What Are They Up To Now?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, April 25, 2008; 1:18 PM

Intelligence reports from this administration can't be taken at face value.

President Bush has built up a prodigious track record of selectively disclosing intelligence findings that serve his political agenda. And some of the most important of those findings, of course, turned out to be completely false.

The latest disclosure from the White House's intelligence apparatus -- that Syria secretly built a nuclear reactor with North Korean help -- is in many ways a blockbuster. But at the same time, its highly suspicious timing raises doubts about the motivation behind its announcement.

And even if everything the administration says is true, there are many elements of the emerging story that deserve scrutiny.

Consider, for instance, that the Syrians were still nowhere near being able to build a nuclear weapon when the White House tacitly approved Israel's attack on the facility. Did you think Bush's pre-emption doctrine was dead? Just listen to the administration officials yesterday speaking sympathetically of Israel's conclusion that it faced an "existential threat."

Another obvious question: Why now? Why is the White House going public more than seven months after Israel's attack?

Administration officials offered an explanation yesterday -- saying that they were initially worried about provoking Syrian retaliation, and that the disclosure could actually help the ongoing nuclear negotiations with North Korea.

But there are still some who suspect the announcement is the work of Vice President Cheney and other administration neocons who are trying to upset those negotiations -- and further ratchet up tensions with Iran. The White House statement about the Syrian installation insisted that "this development . . . underscores that the international community is right to be very concerned about the nuclear activities of Iran and the risks those activities pose to the stability of the Middle East."

The timing outraged even Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, who had this to say after his meeting with CIA briefers yesterday: "I think many people believe that we were used today by the administration because - not because they felt they had to inform Congress because it was their legal obligation to do that, but because they had other agendas in mind. . . . I think what we saw in the committee today, I think the chairman would agree that the relationship that we need to get international issues done, foreign policy issues done, a trusting environment between the administration and Congress, does not exist."

The Coverage

Robin Wright writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration charged Thursday that a secret Syrian nuclear reactor was within weeks or months of completion before Israel bombed it on Sept. 6 and demanded that North Korea and Syria publicly acknowledge their collusion on a facility that could have produced plutonium for a nuclear weapon. . . .

"'We are convinced, based on a variety of information, that North Korea assisted Syria's covert nuclear activities,' which were 'not intended for peaceful purposes,' White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said in a statement. . . .

"At the same time, a senior U.S. official acknowledged that the U.S. intelligence experts had formally assigned only 'low confidence' to the possibility that the site was at the heart of a Syrian nuclear weapons program, because it lacked basic components such as a reprocessing plant. . . .

"Several members of Congress complained yesterday that the administration was too slow to share the intelligence and warned that it undermined future cooperation with the White House. . . .

"U.S. officials said the delay was necessary because they feared that any detailed public comment immediately after the Israeli raid could have provoked Syria to retaliate militarily. As time has passed, a senior intelligence official said, the administration concluded that the risk had decreased and disclosure might actually help sensitive negotiations with North Korea on dismantling its nuclear program."

Here, via the Arms Control Wonk blog, is the transcript of a detailed briefing held by senior officials yesterday, who spoke only on condition of anonymity. Here is the CIA video presentation.

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "[A]fter a full day of briefing members of Congress, two senior intelligence officials acknowledged that the evidence had left them with no more than 'low confidence' that Syria was preparing to build a nuclear weapon. They said that there was no sign that Syria had built an operation to convert the spent fuel from the plant into weapons-grade plutonium, but that they had told President Bush last year that they could think of no other explanation for the reactor. . . .

"It is unclear how the Syrians planned to get the uranium they needed. Once they got it, the reactor would have had to run for roughly 18 months before the fuel was 'cooked.' And then to turn it into weapons-grade plutonium, it would require reprocessing, presumably outside the country unless Syria found a way to build its own plant."

As for U.S. involvement in the attack: "A senior administration official, briefing reporters with the help of the two senior intelligence officials, said for the first time that the White House had extensive discussions with Israel before the airstrike in September. The official said the White House had raised the possibility of confronting Syria with a demand that it dismantle the reactor or face the possibility of an attack.

