Lessons of the Syrian Reactor

May 1, 2013 Topic: IntelligenceNuclear ProliferationWMDSecurity Regions: Syria

Lessons of the Syrian Reactor

Mini Teaser: The intelligence failures of Iraq seriously constrained policy makers in other areas.

by Author(s): Bruce Riedel

Israeli accounts also stress the role of General Mohammed Suleiman in the project. Suleiman was in charge of the reactor’s construction and security. An engineering graduate from Damascus University, Suleiman was Assad’s chief adviser on all WMD projects and dealt extensively with the North Koreans and Iranians. Suleiman was assassinated in August 2008 at his seaside home near Tartus, Syria, reportedly by Israeli naval commandos.

Importantly, neither American nor Israeli intelligence located a plutonium-reprocessing facility near Al Kibar or anywhere in Syria. While a nuclear reactor potentially represents the first step toward a nuclear-weapons capability, it alone would not be sufficient to build the weapons. The country would also need a reprocessing facility—a more difficult technical challenge to build—in order to convert the plutonium from the reactor’s spent fuel into a high enough grade for it to be usable in nuclear weapons. Syria also lacked sufficient fuel to start the reactor on its own; it would need a fuel supply from some outside source. That presumably would have been North Korea. The absence of a reprocessing facility suggests the reactor at Al Kibar may have been for supplying North Korea and its nuclear-weapons program more than it was for a Syrian program, at least until Syria built a reprocessing facility. This intriguing absence would raise questions that would have serious implications for the policy community in the United States.

IN MARCH 2007, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert set up a small team of experts to advise him and Defense Minister Ehud Barak on what to do about the Syrian threat. The following month, as previously mentioned, Mossad director Meir Dagan came to Washington to see Stephen Hadley to discuss the situation. Dagan brought photographs from his laptop and imagery taken by Israel’s satellites to share with Hadley, who also previously had his own briefing from the CIA. Cheney was present for Dagan’s briefing, which he describes as including satellite imagery and photographs of the North Korean team leaders in Syria.

Bush described the American decision-making process in his memoir. In spring 2007, shortly after the Dagan visit, he was briefed extensively on the Israeli information. “Our strong suspicion was that we had just caught Syria red-handed trying to develop a nuclear weapons capability with North Korean help,” he wrote. Shortly thereafter, Olmert called Bush to request that the United States “bomb the compound.” Bush asked for options from his national-security team and an intelligence assessment from Hayden. The military favored an air strike if force was to be used, while the diplomatic option would be to brief allies on the intelligence and collectively go to the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) to demand Syria shut down and dismantle the reactor under IAEA supervision. If Syria refused, then “we would have a clear public rationale for military action.” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice both favored the diplomatic option. Cheney supported an American military attack.

The intelligence assessment “clarified my decision,” according to Bush. Hayden told the president that intelligence-community analysts “had high confidence that the plant housed a nuclear reactor. But because they could not confirm the location of the facilities necessary to turn the plutonium into a weapon, they had only low confidence of a Syrian nuclear weapons program.” In her memoir, Rice credits the intelligence assessment as critical in convincing her that to bomb the reactor in the “face of uncertain intelligence was, to put it mildly, reckless.” Bush informed Olmert that he had chosen the diplomatic option on the basis of the intelligence analysts’ estimate. “I cannot justify an attack on a sovereign nation unless my intelligence agencies stand up and say it’s a weapons program,” he told Olmert. A diplomatic approach would fully protect Israel’s “interests and your state,” he argued, telling the prime minister that this approach “makes it more likely we can achieve our interests as well.”

Cheney later described the decision-making process as well. He attended the first briefing with Dagan in April 2007. At a national-security principals meeting in the family quarters on the second floor of the White House on June 17, Cheney urged an American military attack on the reactor. He later wrote that Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell had “high confidence” it was a reactor, but he makes no mention of the second low-confidence judgment. Cheney also describes a second principals meeting in late June, at which the president asked his top advisers for advice. Only Cheney favored an American military strike, while Rice, Hadley and Gates supported a diplomatic response.

