Bush 'overlooked threat'

NUCLEAR THREAT? Satellite image by DigitalGlobe shows a suspected nuclear reactor site in Syric. © AP.
NUCLEAR THREAT? Satellite image by DigitalGlobe shows a suspected nuclear reactor site in Syric. © AP.

The mystery surrounding the construction of what might have been a nuclear reactor in Syria deepened on Friday when a company, DigitalGlobe, released a satellite photo showing that the main building was well under way in September 2003 - four years before Israeli jets bombed it.

The mystery surrounding the construction of what might have been a nuclear reactor in Syria deepened on Friday when a company, DigitalGlobe, released a satellite photo showing that the main building was well under way in September 2003 - four years before Israeli jets bombed it.

The long genesis is likely to raise questions about whether the Bush administration overlooked a nascent atomic threat in Syria while planning and executing a war in Iraq, which was later found to have no active nuclear programme. A senior American intelligence official said on Friday that American analysts had looked carefully at the site from its early days, but were unsure then whether it posed a nuclear threat.

In the time before the Iraq war, President Bush and his senior advisers sounded many alarms about Baghdad's reconstituting its nuclear programme. But they have never publicly discussed what many analysts say appears to have been a long-running nuclear effort next door. On Friday independent analysts, examining the latest satellite image, suggested that work on the site might have begun in about 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.

A dispute has broken out between conservatives and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice over the administration's pursuit of diplomacy with North Korea in the face of intelligence that North Korea might have helped Syria design a nuclear reactor.

The new image might give ammunition to those in the administration, including Rice, who call for diplomacy. If North Korea started its Syrian aid long ago, the officials could argue that the assistance was historical, not current, and that diplomacy should move ahead.

Progress at the site in late 2003 also raises new questions about a disagreement at the time between intelligence analysts and John Bolton, then the state department's top arms control official.

In the summer of 2003, 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 Bolton overstated the Syrian threat.

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

Spokesmen for the CIA and the National Security Council declined to comment.

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