Something about the whole Syria nuclear reactor story has never seemed quite right to me. When anonymous US officials began to hint that the facility struck by Israel was in some way nuclear, I wondered how solid that intelligence was. Why couldn’t they just call the damned thing a reactor?
I noted that “we haven’t heard from the people who … were ‘cautious about fully endorsing Israeli warnings’ or ‘remain unconvinced that a nascent Syrian nuclear program could pose an immediate threat.’ They might have important information to add, were they willing to leak it.”
Now, thanks to Bob Woodward, we have the beginnings of the other side of the story from those who successfully opposed a strike on the rector building — but it just deepens the mystery.
Cheney’s book, with its implicit criticism of everyone else in the room, has reignited that debate, leading Woodward to recount the opposition to a strike in light detail:
But accounts from others in these meetings, a public briefing and Bush’s own memoir present a dramatically different picture of the intelligence on the Syrian reactor.
Cheney does not reveal that then-CIA Director Michael V. Hayden had a team working for months to examine the intelligence on the Syrian reactor. Participants at the meetings say that Hayden presented his findings to Bush, Cheney and the others before Cheney made his arguments for a military strike.
According to a principal participant, Hayden made four points, saying: “That’s a reactor. I have high confidence. That Syria and North Korea have been cooperating for 10 years on a nuclear reactor program, I have high confidence. North Korea built that reactor? I have medium confidence. On it is part of a nuclear weapons program, I have low confidence.”
Hayden emphasized the last sentence to underscore his uncertainty. He later told others that he stuck to the intelligence facts and intentionally shaped his presentation that way to discourage a preemptive strike because the intelligence was weak.
According to the CIA, there was no evidence of plutonium reprocessing capability at the site or nearby in that region of Syria, though a reactor of that type would be capable of producing plutonium for nuclear weapons. In addition, there was no identifiable means to manufacture uranium fuel.
Two participants in the key National Security Council meeting in June 2007 said that after Cheney, the “lone voice,” made his arguments, Bush rolled his eyes.
At the CIA afterward, the group of specialists who had worked for months on the Syrian reactor issue were pleased they had succeeded in avoiding the overreaching so evident in the Iraq WMD case. So they issued a very limited-circulation memorial coin. One side showed a map of Syria with a star at the site of the former reactor. On the other side the coin said, “No core/No war.”
First, some house-keeping. Most of the details in Woodward’s account have bee reported elsewhere. Woodward relies both on Bush’s memoir, as well as the not-for-attribution briefing given to reporters by senior intelligence officials 1 and 2 (“Ace” and “Deuce” were McConnell and Hayden as far as I can tell). And the detail about the coin stamped “No Core, No War” previously appeared (with slightly different punctuation) in US News and World Report‘s Washington Whispers by Paul Bedard and an Associated Press story by Deb Riechmann. What is new in Woodward’s reporting is the pair of first person accounts of the President rolling his eyes at Cheney.
Second, “no core, no war” needs some explanation. This is not “If it does not fit, you must acquit.” Rather, the phrase expresses the two high-level political goals that the intelligence community supported: (1) “No core,” ie do not allow the reactor to become operational and (2) “No war,” ie that efforts to stop the reactor from becoming operational should not lead to a wider conflict in the Middle East. Hayden explained the coin in the context of the trade-off between better analysis and maintaining secrecy necessary to control escalation, during a talk at Georgetown.
So, the big question: Why did Bush roll his eyes at Cheney?
Syria was building a clandestine nuclear reactor in a manner that was inconsistent with any explanation other than a nuclear weapons program, something all the principals appear to agree on. For some reason, the inability of the intelligence community to find a reprocessing or a fuel fabrication facility was dispositive for all the other parties other than the Vice-President.
But what if the intelligence community simply didn’t know the location of either site? Bush is extraordinarily clear that he believes Syria intended to use the reactor to produce nuclear weapons. The little video the IC released, which ought to have cleared text, stated that “start of operations could have begun at any time although additional weeks to months of testing were likely.” If there was a time to strike the reactor, it was before it went hot. In other words, the decision to wait could have resulted in the operation of the reactor had Israel not destroyed it.
I just don’t understand why the failure to find fuel fabrication or reprocessing facilities was reassuring to anyone. One of the core reasons for my initial skepticism that the box was a reactor was my conviction than any American president, when presented with unequivocal evidence that a state-sponsor of terrorism was building a covert nuclear reactor, would act decisively to eliminate that reactor before it began operations. I have always assumed, for example, that no President would allow the Iranian reactor at Arak to come online. If the standard is actually “no covert reprocessing facilities,” then I am really at a loss. Maybe I’ve been too warped by Quick and Secret Construction of Plutonium Reprocessing Plants: A Way to Nuclear Weapons Proliferation? (General Accounting Office, October 6, 1978).
I can’t help but wonder whether there is some sort of technical detail that the principals are leaving out of the account. Something like the intelligence community concluding that not only did Syria not have a core for the reactor but that it had no reasonable prospect of acquiring one. But how could one have confidence in a judgment like that?
Anyway, as I say, I find the whole episode a continuing mystery. I am genuinely interested in hearing the opinions of others. And seeing a picture of one of those medals!