ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
It is still not known precisely what the target was when Israel carried out an air strike inside Syria on September 6th. Neither the Israeli government nor the Bush administration has offered a full explanation of the attack, even though it appears that the Israelis briefed the administration beforehand.
But there have been leaks to the news media that North Korea was cooperating with Syria on something nuclear-related, this according to Israeli intelligence. The incident has sparked a serious clash within the administration, especially in connection with the ongoing diplomatic effort to rid North Korea of nuclear weapons.
NPR's Mike Shuster has been following it all.
And, Mike, first, exactly, what do we know about the attack of September 6th?
MIKE SHUSTER: Unfortunately, Robert, we know almost nothing. We don't know exactly where the target was. Believed to be somewhere in eastern Syria, but there have been reports that it was near Syria's border with Turkey or that it was not near Turkey. It's not known for certain how many Israeli planes attacked, whether there were Israelis on the ground during the action, how many bombs were dropped, and what was destroyed.
SIEGEL: And what have the Syrians said about it?
SHUSTER: Well, the Syrians haven't said much. Initially, they wouldn't confirm it. And eventually, they did. And in a recent interview, Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, said the Israelis bombed an unused military building. Both the Syrians and North Korea have denied any sort of cooperation in the nuclear realm. But I should add here that Syria and North Korea have cooperated for many years - this is known - on missile technology. North Korea has sold plenty of scud missiles to Syria, and North Korean specialists have been - and probably - are now in Syria. So an entirely different scenario has the Israelis bombing a delivery of North Korean missiles to Syria. And then possibly misrepresenting this as something nuclear-related because of faulty intelligence.
SIEGEL: But is there anything solid about the nuclear scenario?
SHUSTER: I'm afraid not. There have been wild assertions that the site in Syria was producing plutonium, but that would have to be a nuclear reactor. The construction of which couldn't have been kept secret for this long. So far, there's been no solid evidence have been made public about this.
This intelligence, though, has been very closely held, even within the administration. And what I keep hearing from reliable and thoughtful experts on North Korea, they have been told by those allegedly in the know that if the intelligence could be revealed, it would be astounding. At the same time, there's clearly a difference of opinion within the administration about the reliability of this intelligence, with Vice President Cheney, it has said, embracing this intelligence fully and Secretary of State Rice and Secretary of Defense Gates being much more cautious.
SIEGEL: Astounding, implying what exactly?
SHUSTER: Implying something very serious, but nevertheless, this sort of gets whispered down the lane and never is asserted exactly what the intelligence is.
SIEGEL: Well, what we have here is at least a touring circus. Syria is an area of great concern, obviously, the Israel also to the U.S. But we're also talking about the diplomacy, the negotiations hearing on with North Korea on its known nuclear weapons activities.
SHUSTER: That's right. The Israelis brought this intelligence to the administration during the summer, just as negotiations with North Korea over their nuclear weapons program was making what seemed like real progress.
North Korea had committed itself to disabling its known nuclear facilities, providing a full inventory of what it's been doing in the nuclear realm. And it did shut down the nuclear facilities at Yongbyon in July.
But those who opposed compromise with North Korea, who opposed dealing with North Korea, like the former U.N. Ambassador John Bolten, were going full throttle against the negotiations with North Korea. Then, the Israeli attack happened on September 6th. And it sure look to a lot of people like this was an effort to undermine the continuing diplomatic efforts with North Korea.
SIEGEL: A hypothetical question. Let's assume that there really is good intelligence of secret North Korea nuclear cooperation with Syria.
If that were the case, why wouldn't the U.S. and Israel want to go public with that?
SHUSTER: I think that's a question that is at the heart of this. You'd think that going public would achieve exactly what the hawks want - the discrediting of negotiations with North Korea and the unveiling of Syria as an aspiring nuclear weapon state. But that hasn't happened. And still, the whole thing remains very murky.
SIEGEL: NPR's Mike Shuster.
Mike, thank you very much.
SHUSTER: You're welcome, Robert.
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