On September 6, 2007, Israel destroyed a Syrian nuclear reactor at al Kibar. Writing about the raid in the New Yorker on February 11, 2008, Seymour Hersh cast doubt on the contention that it was in fact a nuclear facility:
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.”
One of Hersh’s sources was Barack Obama’s non-proliferation adviser, Joseph Cirincione, who told Hersh flatly that
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.
In the face of unequivocal evidence, Cirincione has acknowledged his error, saying “no one bats 1000.” That of course is true. And the difficulty of assessing what Syria was up to was certainly compounded by Syrian deception. David Albright’s outfit, the Institute for Science and International Security, has put out an important study (complete with photographs) of the “extraordinary camouflage” methods the Syrians employed to disguise the facility.
In assessing the track record of an expert like Cirincione, let’s also keep in mind that tight secrecy, camouflage, and deception in nuclear affairs are nothing new. On the eve of the first Gulf war, thanks to secrecy, the United States was almost completely in the dark about the far-reaching scope of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program.
In the run-up to the second Gulf war, the problem was reversed. The intelligence community persuaded itself that Saddam had an active nuclear program when in fact he had none.
One would expect experts to draw appropriate lessons from both experiences. First among them is that humility and a measure of self-doubt are important when trying to penetrate other countries’ secrets.
Such qualities were conspicuously absent in Cirincione’s analysis of al Kibar: “There was and is no nuclear-weapons threat from Syria. This is all political,” is what he categorically told Hersh.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.