Breaking nearly eight months of official silence, Bush administration and intelligence officials briefed Congress and the public in late April on the details of a Sept. 6, 2007, Israeli airstrike on a suspected Syrian nuclear facility. (See ACT, October 2007. ) U.S. officials asserted that the facility, named al-Kibar, was a covert nuclear reactor built with North Korean assistance that was intended to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons.
The briefings were held at a time in which Washington was seeking to iron out a compromise with North Korea regarding its declaration of its nuclear activities. That declaration is meant to address in part North Korea's nuclear assistance to Syria. Although the revelations of the details of North Korea's nuclear aid to Syria have raised questions on Capitol Hill regarding the administration's approach toward Pyongyang, the administration asserts that making this information public will serve to bolster its leverage in negotiations with North Korea.
Many lawmakers criticized the administration for failing to brief Congress much earlier on the airstrike. Two who were briefed after the Sept. 6 attack, Reps. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), ranking members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, respectively, published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal in October 2007 arguing that all members of Congress should receive information about the incident. When questioned about the lack of such a briefing, White House Press Secretary Dana Perino asserted that the administration briefed 22 lawmakers in September and October 2007 as part of its obligations to Congress.
A senior administration official remarked during an April 24 background briefing for reporters that Washington hoped that revealing the U.S. understanding of North Korea's nuclear cooperation with Syria "will convince them that there is no point in trying to cover up not only proliferation activity" but activities regarding enrichment and plutonium as well. The official asserted that "now is a good time" because of the ongoing negotiations regarding the declaration.
Department of State spokesperson Sean McCormack indicated April 25 that Pyongyang was aware that the Washington was going to raise publicly the issue of its nuclear cooperation with Syria. Since the administration made this information public, North Korea has not issued any response in relation to the issue. This silence seems to mirror a tentative U.S.-North Korean agreement that Pyongyang would not deny the U.S. understanding of its nuclear proliferation activities.
The administration also shared its information with the Syrian ambassador in Washington, Imad Moustapha. Syria denies that the facility was a nuclear reactor, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told Qatar's Al-Watan newspaper April 27 that the facility was "a military site under construction."
Identifying the Suspected Reactor
Administration officials and senior members of the intelligence community held closed briefings for members of several congressional committees April 24, as well as a background briefing for reporters. The briefings featured a CIA-produced video that includes photographs taken from inside and around the facility at various times during its construction, as well as satellite images and digital renderings of certain elements of the reactor's operations.
According to the video, the information allowed the intelligence community to conclude that the facility was a gas-cooled graphite-moderated reactor that "was not configured to produce electricity and was ill-suited for research." Several of the photographs seemed to show that the reactor was configured similarly to North Korea's five-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon, which was used to produce the plutonium for Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program.
The assessment that the reactor was not intended for peaceful purposes is based on the absence of power lines and switching facilities needed for a facility geared to providing energy. Intelligence officials were less specific regarding the reactor's lack of suitability for research, noting only that it was less well designed for research than existing facilities that "have been made public in Syria."
Senior intelligence officials explained, however, that the conclusion that the reactor was intended for a weapons program is a "low-confidence" judgment "based on the physical evidence." This low confidence level appears to be founded in part on the absence of an identifiable plutonium reprocessing capability, which would be necessary to separate plutonium from the reactor's spent fuel to use in nuclear weapons. The officials stated that there was "no evidence" of a reprocessing facility in the region of al-Kibar.
Also absent was an identifiable means for Syria to manufacture the uranium fuel needed to operate the reactor. Although a graphite-moderated reactor can operate on natural uranium and does not require the development of an enrichment facility, Syria would still need to manufacture or acquire uranium fuel in the form of fuel rods.
The intelligence community judged that the facility was "nearing operational capability in August 2007" based on its conclusion that there was no further visible need for construction. However, the absence of a source of fuel, which would have also required weeks or months of testing once inside the reactor, leaves unclear when the reactor might have started full-scale operations.
