The Bush administration's release Thursday of a dossier on illicit nuclear cooperation between U.S. adversaries North Korea and Syria comes at a critical time in U.S. nuclear diplomacy and feeds into U.S. foreign policy aims. It also recalls the administration's public certainty that Saddam Hussein was amassing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
What happened on Thursday?
Seven months after Israel bombed a nuclear reactor in Syria, the White House broke its silence and said North Korea aided the secret nuclear program, a "dangerous and potentially destabilizing development for the world." Members of Congress were given details about the reactor and told it had a strong resemblance in design to North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear plant. That plant has in the past produced small amounts of plutonium, the material needed to make powerful nuclear weapons. Members of the House Intelligence Committee said the reactor posed a serious threat of spreading dangerous nuclear materials. Syria's embassy denounced what it called the U.S. "campaign of false allegations."
What happened in September?
On Sept. 6, Israeli jets bombed the Al Kibar nuclear reactor in a remote area of eastern Syria along the Euphrates River. The administration said that after the reactor was damaged beyond repair, Syria tried to bury evidence of its existence and erected a new building to hide the site. The reactor was within weeks or months of being functional, a top U.S. official told the Associated Press. No uranium, which is needed to fuel a reactor, was evident.
Why release the information now?
Members of Congress have been demanding information for months about the Israeli airstrike, but until Thursday the White House had stayed mum. The administration said it had to let some time pass after the Israeli strike, for fear confirmation that Israel was behind the strike would inflame Arab-Israeli tensions or provoke warfare between Israel and Syria (Israel was informed ahead of time of the decision to release the dossier now). The disclosure comes as the administration is trying to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons, one of Bush's top policy objectives in the final months in office. Part of that involves getting North Korea to admit to illicit atomic cooperation with Syria in a declaration of all its nuclear activities, something it had refused to do.
What evidence was presented to members of Congress?
Thursday's presentations, by CIA director Michael Hayden, director of national intelligence Mike McConnell and national security adviser Stephen Hadley, included a narrated video presentation with still photos of the facility and equipment in Syria that bear a strong resemblance in design to the Yongbyon nuclear plant. The United States knows a great deal about the design and operation of the Yongbyon plant; U.S. experts have been on site there since last year as the North complied with its agreement to take the reactor out of service.
Why should the world believe the White House?
The Bush administration has a spotty record when it comes to keeping tabs on nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs in closed nations. U.S. assumptions were wrong about prewar Iraq, and the administration scaled back its claims about Iran's nuclear program last year, adding to questions about the strength of weapons intelligence. But the administration was apparently right on North Korea. U.S. intelligence pegged North Korean nuclear weapons ambitions years before Pyongyang tested a plutonium device in 2006, and also apparently correctly identified a separate smaller program to enrich uranium for weapons. U.S. intelligence thinks the uranium program is defunct.
Congress and the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency will be asked to investigate. The disclosure could undermine six-party negotiations to try to resolve the nuclear standoff with North Korea. Some believe it will give weight to opponents of the process, notably neoconservatives aligned with Vice President Dick Cheney, but others say that by documenting the North Korea-Syria link, the administration may help the negotiations by detailing concerns about a long history of North Korea-Syria nuclear cooperation that Pyongyang can then acknowledge in its declaration without specifying exactly what it is.