Sometime after midnight on September 6, 2007, at least four low-flying Israeli Air Force fighters crossed into Syrian airspace and carried out a secret bombing mission on the banks of the Euphrates River, about ninety miles north of the Iraq border. The seemingly unprovoked bombing, which came after months of heightened tension between Israel and Syria over military exercises and troop buildups by both sides along the Golan Heights, was, by almost any definition, an act of war. But in the immediate aftermath nothing was heard from the government of Israel. In contrast, in 1981, when the Israeli Air Force destroyed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor, near Baghdad, the Israeli government was triumphant, releasing reconnaissance photographs of the strike and permitting the pilots to be widely interviewed.
Within hours of the attack, Syria denounced Israel for invading its airspace, but its public statements were incomplete and contradictory—thus adding to the mystery. A Syrian military spokesman said only that Israeli planes had dropped some munitions in an unpopulated area after being challenged by Syrian air defenses, “which forced them to flee.” Four days later, Walid Moallem, the Syrian foreign minister, said during a state visit to Turkey that the Israeli aircraft had used live ammunition in the attack, but insisted that there were no casualties or property damage. It was not until October 1st that Syrian President Bashar Assad, in an interview with the BBC, acknowledged that the Israeli warplanes had hit their target, which he described as an “unused military building.” Assad added that Syria reserved the right to retaliate, but his comments were muted.
Despite official silence in Tel Aviv (and in Washington), in the days after the bombing the American and European media were flooded with reports, primarily based on information from anonymous government sources, claiming that Israel had destroyed a nascent nuclear reactor that was secretly being assembled in Syria, with the help of North Korea. Beginning construction of a nuclear reactor in secret would be a violation of Syria’s obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and could potentially yield material for a nuclear weapon.
The evidence was circumstantial but seemingly damning. The first reports of Syrian and North Korean nuclear coöperation came on September 12th in the Times and elsewhere. By the end of October, the various media accounts generally agreed on four points: the Israeli intelligence community had learned of a North Korean connection to a construction site in an agricultural area in eastern Syria; three days before the bombing, a “North Korean ship,” identified as the Al Hamed, had arrived at the Syrian port of Tartus, on the Mediterranean; satellite imagery strongly suggested that the building under construction was designed to hold a nuclear reactor when completed; as such, Syria had crossed what the Israelis regarded as the “red line” on the path to building a bomb, and had to be stopped. There were also reports—by ABC News and others—that some of the Israeli intelligence had been shared in advance with the United States, which had raised no objection to the bombing.
The Israeli government still declined to make any statement about the incident. Military censorship on dispatches about the raid was imposed for several weeks, and the Israeli press resorted to recycling the disclosures in the foreign press. In the first days after the attack, there had been many critical stories in the Israeli press speculating about the bombing, and the possibility that it could lead to a conflict with Syria. Larry Derfner, a columnist writing in the Jerusalem Post, described the raid as “the sort of thing that starts wars.” But, once reports about the nuclear issue and other details circulated, the domestic criticism subsided.
At a news conference on September 20th, President George W. Bush was asked about the incident four times but said, “I’m not going to comment on the matter.” The lack of official statements became part of the story. “The silence from all parties has been deafening,” David Ignatius wrote in the Washington Post, “but the message to Iran”—which the Administration had long suspected of pursuing a nuclear weapon—“is clear: America and Israel can identify nuclear targets and penetrate air defenses to destroy them.”
It was evident that officials in Israel and the United States, although unwilling to be quoted, were eager for the news media to write about the bombing. Early on, a former officer in the Israel Defense Forces with close contacts in Israeli intelligence approached me, with a version of the standard story, including colorful but, as it turned out, unconfirmable details: Israeli intelligence tracking the ship from the moment it left a North Korean port; Syrian soldiers wearing protective gear as they off-loaded the cargo; Israeli intelligence monitoring trucks from the docks to the target site. On October 3rd, the London Spectator, citing much of the same information, published an overheated account of the September 6th raid, claiming that it “may have saved the world from a devastating threat,” and that “a very senior British ministerial source” had warned, “If people had known how close we came to World War Three that day there’d have been mass panic.”
