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Q&A: U.S. claims on N. Korea-Syria nuke link

Some questions and answers, beginning with one that recalls the administration's public certainty that Saddam Hussein was amassing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Bush administration's release 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. Some questions and answers, beginning with one that recalls the administration's public certainty that Saddam Hussein was amassing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq:

Q: Why should the world believe the White House?

A: The Bush administration has a spotty record when it comes to keeping tabs on nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs inside closed nations. In this case, it is laying out evidence both to Congress and to the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency, which will be asked to investigate.

U.S. assumptions were wrong about prewar Iraq, although the administration says much of the rest of the world also thought Saddam had more dangerous weaponry than he turned out to have.

The administration scaled back its claims about Iran's nuclear program last year, adding to questions about the strength of weapons intelligence. The administration once claimed Iran was driving toward a bomb but now says the clerical regime probably shelved a weapons program years ago. The administration says that program could be restarted and Iran remains a looming threat.

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.

Q: What evidence did the United States present to members of Congress?

A: CIA Director Michael Hayden, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley showed lawmakers a narrated video presentation that included still photographs of a facility and equipment in eastern Syria that bear a strong resemblance in design to North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear plant.

The United States knows a great deal about the design and operation of the Yongbyon plant, because American experts have been on site there since last year, as the North complied with its agreement to take the reactor out of service. The next phase would be to dismantle the facility.

The North Korean reactor has in the past produced small amounts of plutonium, which is highly radioactive and can be used to make powerful nuclear weapons or radiological bombs, and officials said the Syrian facility was within weeks or months of being completed but still needed significant testing before it could be declared operational. However, no uranium — needed to fuel a reactor — was evident at the site.

Q: Why release the information now? Members of Congress have been demanding information for months about the Sept. 6 Israeli airstrike in Syria, but until Thursday the White House had stayed mum.

A: There are several reasons the administration may have decided the time was right. For one, it answers lawmakers' calls to be briefed on an important national security matter involving a close U.S. ally, Israel, and one of its mortal foes, Syria. Israel has never publicly acknowledged its role in the destruction of the facility, but officials say Israel agreed to share information with the United States and signed off on its release.

The administration says it had to let some time pass after the Israeli strike, for fear that confirmation that Israel was behind the strike on Arab soil 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.

It also gets information into the public arena at a point when 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.

Q: What does the release of information mean for the negotiations with North Korea?

A: Some believe it will give weight to opponents of the process, notably neoconservatives aligned with Vice President Dick Cheney, by laying out a pattern of bad North Korean behavior and adding to the case that Pyongyang cannot be trusted. Administration hawks complain that the negotiations, known as the six-party talks, will lead to the U.S. making concessions to North Korea without getting enough in return.

But others say that by documenting the North Korea-Syria link itself, the administration may actually help the negotiations by detailing concerns about a long history of North Korean nuclear cooperation with Syria that Pyongyang can then acknowledge in its declaration without specifying exactly what it is. And, by showing the world that the alleged Syrian facility has been destroyed, the administration can claim past North Korean-Syrian cooperation is no longer a threat.

Q: What does it mean for U.S. policy in the Middle East?

A: There are fears among some Mideast experts that the disclosure of Syria's suspected nuclear intentions and the Israeli destruction of the facility may heighten Arab-Israeli tensions and could complicate efforts to mediate an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal by the end of Bush's second term.

The timing of the briefings has overshadowed a White House meeting between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Bush, who will travel to the Middle East next month. It has also, after months of relative silence, returned to the spotlight an Israeli attack on an Arab neighbor, which is likely to fan anti-Israel sentiment in the region.

At the same time, it puts Syria, and perhaps Iran, on notice that it cannot conceal a suspect clandestine nuclear facility or program without consequences. The administration is also briefing the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, on the intelligence, and the IAEA is expected to pursue the matter with Syria. Syria is a signatory to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty and as such is obligated to inform the IAEA of any atomic activity.