"But that idea apparently never gained traction with the Israelis or some in the administration[my italics], and in the end, the official said, Israel cited satellite evidence to declare that the Syrian reactor constituted 'an existential threat' to Israel because it might soon be ready for operation. The senior administration official, who was a central player in Mr. Bush's deliberations, added that Israel's attack proceeded 'without a green light from us.'

"'None was asked for, none was given,' the official added."

As Sanger writes: "The crucial question now is how the North Koreans will react. Some officials said that they hoped the announcement would embarrass the North into admitting to nuclear proliferation activities, while others said it could prompt the North to walk away from the negotiating table -- and collapse the deal Mr. Bush was hoping to reach by the end of his presidency. In return for North Korea's declaration of all its nuclear activities, the United States would lift sanctions and begin to negotiate the North Koreans' reward for turning over their fuel and weapons."

Either way, "even some senior officials of the administration acknowledge that they are likely to leave Mr. Bush's successor with a North Korea with roughly 10 nuclear weapons or fuel for weapons, up from the one or two weapons it had when Mr. Bush took office in 2001."

Who Won?

Jonathan S. Landay writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "A senior State Department official said there was a debate in the administration over whether to release the intelligence.

"Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was among those opposing the release, said the official, who requested anonymity to discuss internal administration disputes. 'I don't think she saw the value of it' in pushing diplomacy to end North Korea's nuclear programs or advancing U.S. goals in the Middle East, he said.

"Vice President Dick Cheney, many U.S. government officials dealing with nonproliferation and the U.S. intelligence community reportedly favored releasing the materials."

Jonathan Karl reported for ABC News: "A senior Administration official said today that this intelligence was released now to strengthen talks now under way between the U.S. and North Korea about its nuclear program. But senior State Department officials wanted this information to remain secret, and feared that their talks with North Korea may now be doomed."

Bill Powell writes for Time: "Bush has tried pretty much everything to get North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il to come out of his cage. He has tried to coerce him with economic sanctions and schoolboy bluster--a policy course that ended on in the autumn of 2006, when Kim tested a nuclear weapon, precisely the opposite of the result Bush intended. Since then, the administration has tried bribery, offering blandishments like food and free fuel oil in hopes that in return North Korea would stand down its nuclear program. Kim has responded a bit--his nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, which produced the fissile material for the North's estimated eight to 10 nuclear bombs--is slowly being shut down. But Kim has refused to detail all the other components of his nuclear program, including an alleged uranium enrichment effort, and he has continued to sell North Korean nuclear expertise into a buyer's market of rogue states.

"Exasperated, the administration yesterday unveiled North Korea policy version 3.0. Bush is now trying to shame North Korea into complying with what it had agreed to do in talks with the U.S. and four other negotiating partners (China, Russia, Japan and South Korea). . . .

"There were reasons for the seven months of silence. Bush administration officials say they were worried that Syria might start a new war in the Middle East if they were publicly fingered after the attack. . . .

"No. The major reason for the silence, say former administration officials and Asian diplomats, was an ongoing struggle over the Bush administration's North Korea policy. The State Department, led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the U.S. point man for North Korea talks, still believe the only sensible path is the one they have been on for the last two years: trying, oh so patiently, to come to a deal with Kim that will at least eliminate his regime's plutonium program and the weapons it produced. Everything else, they believe, is secondary, a 'sideshow,' says a South Korean diplomat.

"Set against them are the North Korea skeptics, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, who believe North Korea has no intention of giving up its nukes, no matter what diplomatic agreements it signs. . . .

"The hawks were delighted with yesterday's presentation about the Syrian connection, hoping that the North will be so angered by it that Kim will abandon the six-party talks, bringing down the curtain on what Bolton and others believe has been a feckless effort by the State Department. But administration officials insist they don't expect that to happen. They believe North Korea 3.0 -- the 'shame on you' policy -- may pay off. 'I doubt they're walking away,' says one diplomat involved in the talks."

