Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Breaking the Silence

CIA officials will provide a series of classified briefings on Capitol Hill tomorrow, outlining what the U.S. knows about nuclear cooperation between Syria and North Korea.

According to the Los Angeles Times, CIA analysts will tell lawmakers that Pyongyang had been helping Damascus build a plutonium-based nuclear reactor in eastern Syria, until it was bombed by Israeli warplanes last September.

Thursday's briefings will mark the first time since the raid that administration or intelligence officials have briefed members of key Congressional committees on nuclear ties between North Korea and Syria. While committee chairmen and Congressional leaders have already seen the presentation, most members of defense and intelligence committees have not, leading to accusations that the Bush Administration was "withholding" information from lawmakers.

During their presentation, CIA officers are expected to tell Congressmen and Senators that the Syrian reactor would have been capable of producing plutonium for nuclear weapons, but was demolished before it could do so. The scheduled briefings will also highlight a history of suspicious ties between Damascus and Pyongyang.

CIA officials also will say that though U.S. officials have had concerns for years about ties between North Korea and Syria, it was not until last year that new intelligence convinced them that the suspicious facility under construction in a remote area of Syria was a nuclear reactor, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity when discussing plans for the briefing.

By holding closed, classified briefings for members of several congressional committees, the administration will break a long silence on North Korean-Syrian nuclear cooperation and on what it knows about last year's destruction of the Syrian facility. Nonetheless, it has been widely assumed for months that many in the administration considered the site a nuclear installation.

The administration's sudden willingness to share information with Congress came as something of a surprise. While it has provided briefings for key members of the House and Senate, the White House has refused to share assessments on the Israeli raid (and nuclear cooperation between Syria and North Korea) with a wider group of lawmakers.

One Senate aide told the Times that the sudden inclusion of more Congressmen and Senators may represent the administration's desire to "bring them in the loop," before making some of the information public.

Thursday's presentations may also be aimed at quieting critics in the President's own party. In an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal last October, Michigan Congressman Peter Hoekstra, a former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, complained that the White House had thrown a "wall of secrecy" around the Israeli air strike. In the article, Hoekstra said it was "critical" for every member of Congress to be briefed on the incident, as soon as possible.

Sources who spoke with the Times speculated that the U.S. is preparing to confront North Korea about the Syria reactor project, as part of the "Six Party" talks aimed at ending Pyongyang's nuclear program. A discussion in that forum would almost certainly be leaked; without advance briefings for Congress, lawmakers would complain that they learned more about the matter from press accounts than from the White House.

Despite the delay in receiving information on Syria and North Korea's nuclear ties--and evidence that Pyongyang exported nuclear technology--there does not appear to be a Congressional groundswell for ending the Six Party process. Indeed, the administration plans to press ahead with the talks (despite limited cooperation from North Korea), noting that some progress has been achieved and the "lack" of a policy alternative.

Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton would undoubtedly disagree, and so would we. In recent years, President Bush's policy toward Pyongyang has begun to resemble that of the Clinton White House, with an emphasis on "carrots" for compliance (or, in some cases, the appearance of compliance). Just two weeks ago, U.S. officials announced plans to removed the DPRK from the list of nations that sponsor terrorism. In return, Pyongyang has to only "acknowledge" American concern about its nuclear activities.

We can only wonder what sort of incentives might be required for North Korea to admit its role in the Syrian reactor project, or just listen to U.S. complaints about the facility.

In either case, we doubt that Kim Jong-il is worried. He has determined (correctly) that the Bush Administration is fully invested (read: over-invested) in the Six Party Talks and will not abandon that process. That gives Pyongyang plenty of latitude in meeting its obligations, with enough wiggle room for some proliferation projects on the side. North Korea's little venture in Syria underscores the need for clear limits in the Six Party process. Without such limits, Pyongyang's chicanery will only continue.

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