Israel a green light for the September raid.

The administration said it did not brief lawmakers about the facility until now because Syria might have retaliated against Israel and that there was a danger of a regional confrontation.

The issue of North Korean involvement in the Syrian reactor arises just as the U.S. and North Korea are said to be close to an agreement on the future of the Asian nation's nuclear program.

Gjelten says the reason for Thursday's briefings is that "some Republicans in Congress who are very anxious to get this information out said that the approval of a deal with North Korea was unlikely to go forward unless the administration came clean on what it knew about North Korea's activities in Syria."

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