Syria, which maintains a limited nuclear research capacity, including a Chinese-provided research reactor, has engaged in some work that may be relevant to acquiring uranium fuel and separating plutonium. A 2004 Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) unclassified report to Congress on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction observed that Syria "continued to develop civilian nuclear capabilities, including uranium extraction technology and hot cell facilities, which may also be potentially applicable to a weapons program." Much of this work, however, was conducted as part of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) technical cooperation projects and was not carried out to any significant scale.
Syria's work on extracting uranium from phosphates might have yielded small amounts of natural uranium, but to be of use in a reactor, that uranium would still require fabrication into fuel rods. Syrian projects in this regard also did not advance beyond bench-scale efforts due to financial considerations.
In addition, Syria's work on hot-cell facilities may have had some uses as part of a reprocessing effort. Hot cells are shielded rooms that allow technicians to work with highly radioactive material, including the separation of plutonium for nuclear weapons.
Establishing the North Korean Connection
Although North Korea and Syria have long cooperated in other defense areas, particularly in ballistic missile technology, the nature and extent of North Korean-Syrian nuclear cooperation has long been clouded.
During the April 24 background briefing, senior intelligence officials explained that they were able to conclude, based on information they began to collect in 2001, that nuclear cooperation between North Korea and Syria began "probably as early as 1997." They added that they did not receive information that led them to conclude that the facility was a nuclear reactor until the spring of 2007.
According to the intelligence officials, evidence of North Korean cooperation included multiple visits to Syria by senior North Korean nuclear officials, North Korean procurement of reactor components for Syria, and a suspected cargo transfer from North Korea to the reactor site in 2006. They did not specify if they were aware of the contents of this cargo.
The intelligence community has frequently indicated that it continued to "monitor Syrian nuclear intentions with concern." However, in its unclassified briefings to Congress on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction between 2001 and 2006, the CIA did not mention North Korea as a potential supplier of nuclear technology. In contrast, a 2004 report did express concern that Syria may have received assistance from the nuclear trafficking network run by Pakistani nuclear official Abdul Qadeer Khan.
In regard to North Korean motivations for providing such assistance, senior intelligence officials stated that the rationale was simply "cash," adding that they determined that the reactor was intended for a Syrian weapons program and not as a relocation of North Korea's own program.
Possible International Violations
In addition to the proliferation concerns posed by such a reactor and its potential for use in a Syrian nuclear weapons program, such cooperation would violate the international obligations of both countries.
Syria has a safeguards agreement in force with the IAEA, and according to a February 1992 decision of the IAEA Board of Governors, Damascus is required to provide the agency with design information on any nuclear facilities "well before construction actually begins."
The Bush administration shared its information with the IAEA April 24, after which IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei stated that the agency "will investigate the veracity of the information" provided regarding the Syrian reactor. The IAEA declared in October 2007 that it did not have any information regarding an undeclared Syrian nuclear facility and called on states with such information to share it with the agency. The IAEA examined satellite images of the site at that time, but its results were inconclusive. (See ACT, November 2007. )
ElBaradei also levied strong criticism of the decision to withhold information regarding the facility from the agency, citing the IAEA's responsibility to "verify any proliferation allegations" constituting a violation of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). He also derided Israel's decision to destroy the facility, asserting that it undermined "the due process of verification that is at the heart of the nonproliferation regime."
U.S. officials said during the April 24 briefing that senior U.S. and Israeli officials discussed options to address the facility and that Israel, which considered a potential Syrian nuclear weapons program to be an "existential threat," decided to take action "without any green light" from the United States.Damascus is also prohibited from receiving nearly any nuclear technology from North Korea due to the obligations imposed by Security Council Resolution 1718. Adopted Oct. 14, 2006, in response to North Korea's nuclear test, Resolution 1718 requires that all states prevent North Korean nationals from exporting or providing technical training, advice, services, or assistance related to items on the trigger list of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). The NSG is a group of 45 states that comprise the world's primary suppliers of nuclear technology and that are required to provide notification prior to transferring any of the items on a list of nuclear-related technologies. North Korea is also obligated not to transfer or provide any assistance regarding items on the trigger list.