A sharp debate is under way in the Bush administration about the significance of the Israeli intelligence that led to last month's Israeli airstrike inside Syria, the New York Times reported Wednesday.
At issue is whether intelligence that Israel presented months ago to the White House -- to support claims that Syria had begun early work on what could become a nuclear weapons program with help from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) -- was conclusive enough to justify military action by Israel and a possible rethinking of American policy toward the two nations.
U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and conservative hawks in the Bush administration have been portraying the Israeli intelligence as credible and arguing that it should cause the U.S. to reconsider its diplomatic overtures to Syria and the DPRK.
By contrast, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her allies within the administration have said they do not believe that the intelligence presented so far merits any change in the American diplomatic approach.
"Some people think that it means that the sky is falling. Others say that they're not convinced that the real intelligence poses a threat," an unidentified senior official was quoted as saying.
Besides Rice, officials who asked not to be identified said that Defense Secretary Robert Gates was cautious about fully endorsing Israeli warnings that Syria was on a path that could lead to nuclear weapons.
Others, the officials said, remain unconvinced that a nascent Syrian nuclear program could pose an immediate threat.
Syria said on Sept. 6 that its air defenses opened fire on Israeli warplanes that had entered its airspace at dawn and forced them to leave, but Israel said they are unaware of any such incident.
The Bush administration declined to comment on Syria's report.
"I have seen those press reports. I don't have anything for you that could substantiate them one way or the other," State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey told reporters at the time.
"Certainly I don't want to comment on it at this point in time," he said.
The United States considers Syria a major destabilizing influence in the Middle East, and accuses Syria of allowing foreign fighters to cross its border into Iraq to join forces withal Qaeda and anti-U.S. insurgent groups. Syria denies the U.S. charges.