Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Right Confronts Rice Over North Korea Policy

WASHINGTON, Oct. 24 — A fight has erupted between conservatives on national security and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice over the Bush administration’s pursuit of diplomacy with North Korea in the face of intelligence that North Korea might have helped Syria begin construction on a nuclear reactor.

The debate moved to Capitol Hill on Wednesday, when Ms. Rice had a tense private meeting with Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the senior Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Just days earlier, Ms. Ros-Lehtinen was the co-author of an opinion article questioning the White House approach, which offers incentives to North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program.

That article also criticized the Bush administration for what it called the “veil of secrecy” surrounding intelligence that led to an Israeli airstrike in Syria last month on the suspected reactor site, and for the fact that only a handful of lawmakers have been briefed on the subject.

Congressional officials said that Ms. Ros-Lehtinen contended that if more lawmakers knew about the intelligence, more would be concerned about a pending nuclear agreement with North Korea.

Commercial satellite photographs have begun to circulate that appear to show a reactor possibly under construction at a site in Syria near the Euphrates River. The images were taken during the summer, a month before the Israeli raid.

The White House now finds itself charting a similar course to the one for which it heaped criticism on the Clinton administration in 2002, accusing it of being too trusting. At that time, a diplomatic agreement with North Korea collapsed after the White House accused North Korea of secretly continuing work on a nuclear weapon.

Now, the White House is trying to deflect criticism from fellow Republicans, including even hawkish officials within the administration, that Ms. Rice is putting her desires for a diplomatic agreement above national security interests.

One senior administration official, who has seen the intelligence about the Syrian site and advocates a tougher line against North Korea, said he was frustrated that even in light of possible North Korean help on a Syrian nuclear program, “we are shaking hands with the North Koreans because they have once again told us they are going to disarm.”

Conservatives remain deeply suspicious of the Rice approach, fearing that it rewards North Korea. Mr. Bush was persuaded by Ms. Rice and his chief North Korea negotiator, Christopher R. Hill, that there was no other path. Mr. Hill acknowledged in a recent interview that the approach was a sharp reversal from the first term.

“Republicans are brokenhearted that the administration has done a complete U-turn on this issue,” said John R. Bolton, former United States ambassador to the United Nations and an advocate of a tough approach to North Korea.

But Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the new intelligence was even more reason to take a diplomatic approach to North Korea: “To rein these guys inside a deal that has some transparency.”

Several diplomats and administration officials representing both sides of the debate were interviewed on condition of anonymity because the intelligence about the Syrian site remained classified.

The administration and the Israeli government have kept silent about the strike, but American and foreign officials with access to intelligence reports have said the target was a partly constructed nuclear reactor, apparently modeled on one North Korea has used to generate its stockpile of nuclear weapons fuel. They said it would have been years before Syria could have produced nuclear weapons fuel on its own.

The Institute for Science and International Security, a private group in Washington, released a report on Wednesday that pinpointed the site in a satellite image taken Aug. 10, nearly a month before the Israeli strike.

“This looks like a reactor site,” David Albright, president and founder of the institute and a former United Nations weapons inspector, said in an interview.

But Mr. Albright said it was difficult to tell how advanced the construction had been because recent activity lay hidden beneath the tall building’s large roof.......

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