Tuesday, September 13, 2011

No New Information on Al Kibar

Jeffrey Lewis has posted again about that Syrian site sometimes known as al Kibar that the Israelis bombed in September 2007. He seems to think that the recent Bush and Cheney books, along with an article by Bob Woodward, provide some new insights. I disagree.

I agree with his opening statement:
Something about the whole Syria nuclear reactor story has never seemed quite right to me.
Jeffrey has generously provided quotes from Woodward and Bush on the matter. Let me boil them down into the tiny amount of new information that they provide, less qualifications as to sources and the issue of Israel’s desire for action. I’m mostly using their words, with some modifications to make full sentences.

Then-CIA Director Michael V. Hayden had a team working for months to examine the intelligence on the Syrian reactor.

Hayden presented his findings to Bush, Cheney and the others before Cheney made his arguments for a military strike.

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.

After Cheney, the “lone voice,” made his arguments, Bush rolled his eyes.

In the spring of 2007, I received a highly classified report from a foreign intelligence partner, [which included] photographs of a suspicious, well-hidden building in the eastern desert of Syria.

The structure [resembled] the nuclear facility at Yongbyon, North Korea. We concluded that the structure contained a gas-cooled, graphite-moderated reactor capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. Since North Korea was the only country that had built a reactor of that model in the past thirty-five years, our strong suspicion was that we had just caught Syria red-handed trying to develop a nuclear weapons capability with North Korean help.

He [CIA Director Mike Hayden] explained that the 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.

The experience [apparently Israel’s bombing of the site and Syria’s response, but the reference is unclear] was revealing on multiple fronts. It confirmed Syria’s intention to develop nuclear weapons. It also provided another reminder that intelligence is not an exact science. While I was told that our analysts had only low confidence that the facility was part of a nuclear weapons program, surveillance after the bombing showed Syrian officials meticulously covering up the remains of the building. If the facility was really just an innocent research lab, Syrian President Assad would have been screaming at the Israelis on the floor of the United Nations. That was one judgment I could make with high confidence.


The two accounts agree, more or less, on the intelligence analysis. The logic in Bush’s account follows what has been the logic of most of those claiming that the Syrian site held a nuclear reactor under construction.
The structure [resembled] the nuclear facility at Yongbyon, North Korea. We concluded that the structure contained a gas-cooled, graphite-moderated reactor capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. Since North Korea was the only country that had built a reactor of that model in the past thirty-five years, our strong suspicion was that we had just caught Syria red-handed trying to develop a nuclear weapons capability with North Korean help.
Bush doesn’t provide any more basis for the conclusion that the structure contained a reactor of North Korean design than its shape. But other accounts of the shape indicated that a shell building masked the detailed shape. Perhaps there was other evidence, but Bush doesn’t give it. The shape of a building, which in this case is simply its dimensions, is thin evidence.

The “confirmation” that the site held a reactor, namely Syria’s lack of heated response, has also frequently been stated. Overhead photos showing a circular structure within the building after the bombing are slightly more persuasive. Syria’s lack of response could have been due to a number of possibilities: that the site held missiles and other munitions that President Assad didn’t want to reveal or a desire not to provoke further Israeli raids that could lead to war.

Jeffrey accepts some of these assumptions, I think, too readily.
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.
Indeed, the principals seem to have agreed that the site held a nuclear reactor. But it’s not clear, to me anyway from the available evidence, that it was indeed a reactor. The “little video the IC released” (I think Jeffrey is referring to the video released in April 2008) had a number of problems, including modifying overhead photos to look like side shots, that limit its credibility.

Jeffrey wonders why Bush is reported to have rolled his eyes at Cheney’s case for bombing. Hard to say. George Bush is a man who uses his facial features a lot, and this could have been just one more time. Far too much has been made of far too little in this story. Granted, it all adds up to the possibility that that building at al Kibar housed a reactor and the somewhat less likely possibility that the North Koreans were involved. But we’re far from any public proof of that.

Bush and Cheney have reason to use the parts of this story they find most favorable to their reputations. Woodward has his anonymous sources. I don’t see anything new in this. What I’d like to see is more of the technical data that was, for example, available to the intelligence analysts, not slickly doctored as in that little video. And maybe an explanation from the IAEA of why that uranium sample was “anthropogenic.”

[I’ve written a lot on this subject and probably should have linked back. But today is very busy. You can find a lot of what I’ve written by googling Phronesisaical+Al Kibar and WhirledView + Al Kibar.]

Update (9/17/11): Here are the links I should have provided. The most recent is first, the earliest last. There may still be more, but this is what Google gave me.

Mystery in Syria - Continued
How Israel Destroyed Syria’s Al Kibar Nuclear Reactor
The ISIS Report on Al Kibar
Al Kibar: Orienting the Destruction Sequence
Al Kibar: The Reactor Photos
Al Kibar: The Overhead Photos


Russ Wellen said...

Thanks, Cheryl. Helpful to know that it's okay to remain skeptical about Al Kibar.

Yossi said...

We are being told the reason for the US not pressing for sanctions against Syria after BOE destruction is Israel's wish to avoid pushing Assad into a corner and attacking Dimona. This sounds like a lame excuse but may be true.

Another, and probably better, explanation is the USIC decided the ground photos sent by Israel were fake and recommended refusing Israel's request to bomb BOE on some pretext and forgetting about the whole matter.

BOE was not an innocent research lab and the Syrians did play with irradiating their home grown Uranium at their research reactor. We may guess that BOE was a real threat to Israel e.g. improved CW warheads on improved Scuds but we can't rule out that the Israelis themselves were conned by some greedy defector. They are not evidence oriented.

The Syrians made a mistake when they tried to eliminate the evidence. The smell of fear they exuded sent the bloodhounds on their trail trying to take advantage of their lose-lose situation. Syria had a choice either to admit a CW treaty breach or an NPT breach.

The USIC was reluctant to brief Congress because they were too in a lose-lose situation, either to say a close alley tried to con them (or was highly incompetent) or go along with the fake photos.

The fake ground photo claiming to show BOE in construction may be a hint for us. I guess few intelligence services think BOE was a nuclear reactor.