Amos Harel, Shmuel Rosner, And Barak Ravid
April 24, 2008 - 5:56pm

The White House on Thursday urged Syria to "come clean" about an alleged nuclear facility, which a senior U.S. official said earlier in the day had been near completion when it was reportedly targeted and destroyed by the Israel Air Force in September 2007.

"The Syrian regime must come clean before the world regarding its illicut
nuclear activities," White House press secretary Dana Perino said, shortly after U.S. intelligence officials presented members of Congress with evidence that Pyongyang had assisted a secret Syrian nuclear program.

CIA Director Michael Hayden and other intelligence officials went to
Congress to brief lawmakers on the evidence related to the bombed Syrian
facility. They had appearances scheduled before the House and Senate armed services, intelligence and foreign affairs committees.

The White House also said that the suspected nuclear site, which the lawmakers were told had been built with North Korean help, had been demolished beyond repair, and that Syria tried to bury evidence of its existence.

The White House said that the reactor had not been intended for peaceful purposes, and demonstrated the need for action against Iran's nuclear program.

A senior U.S. official said Thursday that the reactor was within weeks or months of being functional when it was destroyed.

"The facility was mostly completed but still needed significant testing before it could be declared operational," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

However, no uranium - needed to fuel a reactor - was evident at the site, a remote area of eastern Syria along the Euphrates River.

Independent American nuclear experts have determined that while the suspected nuclear site was in its final stages of construction when destroyed, it was still far from being operational or active.

Experts David Albright and Paul Brannan, of the independent Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) based their conclusion on a CIA document released earlier Thursday to the American media.

According to the two, the U.S. also did not know how Syria was planning to activate its nuclear program nor does it have intelligence proving that North Korea has - or plans to give Damascus - the nuclear fuel required to activate the facility.

Meanwhile, a senior member of the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee was quoted by foreign media Thursday as saying the classified information showed the Syrian reactor was a dangerous factor in the spread of nuclear weapons technology.

"This is a serious proliferation issue, both for the Middle East and the
countries that may be involved in Asia," said Republican Representative Pete Hoekstra.

The Syrian reactor was similar in design to a North Korean reactor that has in the past produced small amounts of plutonium, a U.S. official told foreign media, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information.

According to a report by The Washington Post on its Web site Thursday, the U.S. has video footage - which the report says was obtained by Israel - that shows that the similarities in design between the Syrian site and the North Korean nuclear reactor in Yongbyon.

The reactor was reportedly not yet complete but far enough along to demonstrate a resemblance to the reactor at Yongbyon, which supposedly is being dismantled. The official said no uranium, a reactor's fuel, was evident on site.

Since Israel learned of the planned Congressional hearings three weeks ago, its defense officials have expressed concerns that publication of classified details about the attack could compel Syria to resort to a violent response, or at any rate reignite tensions between Jerusalem and Damascus.

The closed-door briefings conducted by Hayden and other intelligence officials breaks U.S. official silence on the matter and could complicate American diplomacy with North Korea and in the Middle East.

While lawmakers declined to discuss the intelligence after the briefings, some described them as "compelling."

Report: Israel gave U.S. video of Koreans at Syria site

The Washington Post said Thursday that the White House was expected to show video images "it claims support allegations that North Korea was helping Syria to build a nuclear reactor."

A U.S. official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to discuss classified matters, said that among the intelligence the United States has was an image of what appeared to be people of Korean descent at the facility.

However, the official stressed that this image was only part of a wider array of information gathered from multiple sources on the suspected cooperation between Syria and North Korea.

The report quotes a U.S. intelligence official saying the Syrian facility bears "remarkable resemblances inside and out to Yongbyon." It also quotes a nuclear specialist calling the video "very, very damning."

Israel apparently showed the video to the U.S. prior to the September strike, according to the Post report, after the Bush administration said it doubted the site was built with North Korean assistance.

Syria denies North Korea cooperation

Syria on Thursday dismissed U.S. accusations that North Korea was helping it build a nuclear reactor that could produce plutonium.

Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations Bashar Ja'afari told reporters on Wednesday that "there was no Syria-North Korea cooperation whatsoever in Syria. We deny these rumors."

Syria's ambassador to Britain, Sami al-Khiyami, told Reuters that the accusation was intended to put pressure on North Korea in talks about Pyongyang's nuclear program.

"This has nothing to do with North Korea and Syria. They just want to exert more pressure on North Korea. This is why they are coming up with this story," Khiyami said.

"This is political manipulation ahead of the talks with North Korea to exert more pressure on them."

The White House has said little about the possibility of such cooperation between the two since Israel allegedly conducted the mysterious September 6 air strike.

"Unfortunately the scenario of taking and retaking pictures looks like what happened before the Iraq war, when the U.S. administration was trying to convince the world that Iraq had nuclear weapons," Khiyami said.

"Instead of coming up with these ridiculous photos I think the U.S. administration should put all their effort into clearing the Middle East region of all weapons of mass destruction, starting with its closest ally Israel."

Israel is widely believed to have assembled the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal at Dimona, a plant out of bounds to foreign inspection.

A senior U.S. administration official said that Thursday's briefing was scheduled because the intelligence community had been deluged for months with Congressional requests for information about North Korean activity in Syria and the Israeli air strike, and felt it was now time to brief lawmakers.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017