Leading article: Intelligence or propaganda?

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In the wake of the mysterious Israeli bombing raid on a Syrian facility last September, neither party wanted to talk about what had happened. But now the truth, or at least one interpretation of it, has come out on Washington's Capitol Hill.

American security officials this week presented members of Congress with evidence supposedly showing that Syria, with North Korean assistance, was building a nuclear reactor on the target site and that this facility was "not intended for peaceful activities". Pictures have been released allegedly taken inside the facility showing a reactor core being built as well as an image of North Koreans working there.

There is no independent way to verify any of this, especially since the installation has now been destroyed. We must rely on the integrity of the Israeli and US intelligence services. That is where we hit a problem. The former US Secretary of State Colin Powell presented similar evidence to the United Nations Security Council in February 2003 showing what we were told was strong evidence of Iraqi storage of weapons of mass destruction. As we all know, that intelligence turned out to be bogus.

This is not to say that the Syrian government and the North Korean government were not indeed setting up a covert nuclear plant and thus breaking international law. But it does emphasise that the US security services have a severe credibility problem.

There is another question raised by all this. If the US and Israel were so convinced of Syria's malign intentions, why the secrecy? The head of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed El Baradei, has criticised the US for not passing on this information sooner. The IAEA also says Israel should have given its investigators a chance to investigate the purported reactor before they bombed it.

A further question is: why release this information now, having kept a lid on it for so long? One explanation is that it is part of an attempt to disrupt the present efforts to bring North Korea back into the international fold, a process some in the White House reportedly find difficult to stomach.

If so, this episode shows that elements in the US administration have learnt nothing from Iraq. They are still using intelligence for propaganda purposes. As for the Israeli bombing raid itself, apparently sanctioned by the US, it is hard to see in this anything other than a dangerous contempt for the autonomy of the IAEA and an enduring disregard for international law.

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