However, in three months of reporting for this article, I was repeatedly told by current and former intelligence, diplomatic, and congressional officials that they were not aware of any solid evidence of ongoing nuclear-weapons programs in Syria. It is possible that Israel conveyed intelligence directly to senior members of the Bush Administration, without it being vetted by intelligence agencies. (This process, known as “stovepiping,” overwhelmed U.S. intelligence before the war in Iraq.) But Mohamed ElBaradei, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations group responsible for monitoring compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, said, “Our experts who have carefully analyzed the satellite imagery say it is unlikely that this building was a nuclear facility.”
Joseph Cirincione, the director for nuclear policy at the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C., think tank, told me, “Syria does not have the technical, industrial, or financial ability to support a nuclear-weapons program. I’ve been following this issue for fifteen years, and every once in a while a suspicion arises and we investigate and there’s nothing. There was and is no nuclear-weapons threat from Syria. This is all political.” Cirincione castigated the press corps for its handling of the story. “I think some of our best journalists were used,” he said.
A similar message emerged at briefings given to select members of Congress within weeks of the attack. The briefings, conducted by intelligence agencies, focussed on what Washington knew about the September 6th raid. One concern was whether North Korea had done anything that might cause the U.S. to back away from ongoing six-nation talks about its nuclear program. A legislator who took part in one such briefing said afterward, according to a member of his staff, that he had heard nothing that caused him “to have any doubts” about the North Korean negotiations—“nothing that should cause a pause.” The legislator’s conclusion, the staff member said, was “There’s nothing that proves any perfidy involving the North Koreans.”
Morton Abramowitz, a former Assistant Secretary of State for intelligence and research, told me that he was astonished by the lack of response. “Anytime you bomb another state, that’s a big deal,” he said. “But where’s the outcry, particularly from the concerned states and the U.N.? Something’s amiss.”
Israel could, of course, have damning evidence that it refuses to disclose. But there are serious and unexamined contradictions in the various published accounts of the September 6th bombing.
The main piece of evidence to emerge publicly that Syria was building a reactor arrived on October 23rd, when David Albright, of the Institute for Science and International Security, a highly respected nonprofit research group, released a satellite image of the target. The photograph had been taken by a commercial satellite company, DigitalGlobe, of Longmont, Colorado, on August 10th, four weeks before the bombing, and showed a square building and a nearby water-pumping station. In an analysis released at the same time, Albright, a physicist who served as a weapons inspector in Iraq, concluded that the building, as viewed from space, had roughly the same length and width as a reactor building at Yongbyon, North Korea’s main nuclear facility. “The tall building in the image may house a reactor under construction and the pump station along the river may have been intended to supply cooling water to the reactor,” Albright said. He concluded his analysis by posing a series of rhetorical questions that assumed that the target was a nuclear facility:
How far along was the reactor construction project when it was bombed? What was the extent of nuclear assistance from North Korea? Which reactor components did Syria obtain from North Korea or elsewhere, and where are they now?
He was later quoted in the Washington Post saying, “I’m pretty convinced that Syria was trying to build a nuclear reactor.”
When I asked Albright how he had pinpointed the target, he told me that he and a colleague, Paul Brannan, “did a lot of hard work”—culling press reports and poring over DigitalGlobe imagery—“before coming up with the site.” Albright then shared his findings with Robin Wright and other journalists at the Post, who, after checking with Administration officials, told him that the building was, indeed, the one targeted by the Israelis. “We did not release the information until we got direct confirmation from the Washington Post,” he told me. The Post’s sources in the Administration, he understood, had access to far more detailed images obtained by U.S. intelligence satellites. The Post ran a story, without printing the imagery, on October 19th, reporting that “U.S. and foreign officials familiar with the aftermath of the attack” had concluded that the site had the “signature,” or characteristics, of a reactor “similar in structure to North Korea’s facilities”—a conclusion with which Albright then agreed. In other words, the Albright and the Post reports, which appeared to independently reinforce each other, stemmed in part from the same sources.
Albright told me that before going public he had met privately with Israeli officials. “I wanted to be sure in my own mind that the Israelis thought it was a reactor, and I was,” he said. “They never explicitly said it was nuclear, but they ruled out the possibility that it was a missile, chemical-warfare, or radar site. By a process of elimination, I was left with nuclear.”
