ROBERT SEIGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Today on Capitol Hill, the Bush administration told lawmakers that a secret facility in Syria that was bombed by Israeli warplanes last September was a nuclear reactor. The administration says it was built with the help of North Korea.
In a statement released late this afternoon, the White House said there was good reason to believe the Syrian reactor was not intended for peaceful purposes.
NPR's Tom Gjelten is covering the story. And Tom, you've just been to a high-level briefing on this reactor and the Israeli bombing raid. What are U.S. intelligence agencies saying about it?
TOM GJELTEN: They're making three points basically. The first, as you said, they are insisting that this was definitively a nuclear reactor that was destroyed and that it was meant to produce plutonium. The second point is they're emphasizing that they have strong evidence that it was build with North Korean help and was modeled after a reactor in North Korea that produced plutonium, and the plutonium produced at that reactor was part of that country's - North Korea's - nuclear weapons program. Thirdly, they believe that the purpose of this facility in Syria was also to create fuel for a nuclear weapons program.
They have high confidence in those first two points that it was a reactor and that there was North Korean help. They have less confidence in the third point that the purpose of this reactor was to build fuel for a nuclear bomb. They said they believe it, they're convinced of it, they just can't come up with the clear evidence to support that.
BLOCK: You're talking about strong evidence. What kind of evidence.
GJELTEN: The amazing thing is, Melissa, that they have photos - I actually brought one here - photos that were taken inside the reactor by somebody, a spy, presumably an Israeli spy, and these photos show definitively that what was being built there was in fact a nuclear reactor. And, as you can see in this photo here, the one on the left shows the reactor in Syria. It is almost exactly like the inside of the reactor of the North Korean reactor.
BLOCK: Were some of these images also supposed to show North Koreans actually inside the Syrian plant?
GJELTEN: There were no pictures of North Koreans inside the nuclear plant. However, they did have an interesting picture of a very senior North Korean official who was involved in the nuclear program in Syria meeting with Syrian officials, actually standing sort of next to him in the street. And they said that that was one of the indications that the North Koreans were there in Syria working with the Syrians. They also said that they could support all of these pictures and the conclusions they drew from them with other evidence. And I think they're presuming here intercepts of communications and other things that they really couldn't talk about.
BLOCK: Is the Bush administration, Tom, suggesting that the Israeli raid was justified because it stopped Syria, it said, from building a nuclear bomb?
GJELTEN: Well, their evidence for saying, first of all, that this was actually part of a nuclear weapons program is, one, they said that the Syrians were hiding it. They had not declared it. They also said that there is no other logical reason for it. There was no - it could have been built to produce electricity, but there were no electrical supply lines around it, et cetera. So, they think the evidence there was that it was for a nuclear weapons program. With respect to the Israeli raid, they said that if it had just been up to the United States, they probably would have used a mixture of diplomacy and the threat of using force. But they understood that Israel felt this was an existential threat. They'd said they did not give Israel a green light to destroy it, but they understood why Israel did it.
BLOCK: Tom, the raid by Israel was last September, seven months ago, why would the administration be releasing this information now?
GJELTEN: Well, Melissa, they said that if they had released it back then, there might have been such pressure on Syria as a result of these disclosures and anger at Israel, that they could have retaliated against Israel. They said that there was a danger of a regional confrontation if that had been released back then.
BLOCK: What about the timing in terms of the effects on negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear program.
GJELTEN: Well, I think the reason for these briefings right now is that some Republicans in Congress were 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 with what it knew about North Korea's activities in Syria.
BLOCK: NPR's Tom Gjelten. Tom, thanks a lot.
GJELTEN: Thank you, Melissa.
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