Seven months after Israel bombed the reactor, the White House broke its silence and said North Korea assisted Syria's secret nuclear program and that the destroyed facility was not intended for "peaceful purposes."
The disclosure could undermine six-party negotiations to try to resolve the nuclear standoff with North Korea. The White House issued a two-page statement after lawmakers were given details about the reactor in a series of briefings on Capitol Hill. The White House said the International Atomic Energy Agency also was being briefed on the intelligence.
While calling North Korea's nuclear assistance to Syria a "dangerous manifestation" of Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program and its proliferation activities, the U.S. said it remained committed to the talks.
The administration said that after the reactor was damaged beyond repair, Syria tried to bury evidence of its existence.
"This cover-up only served to reinforce our confidence that this reactor was not intended for peaceful activities," White House press secretary Dana Perino said. "The Syrian regime must come clean before the world regarding its illicit nuclear activities."
CIA Director Michael Hayden, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley briefed lawmakers, who were shown a video presentation of intelligence information that the administration contends establishes a strong link between North Korea's nuclear program and the bombed Syrian site. It included still photographs that showed a strong resemblance between specific features of the plant and the one near Yongbyon.
According to officials familiar with the presentation, it did not show moving images inside the facility or any North Korean workers, but included photographs that depict similarities between the North Korean and Syrian reactor designs.
U.S. negotiators have been trying hard to close a deal in which North Korea would admit to and give up all its nuclear activities in return for being taken off the list of countries that support terrorism, reports CBS News national security correspondent David Martin.
But at the same time, the administration had all the photos showing North Korea was secretly helping Syria build a reactor that could produce plutonium for nuclear weapons, adds Martin. The images include a photo that U.S. intelligence says shows the head of Syria's nuclear agency with one of the North Koreans who was negotiating with the United States.
By making the photos public, Martin reports, the U.S. is telling North Korea: "If you won't come clean, we'll come clean for you."
The Syrian nuclear reactor destroyed by Israeli jets was within weeks or months of being functional, a top U.S. official told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. The official said the facility was mostly completed but still needed significant testing before it could be declared operational.
No uranium, which is needed to fuel a reactor, was evident at the site, a remote area of eastern Syria along the Euphrates River. But the U.S. official said the reactor was similar in design to a North Korean reactor at Yongbyon, which has in the past produced small amounts of plutonium, the marterial needed to make powerful nuclear weapons.
Top members of the House Intelligence Committee said the reactor posed a serious threat of spreading dangerous nuclear materials.
"This is a serious proliferation issue, both for the Middle East and the countries that may be involved in Asia," said Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich.
Hoekstra and Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, told reporters after the closed meeting that they were angry that the Bush administration had delayed briefing the full committee for eight months.
"It's bad management and terrible public policy to go for eight months knowing this was out there and then drop this in our laps six hours before they go to the public," Hoekstra said.
President Bush's failure to keep Congress informed has created friction that may imperil congressional support for Bush's policies toward North Korea and Syria, he said.
"It totally breaks down any trust that you have between the administration and Congress," Hoekstra said. "I think it really jeopardizes any type of the agreement they may come up with" regarding North Korea.
A senior administration said the White House went publc with the evidence now to prevent an even broader confrontation in the Middle East region, reports CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller.
"We feared that if knowledge of this event spread quickly Syria might feel greater pressure to react," the official said.
The White House also stressed that North Korea's assistance on the Syrian reactor was an issue of "great international concern."
"The construction of this reactor was a dangerous and potentially destabilizing development for the region and the world," Perino said in the statement. "This is particularly true because it was done covertly and in violation of the very procedures designed to reassure the world of the peaceful intent of nuclear activities.
"The United States calls upon the international community to redouble our common efforts to ending these activities and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction in this critical region."