Posted by Alex on Wednesday, October 10th, 2007
Posted by Alex.
By MARK MAZZETTI and HELENE COOPER
WASHINGTON, Oct. 9 — A sharp debate is under way in the Bush administration about the significance of the Israeli intelligence that led to last month’s Israeli strike inside Syria, according to current and former American government officials.
At issue is whether intelligence that Israel presented months ago to the White House — to support claims that Syria had begun early work on what could become a nuclear weapons program with help from North Korea — was conclusive enough to justify military action by Israel and a possible rethinking of American policy toward the two nations.
The debate has fractured along now-familiar fault lines, with Vice President Dick Cheney and conservative hawks in the administration portraying the Israeli intelligence as credible and arguing that it should cause the United States to reconsider its diplomatic overtures to Syria and North Korea.
By contrast, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her allies within the administration have said they do not believe that the intelligence presented so far merits any change in the American diplomatic approach.
“Some people think that it means that the sky is falling,” a senior administration official said. “Others say that they’re not convinced that the real intelligence poses a threat.”
Several current and former officials, as well as outside experts, spoke on the condition of anonymity because the intelligence surrounding the Israeli strike remains highly classified.
Besides Ms. Rice, officials said that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was cautious about fully endorsing Israeli warnings that Syria was on a path that could lead to a nuclear weapon. Others in the Bush administration remain unconvinced that a nascent Syrian nuclear program could pose an immediate threat.
It has long been known that North Korean scientists have aided Damascus in developing sophisticated ballistic missile technology, and there appears to be little debate that North Koreans frequently visited a site in the Syrian desert that Israeli jets attacked Sept. 6. Where officials disagree is whether the accumulated evidence points to a Syrian nuclear program that poses a significant threat to the Middle East.
Mr. Cheney and his allies have expressed unease at the decision last week by President Bush and Ms. Rice to proceed with an agreement to supply North Korea with economic aid in return for the North’s disabling its nuclear reactor. Those officials argued that the Israeli intelligence demonstrates that North Korea cannot be trusted. They also argue that the United States should be prepared to scuttle the agreement unless North Korea admits to its dealing with the Syrians.
During a breakfast meeting on Oct. 2 at the White House, Ms. Rice and her chief North Korea negotiator, Christopher R. Hill, made the case to President Bush that the United States faced a choice: to continue with the nuclear pact with North Korea as a way to bring the secretive country back into the diplomatic fold and give it the incentive to stop proliferating nuclear material; or to return to the administration’s previous strategy of isolation, which detractors say left North Korea to its own devices and led it to test a nuclear device last October.
Mr. Cheney and Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, also attended the meeting, administration officials said.
The Israeli strike occurred at a particularly delicate time for American diplomatic efforts. In addition to the North Korean nuclear negotiations, the White House is also trying to engineer a regional Middle East peace conference that would work toward a comprehensive peace accord between Arabs and Israelis.
The current and former American officials said Israel presented the United States with intelligence over the summer about what it described as nuclear activity in Syria. Officials have said Israel told the White House shortly in advance of the September raid that it was prepared to carry it out, but it is not clear whether the White House took a position then about whether the attack was justified.
One former top Bush administration official said Israeli officials were so concerned about the threat posed by a potential Syrian nuclear program that they told the White House they could not wait past the end of the summer to strike the facility.
Last week, Turkish officials traveled to Damascus to present the Syrian government with the Israeli dossier on what was believed to be a Syrian nuclear program, according to a Middle East security analyst in Washington. The analyst said that Syrian officials vigorously denied the intelligence and said that what the Israelis hit was a storage depot for strategic missiles.
That denial followed a similar denial from North Korea. Mr. Hill, the State Department’s assistant secretary for East Asia and Pacific affairs, raised the Syria issue with his North Korean counterparts in talks in Beijing in late September. The North Koreans denied providing any nuclear material to Syria.
Publicly, Syrian officials have said Israeli jets hit an empty warehouse.
Bruce Riedel, a veteran of the C.I.A. and the National Security Council and now a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution, said that American intelligence agencies remained cautious in drawing hard conclusions about the significance of the suspicious activity at the Syrian site.
Still, Mr. Riedel said Israel would not have launched the strike in Syria if it believed Damascus was merely developing more sophisticated ballistic missiles or chemical weapons.
“Those red lines were crossed 20 years ago,” he said. “You don’t risk general war in the Middle East over an extra 100 kilometers’ range on a missile system.”
Another former intelligence official said Syria was attempting to develop so-called airburst capability for its ballistic missiles. Such technology would allow Syria to detonate warheads in the air to disperse the warhead’s material more widely.
Since North Korea detonated its nuclear device, Ms. Rice has prodded Mr. Bush toward a more diplomatic approach with North Korea, through talks that also include Japan, Russia, South Korea and China. Those talks led to the initial agreement last February for North Korea to shut down its nuclear reactor in exchange for fuel and food aid.
That deal angered conservatives who believed that the Bush administration had made diplomacy toward North Korea too high a priority, at the expense of efforts to combat the spread of illicit weapons in the Middle East.
“Opposing the Israeli strike to protect the six-party talks would be a breathtaking repudiation of the administration’s own national security strategy,” said John R. Bolton, former United States ambassador to the United Nations.
But other current and former officials argue that the diplomatic approach is America’s best option for dealing with the question of North Korean proliferation.
“You can’t just make these decisions using the top of your spinal cord, you have to use the whole brain,” said Philip D. Zelikow, the former counselor at the State Department. “What other policy are we going to pursue that we think would be better?” Read