N. Korea Linked to Syria Nuclear Program CIA officials brief Congress on Thursday about intelligence that links North Korea to a Syrian nuclear program. The CIA will tell lawmakers that North Korea was helping Syria build a plutonium-based nuclear reactor.
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N. Korea Linked to Syria Nuclear Program

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N. Korea Linked to Syria Nuclear Program

N. Korea Linked to Syria Nuclear Program

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

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CHADWICK: First, CIA director Michael Hayden and other administration officials are on Capitol Hill today. They're briefing members of Congress about a secret facility in Syria, bombed last December by Israeli warplanes. U.S. officials say the Israelis believed that the facility was a nuclear reactor, being built with help from North Korea. It was modeled after a North Korean reactor that was used to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. That's what they say. The CIA is telling Congress that the evidence supporting the Israeli claims about the Syrian site was persuasive, and some of it is being shared with Congress. Joining us now is NPR intelligence correspondent Tom Gjelten. Tom, the allegation here, North Korea was helping Syria develop nuclear weapons. That's it.

TOM GJELTEN: Actually, Alex, that's not the allegation, that's the implication. And it I think it's important to distinguish between those two. The specific allegation is that, as you say, that North Korea was helping the Syrians build a nuclear reactor. That nuclear reactor was modeled after a nuclear reactor in Pyongyang, in North Korea, that was part of a nuclear weapons program. So the implication is that Syria had in mind what North Korea was doing with its nuclear reactor, which was to produce plutonium to be used in nuclear weapons. However, the fact that North Korea was building a nuclear reactor in Syria, if it's true, does not prove that that project was part of a nuclear weapons program. To make that allegation, you really have to draw some inferences, and the CIA, as I understand it, is stopping short of making that specific connection.

CHADWICK: So what other explanation could there be for this facility, other than it is an exact copy of what the North Koreans were building to produce nuclear weapons?

GJELTEN: First of all, according to the intelligence officials I've spoken to, they are convinced there is no other explanation for this facility other than that it was a nuclear reactor. However, it's possible that the North Koreans were helping Syria develop a nuclear capability that was not intended to be used as part of a weapons program. That would require a lot of additional facilities. You would have to have facilities for weaponizing. And there is, so far, as far as we know, no other evidence of the existence of a weapons program, only of a nuclear program. So it's conceivable it could have been for peaceful purposes.

CHADWICK: One thing that struck me as I was reading this story and listening to your reporting is that it sounds as though the U.S. actually has managed to achieve pretty good intelligence from a remote site inside Syria, and this comes after years of criticism of U.S. intelligence performance in the Middle East, in particular. And I wonder, is this just from the Israelis, or are there also independent U.S. sources? Do we know that?

GJELTEN: What I've been told, Alex, is that the original intelligence is, in fact, from Israel. And that would mean the penetration of the Syrian government, actually, to the point that they actually had somebody on the ground, photographing inside this facility, which would be, of course, quite a tremendous achievement. After that initial gathering of intelligence, the United States, as I understand it from sources that I have spoken to, has been able to corroborate and verify some of the Israeli claims, independently of Israeli intelligence.

CHADWICK: There are a lot of complications here. Relations with Syria, especially with North Korea, because there are ongoing talks about, can the United States achieve some kind of deal with the North Koreans over their own nuclear program and shutting it down. Where do we stand with that?

GJELTEN: Very good question, and I think, Alex, that's the key question right now. The United States and North Korea are actually said to be nearing an agreement that would lead to the dismantling of North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Now, part of that agreement would require North Korea to come clean about any transfers of nuclear technology or nuclear materials to other countries, and that would clearly include any kind of assistance it has given Syria. This deal with North Korea will ultimately have to be approved, in one way or another, by Congress. And some Republican lawmakers in Congress want to be sure that everything that is knowable about North Korea's nuclear programs is out there before Congress gives any indication of whether it approves or not this deal with North Korea.

CHADWICK: Tom Gjelten covers the intelligence community for NPR, speaking with us from Washington. Tom, thank you.

GJELTEN: Thank you, Alex.

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