A 2003 photo released to FOX News shows a possible nuclear facility in Syria four years before Israel launched an air strike reportedly aimed at destroying it.
The photo — taken Sept. 13, 2003 by an American commercial satellite — could be proof that U.S. officials may have known about the facility long before the Israeli mission. Washington has been silent about the existence of Syria's possible secret nuclear program.
"I'm sure they knew something," said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) in Washington, D.C. "They didn't know it's a reactor, that's pretty clear. I'm sure they, in scanning Syria, came across it."
The image was taken by GeoEye, a Dulles, Va.-based firm that took the image for commercial purposes. It comes on the heels of other satellite imagery released last week that shows what is believed to be the same building a month before and soon after the believed Sept. 6 Israeli air strike. Israel has not officially commented on the raid or acknowledged carrying it out, but Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has hinted the operation took place.
"The Israelis stumbled upon this, were surprised and acted quickly," Albright said. "And so we don't know what evidence they collected or (if) they just panicked and decided to act without knowing and worried about the worse case."
Analysis of those previous images, taken by DigitalGlobe, found that the structure could be a nuclear facility at least several years from completion similar to one in North Korea, according to an ISIS report released last week.
If the building does contain a reactor, like that in Yongbyon, it would likely be a 20-25 megawatt gas-graphite reactor, large enough to make about one nuclear weapon's worth of plutonium each year, the group said.
To build nuclear weapons from such a reactor, Syria would need a separate facility to extract plutonium from the spent fuel from the reactor, the report said.
The box-shaped building has a roof, making it impossible to see what is inside. The building is 47 yards square, similar in size to the 48-by-50 yard Yongbyon reactor, the report said. Albright, a former U.N. nuclear inspector, has also been working his sources.
"We had zero help from the U.S. or Israel on this site," Albright said. "And the fact that Syria says nothing makes it even more remarkable that these three states have a deep, vested interest to keep us in the dark and it's very hard to crack the wall of secrecy."
Syria could have gotten help for its suspected nuclear program from North Korea and other nations; possibly rogue Russian businesses working outside the realm of the government, Albright said. But without outside inspectors looking within Syria, it's difficult to gauge the extent of its believed nuclear capabilities.
"We'd like to know if Syria is going to try to build another nuclear facility or nuclear reactor someplace else," Albright said. "Perhaps be more careful this time."
Syria has long denied the existence of a nuclear program and President Bashar Assad said earlier this month that the facility is an "unused military building."
What exactly the Bush Administration knows is still shrouded in mystery.
"If the U.S. had already had a file on the place, the place name would have come out pretty fast, along with a coherent explanation for what it was," the analyst said. "But this was not the case."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.