Two days after his first report, Albright released a satellite image of the bombed site, taken by DigitalGlobe on October 24th, seven weeks after the bombing. The new image showed that the target area had been levelled and the ground scraped. Albright said that it hinted of a coverup—cleansing the bombing site could make it difficult for weapons inspectors to determine its precise nature. “It looks like Syria is trying to hide something and destroy the evidence of some activity,” he told the Times. “But it won’t work. Syria has got to answer questions about what it was doing.” This assessment was widely shared in the press. (In mid-January, the Times reported that recent imagery from DigitalGlobe showed that a storage facility, or something similar, had been constructed, in an obvious rush, at the bombing site.)
Proliferation experts at the International Atomic Energy Agency and others in the arms-control community disputed Albright’s interpretation of the images. “People here were baffled by this, and thought that Albright had stuck his neck out,” a diplomat in Vienna, where the I.A.E.A. is headquartered, told me. “The I.A.E.A. has been consistently telling journalists that it is skeptical about the Syrian nuclear story, but the reporters are so convinced.”
A second diplomat in Vienna acidly commented on the images: “A square building is a square building.” The diplomat, who is familiar with the use of satellite imagery for nuclear verification, added that the I.A.E.A. “does not have enough information to conclude anything about the exact nature of the facility. They see a building with some geometry near a river that could be identified as nuclear-related. But they cannot credibly conclude that is so. As far as information coming from open sources beyond imagery, it’s a struggle to extract information from all of the noise that comes from political agendas.”
Much of what one would expect to see around a secret nuclear site was lacking at the target, a former State Department intelligence expert who now deals with proliferation issues for the Congress said. “There is no security around the building,” he said. “No barracks for the Army or the workers. No associated complex.” Jeffrey Lewis, who heads the non-proliferation program at the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington, told me that, even if the width and the length of the building were similar to the Korean site, its height was simply not sufficient to contain a Yongbyon-size reactor and also have enough room to extract the control rods, an essential step in the operation of the reactor; nor was there evidence in the published imagery of major underground construction. “All you could see was a box,” Lewis said. “You couldn’t see enough to know how big it will be or what it will do. It’s just a box.”
A former senior U.S. intelligence official, who has access to current intelligence, said, “We don’t have any proof of a reactor—no signals intelligence, no human intelligence, no satellite intelligence.” Some well-informed defense consultants and former intelligence officials asked why, if there was compelling evidence of nuclear cheating involving North Korea, a member of the President’s axis of evil, and Syria, which the U.S. considers a state sponsor of terrorism, the Bush Administration would not insist on making it public.
When I went to Israel in late December, the government was still maintaining secrecy about the raid, but some current and former officials and military officers were willing to speak without attribution. Most were adamant that Israel’s intelligence had been accurate. “Don’t you write that there was nothing there!” a senior Israeli official, who is in a position to know the details of the raid on Syria, said, shaking a finger at me. “The thing in Syria was real.”
Retired Brigadier General Shlomo Brom, who served as deputy national-security adviser under Prime Minister Ehud Barak, told me that Israel wouldn’t have acted if it hadn’t been convinced that there was a threat. “It may have been a perception of a conviction, but there was something there,” Brom said. “It was the beginning of a nuclear project.” However, by the date of our talk, Brom told me, “The question of whether it was there or not is not that relevant anymore.”
Albright, when I spoke to him in December, was far more circumspect than he had been in October. “We never said ‘we know’ it was a reactor, based on the image,” Albright said. “We wanted to make sure that the image was consistent with a reactor, and, from my point of view, it was. But that doesn’t confirm it’s a reactor.”
The journey of the Al Hamed, a small coastal trader, became a centerpiece in accounts of the September 6th bombing. On September 15th, the Washington Post reported that “a prominent U.S. expert on the Middle East” said that the attack “appears to have been linked to the arrival . . . of a ship carrying material from North Korea labeled as cement.” The article went on to cite the expert’s belief that “the emerging consensus in Israel was that it delivered nuclear equipment.” Other press reports identified the Al Hamed as a “suspicious North Korean” ship.
But there is evidence that the Al Hamed could not have been carrying sensitive cargo—or any cargo—from North Korea. International shipping is carefully monitored by Lloyd’s Marine Intelligence Unit, which relies on a network of agents as well as on port logs and other records. In addition, most merchant ships are now required to operate a transponder device called an A.I.S., for automatic identification system. This device, which was on board the Al Hamed, works in a manner similar to a transponder on a commercial aircraft—beaming a constant, very high-frequency position report. (The U.S. Navy monitors international sea traffic with the aid of dedicated satellites, at a secret facility in suburban Washington.)