Here's more on how it might help the negotiations from Janine Zacharia and Jeff Bliss of Bloomberg: "The question of North Korea's nuclear assistance to Syria has dogged negotiators for months, threatening to scuttle a diplomatic effort involving China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the U.S. The countries are trying to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program in exchange for improved political ties and economic assistance.

"The U.S. declaration of North Korea's proliferation may obviate the need for a North Korean disclosure, almost four months overdue, improving the chances for talks to proceed on dismantling the program. Chief U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill has been searching for a way out of the impasse."

And here's more on how it could hurt, from AFP: "Although Washington has made clear that the diplomatic initiative will continue, the serious accusation levelled against North Korea would require President George W. Bush's administration to impose such high verification standards on denuclearization efforts that Pyongyang may just walk away from the deal, according to the experts."

Unanswered Questions

Matthew Lee and Anne Gearan of the Associated Press ask a key question: "Why should US be trusted on North Korea-Syria claims?. . . . The Bush administration has a spotty record when it comes to keeping tabs on nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs inside closed nations."

Greg Miller and Paul Richter write in the Los Angeles Times: "The evidence left several questions unanswered, such as how Damascus would fuel the plant or manufacture bombs, and was greeted with skepticism by some nuclear experts and foreign officials.

"U.S. intelligence officials acknowledged that they had not obtained evidence indicating Syria was working on nuclear weapons designs and had not identified a source of nuclear material for the facility. . . .

"Such a reactor requires a large volume of nuclear fuel, said David Albright, a physicist and former weapons inspector who is president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. The Americans' inability to identify any source of fuel 'raises questions about when the reactor could have operated, despite evidence that it was nearing completion at the time of the attack.'

"He also said the United States and Israel weren't able to identify any Syrian facilities to separate plutonium from reactor fuel, a step necessary to build nuclear weapons. The lack of a processing plant 'gives little confidence that the reactor was part of an active nuclear weapons program.'

"A diplomat in Vienna close to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. watchdog group, quoted Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei's comment in October that countries claiming to have evidence of illicit nuclear activity 'should bring it forward, not bomb first and ask questions later.'"

Opinion Watch

The New York Times editorial board writes: "It is more than a little suspicious that the ever-secretive Bush administration has suddenly decided to go public with what it knows about North Korea's nuclear connection with Syria. . . .

"It is another example of this administration insisting that information be withheld for national security reasons -- until there is a political reason to release it.

"So why now? It is no secret that Republican hard-liners are outraged over a State Department-negotiated deal intended to eventually shut down North Korea's nuclear weapons program. They are desperate to stop it, either by getting President Bush to pull back or provoking the easily provoked North Koreans into doing something stupid, like walking out of the talks.

"Thursday's presentation to certain Congressional committees will also make it harder to win approval for aid to dismantle North Korean nuclear facilities -- an essential part of the agreement."

Glenn Greenwald blogs for Salon that "there is no value -- and much potential harm -- in having media outlets simply amplify Government accusations with little or no critical scrutiny. . . .

"There are all sorts of reasons beyond those for extreme skepticism here. After flamboyantly announcing that they had actual video of North Korean nuclear scientists inside the Syrian building, it turned out that the 'video' was merely a compilation of rather unrevealing still photographs patched together, in Colin-Powell-at-the-UN fashion, with ominous narration making accusations with a level of certainty completely unmatched by the 'evidence' itself. . . .

"[T]here are all sorts of motives for the administration to exaggerate or outright fabricate these accusations."

Iran Drumbeat Watch

Lolita C. Baldor writes for the Associated Press: "The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff accused Iran on Friday of increasing arms and training support to insurgents in Iraq as well as militants battling U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

"Adm. Mike Mullen told a Pentagon news conference that he has 'no smoking gun' proof that the highest leadership in the Iranian government has approved the stepped up aid to insurgents who are killing U.S. and Iraqi forces. But he said it's clear that recently made Iranian weapons are flowing into Iraq at a steadily increasing rate, including to support insurgents during the recent fighting in Basra in southern Iraq.

