WASHINGTON - A video taken inside a secret Syrian facility last summer convinced both the Israeli government and the Bush administration that Pyongyang was helping to construct a reactor similar to one that produces plutonium for North Korea's nuclear arsenal, senior US officials said.
The video, which shows North Koreans working inside the facility, will be shared with members of Congress today.
The officials said the pictures of the remote site, code-named Al Kibar by the Syrians, played a pivotal role in Israel's decision to bomb the facility last Sept. 6. The air strike was publicly denounced by Damascus but not by Washington.
Sources familiar with its contents say the video also shows the design of the Syrian reactor core is the same as the North Korean reactor at Yongbyong, including a virtually identical physical configuration and number of holes for the fuel rods.
It shows "remarkable resemblances inside and out to Yongbyong," said a US intelligence official. A nuclear weapons specialist called the video "very, very damning."
Nuclear weapons analysts and US officials predicted that the planned disclosures to Capitol Hill by CIA director Michael Hayden could complicate US efforts to improve relations with North Korea as a way to halt its nuclear weapons program. They come as factions inside the administration and in Congress have been battling over the merits of a nuclear-related deal with North Korea.
Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha yesterday angrily denounced the US and Israeli claims. "If they show a video, remember that the US went to the UN Security Council and displayed evidence and images about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. I hope the American people will not be as gullible this time around," he said.
US officials said Israel shared the video with the United States before the bombing on Sept. 6, after Bush administration officials expressed skepticism last spring that the facility, visible by satellite since 2001, was a nuclear reactor built with North Korea's assistance. Israel has a nuclear weapons arsenal it has never declared.
But intelligence officials will tell members of the House and Senate intelligence, armed services, and foreign relations committees beginning today that the Syrian facility was not yet fully operational and that there was no uranium for the reactor and no indication of a fuel capability, according to US officials and intelligence sources.
David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security and a former UN weapons inspector, said the absence of such evidence warrants skepticism that the reactor was part of an active weapons program.
"The United States and Israel have not identified any Syrian plutonium separation facilities or nuclear weaponization facilities. The lack of any such facilities gives little confidence that the reactor is part of an active nuclear weapons program. The apparent lack of fuel, either imported or indigenously produced, also is curious and lowers confidence that Syria has a nuclear weapons program," Albright said.
US intelligence officials will also tell the congressional committees that the new site Syria has rebuilt at Al Kibar is not for a reactor.
"The successful engagement of North Korea in the Six Party Talks means that it was unlikely to have supplied Syria with such facilities or nuclear materials after the reactor site was destroyed," Albright said. "Indeed, there is little if any evidence that cooperation between Syria and North Korea extended beyond the date of the destruction of the reactor."
The timing of the congressional briefing is nonetheless awkward for the Bush administration's diplomatic initiative to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear program and permanently disable the reactor at Yongbyong.
The CIA's hand was forced, officials said, because influential lawmakers had threatened to cut off funds for the US diplomatic effort unless they received a full account of what the administration knew.
Also, the terms of a tentative US-North Korean deal require that North Korean officials acknowledge US evidence about its help to the Syrian program, and so the disclosures to Congress are meant to preempt what North Korea might eventually say.
After talks with the South Korean president over the weekend, Bush said that it was premature to make a judgment about whether North Korea was willing to fully comply with a commitment to make a public declaration of its nuclear-related programs, materials and facilities.
There are still differences between Washington and Pyongyang over what should be included in that declaration, a State Department official said. Sung Kim, the State Department director of the office of Korean affairs, is in Pyongyang for discussions about the contents.
Syria's top envoy to Washington said the CIA briefings were meant to undermine diplomatic efforts with North Korea, not confront Syria. Why, Moustapha said, are "they repeating the same lies and fabrications when they were planning to attack Iraq? The reason is simple: It's about North Korea, not Syria. The neoconservative elements are having the upper hand."
He added, "We do not want to plan to acquire nuclear technology as we understand the reality of this world and have seen what the US did to Iraq even when it did not have a nuclear program. So we are not going to give them a pretext to attack Syria."
The facility at issue formerly included a tall, boxy structure like that used to house a gas-graphite reactor, and was 7 miles north of the desert village of At Tibnah in the Dayr az Zwr region, 90 miles from the Iraqi border, according to photographs that were released by the ISIS, a nonprofit research group.