“The prime minister was disappointed,” Bush relates. The Israeli leader told the president that a Syrian nuclear-weapons program represented an “existential” issue for Israel. Olmert predicted that diplomacy “would bog down and fail,” and added that the U.S. strategy was “very disturbing to me.” He then ended the conversation.

On September 6, 2007, Israel launched a military strike and destroyed the reactor without any effort to alert the IAEA, the United Nations or the international community. Israel’s decision was consistent with its history. In 1981, Israel used force to destroy Iraq’s nuclear reactor and maintain its own regional nuclear monopoly. It is well known that Israel has its own nuclear arsenal, although it has never acknowledged as much publicly. Every Israeli prime minister since David Ben-Gurion deliberately has taken an evasive posture on the issue, but Israel never has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Ben-Gurion set up the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission in 1952, just four years after the country’s independence, and concluded a deal with France a few years later to secretly build the Dimona nuclear reactor. By 1960 the CIA had uncovered the project and was convinced that “plutonium production for weapons is at least one major purpose of this effort.” President John F. Kennedy tried to persuade Israel to forgo the bomb without success. By 1974 the U.S. intelligence community concluded that Israel had produced and stockpiled a small number of fission weapons, and press reporting about the Israeli program was commonplace.

The Federation of American Scientists’ latest estimate of global nuclear stockpiles pegs the size of Israel’s arsenal today at roughly eighty nuclear weapons, deliverable by aircraft, cruise missiles from Israeli submarines built in Germany or Jericho ballistic missiles. This estimate is consistent with those from other think tanks around the world.

Israel has threatened to use its nuclear arsenal at least once. In 1991, on the eve of the Gulf War, Israel’s then deputy chief of staff Ehud Barak told King Hussein of Jordan to pass a message to Saddam Hussein and Iraq at a secret meeting in England. “If one single chemical warhead falls on Israel, we’ll hit Iraq with everything we have got. . . . Look at your watch and forty minutes later an Iraqi city will be reduced to ashes.” It worked. Saddam fired conventionally armed warheads at Tel Aviv, Haifa and Dimona, but no chemicals.

Given the power of such a threat, it is understandable why Israel would seek to preserve its monopoly on nuclear weapons in the Middle East. The decision to attack and destroy Syria’s reactor was fully consistent with that long-standing but unstated Israeli policy.

THE AMERICAN decision not to attack was more complex. Bush says he was constrained by the analysts’ assessment that, while Al Kibar was clearly a nuclear reactor, they were “less confident” it was part of a Syrian nuclear-weapons program, given the lack of a reprocessing facility.

That decision reflected the state of intelligence-policy interaction in the later stages of the Bush administration. The Iraq War had significantly influenced this interaction. The intelligence community had been heavily criticized in the media and Congress for allegedly allowing the Bush administration to pressure it into exaggerating the Iraqi WMD program to justify the war. Under intense political pressure, Bush created the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, which reported to the president on March 31, 2005.

The commission concluded that

on the brink of war, and in front of the whole world, the United States government asserted that Saddam Hussein had reconstituted his nuclear weapons program, had biological weapons and mobile biological weapon production facilities, and had stockpiled and was producing chemical weapons. All of this was based on the assessments of the U.S. Intelligence Community. And not one bit of it could be confirmed when the war was over. . . . making this one of the most public—and most damaging—intelligence failures in recent American history.

It was a devastating conclusion. The commission—composed of experienced public servants who had served in both Republican and Democratic administrations—put the burden of blame for analytic and collection shortcomings on the intelligence community. It specifically did not address, and was not authorized to address, the issue of how the policy community used the intelligence it received in 2003. The commission did examine “the possibility that intelligence analysts were pressured by policymakers to change their judgments” to support policy. It said the intelligence analysts “universally agreed” this was not the case, although it also agreed that “it is hard to deny the conclusion that intelligence analysts worked in an environment that did not encourage skepticism” about Iraqi possession of WMD.

Image: Pullquote: When policy makers lose the trust of the intelligence community and the public, the consequences are serious.Essay Types: Essay