"'It's not just weapons,' Mullen said of Iranian support. 'They continue to train Iraqis in Iran to come back and fight Americans in the coalition,' he added, saying U.S. intelligence is seeing similar Iranian aid for militants and the Taliban in Afghanistan."

Yochi J. Dreazen writes in the Wall Street Journal: "The U.S. military says it has found caches of newly made Iranian weapons in Iraq, leading senior officials to conclude Tehran is continuing to funnel armaments into Iraq despite its pledges to the contrary.

"Officials in Washington and Baghdad said the purported Iranian mortars, rockets and explosives had date stamps indicating they were manufactured in the past two months. The U.S. plans to publicize the weapons caches in coming days. A pair of senior commanders said a presentation was tentatively planned for Monday.

"The allegations, which couldn't be independently verified, mark a further hardening of U.S. rhetoric on Iran, which senior American officials now describe as the greatest long-term threat to Iraq."

Middle East Peace Watch

James Gerstenzang and Richard Boudreaux write in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush said Thursday that he wanted to lock in the outlines of a Palestinian state before he left office, even as Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, said the road was 'paved with obstacles.'

"With less than nine months to achieve his goal, Bush is holding a flurry of diplomatic meetings, including a session with Abbas in the Oval Office on Thursday, seeking to pressure Israel, the Palestinians and their Arab allies."

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "Bush met with Abbas at the White House amid pessimism in the region about the prospects for forging a deal to resolve the core issues that have divided the Israelis and Palestinians, including the borders of a Palestinian state and the status of Jerusalem."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "As he prepares for his second trip this year to the Middle East, President Bush is facing mounting criticism from some Palestinians who are upset that he will go to Israel for its 60th birthday celebration without marking the flip side of that event: the flight of Palestinians from their homes."

Ellen Knickmeyer and Griff Witte write in The Washington Post: "Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said in an interview published Thursday that he was open to direct talks with Israel on a peace deal based on Israel's return of the Golan Heights. But he added that such negotiations could only happen under U.S. sponsorship after the Bush administration leaves office. . . .

"'This administration doesn't possess a vision, or a willingness for a peaceful progress,'' he said. 'It doesn't possess anything.'"

Bush Legacy Watch

Christopher Lee writes in The Washington Post that Bush's "competitive sourcing" initiative "turned on a simple idea: Force federal employees to compete for their jobs against private contractors and costs will decrease, even if the work ultimately stays in-house.

"But as Bush's presidency winds down, the program's critics say it has had disappointing results and shaken morale among the federal government's 1.8 million civil servants. . . .

"The program fell short of the president's goals in scope and in cost savings. Between 2003 and 2006, agencies completed competitions for fewer than 50,000 jobs, a fraction of what Bush envisioned.

"Moreover, the Government Accountability Office found that the administration has overstated the savings from some competitions by undercounting the costs of running them. Collectively, they cost $225 million, or about $4,800 per job, according to White House figures.

"'The competitive sourcing initiative did little to improve management, produced a ton of worthless paper, demoralized thousands of workers and cost a bundle, all to prove that federal employees are pretty good after all,' said Paul C. Light, a professor of government at New York University's Wagner Graduate School of Public Service."

Et Tu, John?

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "Senator John McCain took direct aim at the Bush administration on Thursday as he stood in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, the area hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and declared the handling of the disaster 'terrible and disgraceful' and pledged that it would never happen again.

"Mr. McCain ticked off a long list of mistakes by the current administration, saying there were 'unqualified people in charge, there was a total misreading of the dimensions of the disaster, there was a failure of communications.'

"The pointed critique was one of his harshest assessments yet of the Bush presidency and came as he has been moving to corral restive elements of the Republican Party -- and the Bush donor network -- behind his candidacy.

"Asked at a news conference outside St. David's Catholic Church if he traced the failure of leadership straight to the top, Mr. McCain, who has said he wants to campaign with President Bush, said emphatically, 'Yes.'"

Rebate Watch

The Associated Press reports: "President Bush says the economic-stimulus tax rebates will begin going out Monday and will help people cope with lofty energy and food prices, as well as giving the economy a jolt. . . .

