WASHINGTON, April 23, 2008 -- U.S. intelligence officials plan to reveal previously classified information today showing how Syria worked with North Korea on a nuclear weapons program for more than a decade, and that intelligence agencies had been aware of these ties for years, ABC News has learned.
In an extraordinary move, officials will show photographic images shot inside a suspected nuclear reactor in Syria, U.S. officials told ABC News.
The release of the images is highly unusual because it will reveal that somebody — most likely the Israelis — had a spy on the ground at the Syrian nuclear facility.
Intelligence officials plan to brief key congressional committees and members of the media Thursday, the officials said.
The briefing will include a video presentation comparing images shot inside the Syrian reactor with images shot inside North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear reactor. The two facilities are strikingly similar, according to U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence.
The suspected reactor was secretly destroyed September 2007 in a covert Israeli military operation. Until now, neither the Israeli nor the U.S. government has acknowledged any of this.
Although the intelligence will show that Syria was secretly developing a nuclear reactor, officials believe the Syrians were several years away from developing nuclear weapons. There is no evidence that they had developed a reprocessing facility to turn the fuel from the reactor into plutonium, a necessary step to create fuel for a nuclear weapon.
Furthermore, the reactor itself was still not complete when the Israelis destroyed it last September.
Thursday's presentation will also show that, in the months since the Israeli air strikes, the Syrians have gone to great lengths to cover up their activities, removing all the debris and constructing a benign, non-nuclear facility on top of the area where the reactor once stood, officials said.
One senior U.S. official said the presentation is based on "good intelligence from more than one source in more than one place."
Once the facts are made public, the Bush administration will demand that Syria explain its nuclear activities and will ask the International Atomic Energy Agency to investigate.
The decision to reveal this information now is a controversial one. Officials at the State Department are worried that it could derail efforts to strike a deal with North Korea to dismantle their nuclear program.
State Department officials who work on the Middle East are also worried about the impact it will have in the Arab world after it is publicly acknowledged that the Israelis bombed a target in Syria.
The intelligence community drove the decision to disclose this information. Intelligence officials had been under pressure from Congress to brief them on this for months.
Furthermore, intelligence officials say that, in recent months, more reliable information has come in, confirming suspicions that the facility had been created as part of a nuclear weapons program.