April 24, 2008 -- The White House for the first time today released highly sensitive evidence to prove that North Korea helped construct a secret nuclear facility in Syria.
"Until Sept. 6, 2007, the Syrian regime was building a covert nuclear reactor in its eastern desert capable of producing plutonium.," the White House said in a statement today. "We are convinced, based on a variety of information, that North Korea assisted Syria's covert nuclear activities. We have good reason to believe that reactor, which was damaged beyond repair on Sept. 6 of last year, was not intended for peaceful purposes."
Senior intelligence officials later briefed reporters on the matter and showed a video and images to illustrate not only the purported nuclear site during construction but also a top North Korean nuclear official onsite with his Syrian counterpart. The images reveal for the first time that spies had penetrated the facility.
Syria's ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Ja'afari, denied American accusations, saying, "We said it many times in the past, there was no Syrian, North Korean cooperation whatsoever in Syria, and we denied these rumors and this is what I can say for this regard."
Leading lawmakers from the House Intelligence Committee accused the Bush administration of leaving them out of the loop by refusing to provide adequate intelligence briefings on North Korean help in constructing a nuclear facility in Syria until today.
Both sides of the aisle warned the administration it would now face a steeper battle to gain congressional approval for any deal that may be reached to eliminate North Korea's nuclear program through the so-called six-party talks.
Committee chairman Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, and ranking member Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., are furious with the Bush administration for failing to brief Congress until eight months after Israeli jets bombed a suspected Syrian nuclear site Sept. 6, 2007.
"The challenge we're having particularly with [the] administration today is that there is a veil of secrecy that gets in the way of our committee feeling comfortable that we're getting the kind of information that we're supposed to have to carry out our oversight responsibilities," Reyes told reporters after leaving the intelligence briefing.
Hoekstra said, "They could not give us a good reason why they waited eight months. This could have and should have happened eight months ago."
Both he and Reyes were briefed on the matter previously, but today is the first time the entire committee has been briefed.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino responded to Hoekstra's remarks, saying, "Back in the fall, we briefed 22 members of Congress, consistent with our obligations. He was one of them. There are tensions that exist between the executive branches and the legislative branches on a range of issues in regards to who should know what when."
Senior intelligence officials are on Capitol Hill today to brief relevant congressional committees on North Korean technical and logistical help to develop a nuclear program in Syria. Israeli jets bombed the site in September during a covert raid.
Neither Israeli nor U.S. officials had previously acknowledged the bombing in public and, according to satellite imagery taken in recent months, Syria quietly paved over the wreckage in an attempt to hide what had been built there.
Hoekstra suggested that today's briefing was motivated more by the administration's attempts to advance the six-party talks than to fulfill its obligations to keep the relevant oversight committees on Capitol Hill informed.
Those talks have deadlocked in recent months over North Korea's failure to provide a satisfactory declaration of its nuclear programs by a Dec. 31, 2007 deadline. A deal may be in the works, however, under which North Korea would simply "acknowledge" U.S. concerns about Pyongyang's proliferation activities.
"I think many people believe that we were used today by the administration," Hoekstra said, adding that the administration only informed Congress "because they had other agendas in mind."
Neither Reyes nor Hoekstra would reveal what they heard in the briefing but warned that the erosion of confidence in the administration to be forthcoming to the Congress may jeopardize efforts to gain congressional approval for any deal with North Korea.
"This process will make it very difficult for the administration to move forward any policy initiative in the Middle East or Asia," said Hoekstra, the top Republican on the committee.