"'This money is going to help Americans offset the high prices we're seeing at the gas pump, at the grocery store, and will also give our economy a boost to help us pull out of this economic slowdown,' Bush said Friday in brief remarks at the White House."

Budget expert Stan Collender takes issue with Bush calling the checks "tax rebates." He blogs: "The entire economic stimulus plan is being paid for with additional government borrowing. That means that no one receiving a check in the coming weeks is actually receiving any of his or her money back because those tax payments long ago were committed to other things. All they're getting now is an additional piece of the national debt."

White House E-Mail Watch

The National Security Archives reports that, in response to one of its motions in the pending White House e-mail lawsuit, "Magistrate Judge John M. Facciola of the U.S. District Court [yesterday] ordered the White House to provide 'precise information' about the users of the e-mail system from 2003 to 2005 and how many of their hard drives still survive today.

"Citing the 'lack of precision' in White House statements and its changing story about which backup tapes have been preserved, Magistrate Judge Facciola also ordered the White House to 'resolve any ambiguities . . . once and for all' and identify the specific dates between March 2003 and October 2003 for which no backup tape exists."

Stolen Blackberries

Fox News reports that "a Mexican press attaché was caught on camera pocketing several White House BlackBerries during a recent meeting in New Orleans and has since been fired. . . .

"[Rafael] Quintero Curiel took six or seven of the handheld devices from a table outside a special room in the hotel where the Mexican delegation was meeting with President Bush earlier this week.

"Everyone entering the room was required to leave his or her cell phone, BlackBerry and other such devices on the table, a common practice when high-level meetings are held. American officials discovered their missing belongings when they were leaving the session.

"It didn't take long before Secret Service officials reviewed videotape taken by a surveillance camera and found footage showing Quintero Curiel absconding with the BlackBerries."

Does No One Like Him Anymore?

Peggy Noonan writes in a Wall Street Journal opinion column that even Texas Republicans have turned against the president: "In Lubbock, Texas -- Lubbock Comma Texas, the heart of Texas conservatism -- they dislike President Bush. He has lost them. I was there and saw it. Confusion has been followed by frustration has turned into resentment, and this is huge. Everyone knows the president's poll numbers are at historic lows, but if he is over in Lubbock, there is no place in this country that likes him. I made a speech and moved around and I was tough on him and no one -- not one -- defended or disagreed. . . .

"He has left on-the-ground conservatives -- the local right-winger, the town intellectual reading Burke and Kirk, the old Reagan committeewoman -- feeling undefended, unrepresented and alone. . . .

"The reasons for the quiet break with Mr. Bush: spending, they say first, growth in the power and size of government, Iraq."

Silliest White House Briefing Ever?

Ken Herman blogs for Cox News Service -- complete with video: "The question of the day in the White House Briefing Room involved what would happen if the floor gave way and everybody fell into the old swimming pool below.

"Carlton Carroll of the White House Press Office handled the query, which came from questioners perhaps even more immature than the ones usually in the seats. . . .

"Take a look at Carroll's cool-under-pressure handling of an intense grilling by White House staffers' kids on hand for Take Your Child to Work Day."

Froomkin Watch

I'll be taking part in the "Friday Media Roundtable" on KALW 91.7 FM in San Francisco today from 2 to 3 p.m. E.T. You're welcome to listen live and call in, at 866-798-TALK.

Also, I'll be on the road on Monday, but my intention is to write an abbreviated column -- mostly to fill you in on the horror show that is the White House Correspondents' Association dinner.

Late Night Humor

Conan O'Brien, via U.S. News: "It has been reported that President Bush was so impressed with Pope Benedict's recent visit that after he leaves office, Bush may convert to Catholicism. . . . Bush said, 'I'd convert right now, but Dick Cheney freaks out if you get near him with a cross.'"

Cartoon Watch

A Tom Toles sketch on Bush's approval ratings; an Ann Telnaes animation on Bush's personal recession; and Pat Bagley on Bush's track record.

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