WASHINGTON (AP) _ From the right and the left, President Bush faces criticism over his approach toward North Korea after the White House belatedly disclosed U.S. intelligence findings that the communist regime was helping build a Syrian nuclear reactor — at the same time it was promising to fully disclose its own nuclear activities.
Conservatives said the revelations proved North Korea can never be trusted. Democrats and Republicans roughed up the administration for waiting so long to speak up about the Syrian reactor, which was destroyed by Israeli jets in a hushed mission on Sept. 6, 2007.
Both sides said the newly released intelligence raised the bar for making sure that any deal the U.S. and its partners make with North Korea's Kim Jong Il comes with a tough anti-cheating warranty.
It's unclear what will happen next in the diplomatic dance with North Korea.
Syria denounced the reactor claims, saying the U.S. was waging a campaign of false allegations. So far, North Korea hasn't said anything about whether it lent Syria a hand in building it.
There's concern that North Korea might be angry about the disclosure in Washington and leave the negotiating table, ending Bush's hopes for reaching a pact before he leaves office. Others tracking the nuclear standoff with North Korea said the intelligence could actually lay the groundwork for a deal that the United States, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia are trying to reach with Pyongyang.
Democratic Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said any agreement needs "vigorous verification," but said the newly disclosed information only underscores the need for pursuing the talks.
His counterpart in the House, California Democrat Howard Berman, said the U.S. should continue pressing North Korea to make good on its promise to declare its nuclear programs and "ensure that the North Koreans do not stray from it."
On the conservative side, John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who has been critical of U.S. policy on North Korea, said: "I think this should drive the stake through the six-party talks. It shows why the North Koreans can't be trusted, why you need intrusive verification of anything they say."
The administration said it held off publicly disclosing the intelligence because it wanted some time to pass to lessen the chance that Syria would retaliate against Israel for its attack on what the Syrians said was only an unused military facility. Breaking its silence on Thursday, the White House said North Korea assisted Syria's secret nuclear program and that the destroyed facility was not intended for "peaceful purposes."
Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said Bush's failure to keep Congress informed would make it harder to get congressional support for its dealings with North Korea.
"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," he said. "I think it really jeopardizes any type of the agreement they may come up with" regarding North Korea.
The White House's four-paragraph statement covered the landscape of political opinion.
It called the Syrian reactor a "dangerous and potentially destabilizing development for the region and the world," and insisted that Syria "come clean before the world regarding its illicit nuclear activities." It said North Korea's hand in building the reactor was a "dangerous manifestation" of its nuclear weapons program and proliferation activities.
The White House, however, said it remained committed to the talks and to making sure that North Korea does not engage in proliferation activities again.
"We will work with our partners to establish, in the six-party framework, a rigorous verification mechanism to ensure that such conduct and other nuclear activities have ceased," White House press secretary Dana Perino said in a statement.
U.S. officials argue that the disclosed intelligence won't undermine the six-party talks, but will provide leverage to officials trying to get an accurate accounting of North Korea's nuclear and proliferation activities.
In recent weeks, U.S. and North Korean diplomats have worked out a deal to get the talks back on track, but its precise terms have remained unclear. In general, the North could produce a less detailed public accounting about any proliferation activities its been involved in as well as disclose details about its program to develop weapons from highly enriched uranium.
Nuclear experts tracking the talks say they think that Christopher Hill, the lead U.S. negotiator in the talks, has compiled enough information about North Korea's uranium enrichment activities to make the claim that that program is dead.
On proliferation, they speculate that the new disclosure about the Syrian reactor might give the reclusive North Korean regime a way to acknowledge its past involvement in spreading nuclear technology or expertise to Syria or other nations. And, by showing the world that the Syrian facility has been destroyed, the administration can claim that past North Korean-Syrian cooperation is no longer a threat.
Bolton said he doesn't know the administration's negotiating strategy, but suspects Bush would want some deal to emerge from the six-party talks in a hurry.
"I think when people fully appreciate the magnitude of North Korea's duplicity, they'll see that there's no point in pursuing these talks any further," he said.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Deb Riechmann covers the White House for The Associated Press.
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.