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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Syrian reactor may date back to 2001

The New York Times has a picture of the site of that Syrian nuclear reactor that was taken on September 16, 2003, and says that construction may have started as long ago as 2001.
Yesterday independent analysts, examining the latest satellite image, suggested that work on the site might have begun around 2001, and the senior intelligence official agreed with that analysis. That early date is potentially significant in terms of North Korea’s suspected aid to Syria, suggesting that North Korea could have begun its assistance in the late 1990s.


The progress of the site in late 2003 also raises new questions about a disagreement at the time between intelligence analysts and John R. Bolton, then the State Department’s top arms control official.

In the summer of 2003, Mr. Bolton’s testimony on Capitol Hill was delayed after a dispute erupted in part over whether Syria was actively pursuing a nuclear weapon. Some intelligence officials said Mr. Bolton overstated the Syrian threat.

“There was disagreement about what Syria was interested in and how much we should be monitoring it,” Mr. Bolton said in an interview yesterday. “There was activity in Syria that I felt was evidence that they were trying to develop a nuclear program.”

Mr. Bolton declined to say whether he had knowledge at the time about the site that the Israelis struck in September.

Spokesmen for the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council declined to comment.


Earlier this week, federal and private analysts identified the precise location of the Syrian site, and since then rival companies have raced to release images. The site is on the eastern bank of the Euphrates, 90 miles north of the Iraqi border.

Images taken in August, before the Israeli raid, show a tall building about 150 feet wide on each side that analysts suspect might have sheltered a half-built nuclear reactor. Also visible is a pumping station on the Euphrates, which may be significant because reactors need water for cooling.

John E. Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a private group in Alexandria, Va., that analyzes satellite images, said the 2003 picture showed the tall building in the midst of early construction, surrounded by churned earth. He put the groundbreaking in 2001.

“It’s uncommon to see such activity in the middle of nowhere,” he said, adding that it was sufficiently unusual to have worried American intelligence officials. “I’d have put it on my suspect site list and kept watching,” he said.

The senior intelligence official said that American spy satellites and analysts had, in fact, watched the site for years.

“It was noticed, without knowing what it was,” the official said. “You revisit every so often, but it was not a high priority. You see things that raise the flag and you know you have to keep looking. It was a case of watching it evolve.”

Jeffrey Lewis, an expert on nuclear proliferation at the New America Foundation in Washington, said it was surprising from the photos how little progress had been made at the site between 2003 and 2007.
It certainly sounds like a lot of people were asleep on the job.

DEBKA reports this evening that there were actually two Israeli raids at the same time and that an as-yet-unnamed third country was also helping the Syrians.
1. It now transpires, according to DEBKAfile’s military sources, that there was not one Israeli operation in Syria but two: One targeted the unfinished nuclear reactors at At Tibnah east of the Euphrates River and the other, a military site. North Korea was involved deeply in both these Syrian projects - and not only the nuclear reactor.

2. The critics of Rice’s policies, some of whom administration officials briefed on the Israeli operations in Syria against a pledge of confidentiality, are suggesting that Syria had at least one other active partner as well as North Korea and Iran in its nuclear program.
I have not seen the DEBKA report confirmed elsewhere.


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