Okay, I don’t even know where to start on this bullshit “Israeli airstrike on the clandestine Syrian nuclear program.” I don’t know what the Israelis hit, but I don’t see any reason to believe it was a nuclear weapons facility.

Over the next few days, while enjoying the beauty of Sichuan, I will try to sift through all this crap.

Today, I start with a more modest goal: a timeline outlining how two separate stories about a Syrian airstrike and Syria-DPRK nuclear cooperation merged into the big mess we have today.

  • This whole shebang began when Syria’s official media accused Israel of violating its airspace and dropping munitions. AP’s Albert Aji summed up the story aptly on September 7 observing: “It was unclear what happened. Syria stopped short of accusing Israel of purposely bombing its territory, and an Israeli spokesman said he could not comment on military operations.”
  • Things got a little weird on September 11 when KCNA — the North Korean press agency — called the intrusion “a very dangerous provocation little short of wantonly violating the sovereignty of Syria and seriously harassing the regional peace and security.” Ha’aretz noticed the announcement.
  • On September 12 Mark Mazetti and Helene Cooper convince a Defense Department official to confirm that Israel conducted a strike. Although the story stated that “Officials in Washington said that the most likely targets of the raid were weapons caches that Israel’s government believes Iran has been sending the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah,” Mazetti and Cooper flashed a little leg, adding “One Bush administration official said Israel had recently carried out reconnaissance flights over Syria, taking pictures of possible nuclear installations that Israeli officials believed might have been supplied with material from North Korea.” Mark Mazzetti and Helene Cooper, “U.S. Confirms Israeli Strikes Hit Syrian Target Last Week,” September 12, 2007. Reuters, by the way, also got US officials to confirm the strike, stating that reports about the target are “confused.”
  • That official must also have called Glenn Kessler, who on September 13 begins the Syria-North Korea line in earnest with N. Korea, Syria May Be at Work on Nuclear Facility, claiming North Korea is assisting Syria with “some sort of nuclear facility” based on Israeli information “restricted to a few senior officials under … Hadley” and not disseminated to the intelligence community for scrutiny. This story, though carefully qualified, is insanely vague, even by the low standards of what passes for reporting on nonproliferation. The impact is to cause other news competitors to try to fill in the details.
  • Poor Andy Semmel further feeds the Syria-North Korea stories on September 14, making a few relatively bland (if impolitic) remarks that APs Nicole Winfield blows out of proportion. Then the Mazzetti and Cooper go nuts, writing U.S. Official Says Syria May Have Nuclear Ties. We’ll talk about this later, but Semmel’s remarks are much more circumspect than the headlines would suggest.
  • Then, Kessler merges the two stories on September 15 when he cites — I am not making this up — “a prominent U.S. expert on the Middle East” — not a government official — “who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid compromising his sources” — claiming that some Israelis told him (or her) “the target of the attack appears to have been a northern Syrian facility … that Syria was using it to extract uranium from phosphates.” We’ll talk about this later, too, but that statement about phosphates is technical nonsense — such a facility would have little relevance to a weapons program. The explanation for the leak about DPRK-Syrian nuclear cooperation is evident from the title of the story, “Syria-N. Korea Reports Won’t Stop Talks” — as in Six Party Talks.

At this point, of course, all hell has broken loose.

  • Peter Beaumont in The Guardian on September 16 claims
    the Israel code named the mission Operation Orchard and competently, if perhaps to credulously, summarizes existing reporting.
  • The Sunday Times, of course, covers the story
    as “Israelis ‘blew apart Syrian nuclear cache’ Secret raid on Korean shipment,” stating that Syria was seeking “a nuclear device from North Korea.”

And these are just the stories I have the stomach to read.

Update: Joe Cirincione who nails this story on the head:

This story is nonsense. The Washington Post story should have been headlined “White House Officials Try to Push North Korea-Syria Connection.” This is a political story, not a threat story. The mainstream media seems to have learned nothing from the run-up to war in Iraq. It is a sad commentary on how selective leaks from administration officials who have repeatedly misled the press are still treated as if they were absolute truth. Once again, this appears to be the work of a small group of officials leaking cherry-picked, unvetted “intelligence” to key reporters in order to promote a preexisting political agenda.

You tell ‘em, buddy.

You can Joe’s entire statement, as well as Glenn Kessler’s response, over at Foreign Policy.