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SYRIA: Was Damascus building a nuclear program?

April 28, 2008 |  9:42 am

So are the Syrians or the Americans bending facts about Kibar?

That's the site in the eastern deserts of Syria destroyed in an Israeli airstrike on Sept. 6. The consequences Kibar airstrike continue to unfold. Los Angeles Times Washington bureau reporter Nicole Gaouette writes today about the bipartisan skepticism of U.S. lawmakers about the timing and substance of the Bush administration's presentations (see video below) about the site last week.

The presentations to the Senate and House intelligence committees were meant to show that North Koreans were helping the Syrians build a plutonium reactor. Instead, the evidence drew unusually strong criticism.

Here's Rep. Peter Hoekstra, the Michigan lawmaker who is the ranking Republican on the House committee, speaking on a Sunday talk show:

The timing of it, what information they released, what information they did not release and who they released it to, is going to make it more difficult for them to reach an agreement that will be supported by Congress and supported by the American people.

The Syrian government harshly  condemned the allegations. Syria's ruling Baath Party newspaper published an editorial today that resurrected past U.S. intelligence failures:

When you look at these pictures ... a single image comes to mind — that of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell accusing Iraq of hiding weapons of mass destruction and presenting as proof a dossier of photographs.... Of course Mr. Powell later acknowledged that he had been fooled by the U.S. intelligence services and by conservatives within the administration. The new U.S. campaign of lies should surprise nobody -- it's a continuation of the same policy of U.S. pressure against Syria.... Syria again rejects the U.S. allegations and reaffirms that it has nothing to hide concerning its legitimate national defenses.

Arms control experts have also voiced doubt about some of the administration's claims. Scientist Jeffrey Lewis at Arms Control Wonk has dissected the presentation and admitted that he's baffled by the U.S. claim that the Kibar site was a replica of a North Korean plutonium reactor:

To be clear, I don’t doubt that Al Kibar was a reactor and, although I think the evidence of North Korean involvement is less impressive than early press reports suggested, that’s my working hypothesis too. But I don’t understand the claim that Al Kibar is a copy of Yongbyon in the strict sense — in particular, I don’t understand how the [intelligence community] concluded that Al Kibar is the same size as Yongbyon.

On the same blog, British arms control expert James Acton wonders why the administration decided to release the information now. Was it to pressure the Syrians or the North Koreans?

Borzou Daragahi in Amman, Jordan

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