Thursday, April 24, 2008

About That Reactor

Members of the House Intelligence Committee were finally briefed today on that Syrian nuclear facility, destroyed by an Israeli air raid last fall. And, according to this AP report, the site was nearly operational when the IAF came calling:

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.

The Syrian reactor was similar in design to a North Korean reactor at Yongbyon that has in the past produced small amounts of plutonium, U.S. officials said. Plutonium is highly radioactive and can be used to make powerful nuclear weapons or radiological bombs.

Top members of the House intelligence committee said Thursday after being briefed on the facility by intelligence and administration officials that the reactor posed a serious threat of spreading dangerous nuclear materials.

Officials familiar with the presentation said that it did not include video of North Korean workers at the complex, as earlier reports suggested. However, it did feature a series of still photographs (read: satellite imagery) that showed similarities between the Syrian facility, and North Korea's nuclear site at Yongbyon.

There was no word on how long U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies had monitored the Syrian complex prior to the air raid. Some reports suggest the reactor was discovered just a few months before it was attacked; other sources indicate that the facility had been under surveillance for some time.

Today's presentation brought criticism from key members of Congress, who complained that the White House waited too long to brief the full committee:

"It's bad management and terrible public policy to go for eight months knowing this was out there and then drop this in our laps six hours before they go to the public," said [Michigan Congressman Peter] Hoekstra, the panel's ranking Republican.

President Bush's failure to keep Congress informed has created friction that may imperil congressional support for Bush's policies toward North Korea and Syria, he said.

"It totally breaks down any trust that you have between the administration and Congress," Hoekstra said. "I think it really jeopardizes any type of the agreement they may come up with" regarding North Korea.

Mr. Hoekstra raises a valid point. But if the AP is correct, today's disclosure may have been aimed, oddly enough, at advancing nuclear talks with the DPRK. With the U.S. disclosing the Syria-North Korea connection, Pyongyang now has a concern it can acknowledge in a required declaration of its proliferation activities. Huh?

On a more rational note, today's report also provides additional justification for the Israeli air strike, which was staged on 6 September 2007.

The briefing also puts more pressure on Syria, which had not disclosed the facility to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Syrian officials in Damascus and Europe denied the U.S. allegations. In the best (or at least the funniest) explanation we've seen so far, a Syrian diplomat described his country's cooperation with North Korea was "economic" in nature.

That's a howler. Pyongyang is virtually bankrupt, and its only exports to Syria (of any consequence) have been ballistic missiles, related technology, and technicians to support those systems. A better question might be: what portion of those purchases have been funded by Iran, and did Tehran write the check for that nuclear complex along the Euphrates?

Even the crude nuclear technology of North Korea doesn't come cheap, and it's a good bet that the destroyed reactor, designed in the DPRK and built in Syria, was financed through Iran.


ADDENDUM: Apparently, some of the officials interviewed by the AP were wrong. ABC News obtained some of the imagery used in the presentation, which included some remarkable, hand-held photos of the Syrian facility as it was being built. There was also a shot of North Korea's nuclear chief meeting with his Syrian counterpart. ABC's Jonathan Karl mused about the source of those ground-level, close-ups. The answer is rather obvious; the Mossad has always been active in Syria. Prior to the Six-Day War in 1967, the #3 man in the Damascus government was a Mossad spy. Israeli forces took the Golan Heights with information he provided on Syrian defensive positions.

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