Syria: A New Intel Failure?

The Syrian Desert facility that Israel apparently attacked in a shadowy Sept. 6 raid—and that some administration officials believe was a secret nuclear reactor—might be several years old. Israel bombed the complex near the Euphrates River months after alerting the United States to the existence of a suspect Syrian facility, according to intelligence sources. But photographic evidence obtained by NEWSWEEK shows the boxy main building already existed in 2003, and a European intelligence source said the program might have begun years earlier. The source, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, said fresh intelligence suggests the Syrians actually started a hush-hush program under the regime of late president Hafez Assad, who died in 2000, and that initially, clandestine factions of the government may have kept it secret from Bashar al-Assad, Hafez's son and successor. If true, it could be a significant intelligence failure by American and other Western spy agencies. (The CIA declined to comment.)

The facility in the 2003 satellite photo, taken by the commercial remote-sensing company GeoEye, appears identical to the one pictured in satellite images snapped weeks before the Israeli strike, with one notable distinction: the recent photos include what analysts have described as a pumping station along the Euphrates. Nuclear experts say Syria probably put in the pumping station to cool a reactor, which many believe was based on a North Korean design and was years from completion. A post-raid commercial satellite image taken last week showed the site had been flattened by bulldozers—evidence that most experts agree demonstrated Syria's desire to hide all traces of the facility. Israel has kept quiet about its attack, while Syria denied having a secret nuclear program.

Immediately after the bombing, many nuclear-proliferation experts in the United States and Europe expressed doubt that Syria had the money or the scientific capability for a secret atomic program. They also questioned whether North Korea would be desperate and greedy enough to sell nuclear wares to Syria. The new photos now have skeptics admitting they may have been mistaken.

The Bush administration has maintained a strict gag order on discussion of the Israeli attack. But two weeks after the incident, U.S. "intelligence czar" Mike McConnell began giving highly classified one-on-one briefings about the incident to a handful of congressional leaders. Republicans and Democrats came away with opposing conclusions. According to a former administration official, Republican legislators began agitating for a halt, or at least an interruption, in ongoing U.S. disarmament talks with North Korea. But House Foreign Affairs chairman Tom Lantos told NEWSWEEK that even after the briefing, he remains "fully in favor of pursuing ongoing diplomatic discussions with North Korea." Lantos said he also favors closer relations with both Pyongyang and Damascus, and that if North Korea disarmament talks succeed, the country should be dropped from a U.S. list of states that sponsor terrorism.