RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This much is known: Last September, Israeli jets bombed and destroyed a facility in Syria. Still officially secret is why. Neither Israel nor the U.S. has commented publicly on reports that it was a nuclear facility, and North Korea was involved.
Today, the head of the CIA and other government officials go to Capitol Hill to brief members of Congress behind closed doors. And as NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, U.S. officials say the spy agency has concluded that North Korea was helping the Syrians build a nuclear reactor.
TOM GJELTEN: U.S. officials knowledgeable about the secret facility in Syria says Israeli intelligence had someone on the ground taking pictures of the complex. Those pictures convinced the Israelis that the facility under construction was a nuclear reactor modeled after one in Yongbyon in North Korea, and that North Korean technicians were assisting in its construction.
The pictures allegedly show that the Syrian complex had components resembling those at the Yongbyon site. The Yongbyon reactor produced plutonium for nuclear bombs, and the Israelis feared North Korea was helping the Syrians develop a nuclear weapons program of their own. The reactor allegedly under construction in Syria was destroyed before it was operational, and intelligence officials cannot be certain it would've been used as part of a weapons program rather than for peaceful purposes.
Senior U.S. officials say the pictures taken by the Israelis will be part of the evidence presented to the House and Senate Intelligence and Foreign Relations Committees today. Some of the pictures of the alleged reactor are likely to be made public as well.
In addition to the pictures, other evidence will be presented in the briefings on Capitol Hill. A senior U.S. official tells NPR the intelligence on North Korea's nuclear role in Syria comes, quote, "From more than one source in more than one place." Some members of Congress were shown this same evidence last fall. The briefing is being repeated for more members now, in part because of negotiations currently underway over the possible dismantling of North Korea's nuclear program.
Parts of that deal could require congressional approval, and some members say that before considering the agreement, they want to know what North Korea might have been up to in Syria.
In the second stage of the disarmament plan, North Korea is supposed to report on the nuclear technology or material it has shared with other countries. The revelation of a role in Syria could therefore complicate the prospects for a quick disarmament agreement. But at the State Department yesterday, spokesman Shawn McCormick said that if North Korea wants a deal, it has to first come clean about its nuclear activities in Syria and elsewhere.
Mr. SHAWN McCORMICK (Spokesman, State Department): In this case, the focus is on North Korea. Are they going to perform on fulfilling their obligations? And there isn't going to be any recommendation to move forward in the process, from this building from this secretary of state to the president, unless you have a declaration that is consistent with what we know about their activities and one that is acceptable to all the parties involved.
GJELTEN: As for the Syrians, their government denies it was cooperating with North Korea in developing a nuclear capability. Coincidentally, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem yesterday held out the promise of new peace talks with Israel. If Israel is serious and wants peace, he said, nothing will stop the renewal of talks.
David Schenker, who served as the top Syrian expert at the Pentagon until 2006, says peace initiatives from Damascus tend to come when the Syrian government feels it's in trouble.
Mr. DAVID SCHENKER (Former Syrian Expert, Pentagon): These diplomatic signals of Syrian willingness for peace, they're almost routine now. They can almost plot it on a graph. At moments of maximum pressure, the Syrians are always mentioning the idea of peace with Israel.
GJELTEN: The Israeli government is apparently satisfied that Syria has given up any nuclear plans it may have had. U.S. officials say there is no sign of any effort by the Syrians to build the new reactor.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.
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