On October 13, New York Times correspondents David Sanger and Mark Mazzetti co-authored one of the most intriguing whodunit stories in recent memory. Really, it was a whydunit story and focused on the September air attack by Israel of a Syrian military site.
This incident has been shrouded in the thickest of secrecy, and there has been much exploitation of the absence of information about the incident by various parties — most visibly by John Bolton. Bolton was among the first to publicly assert that the North Koreans were proliferating nuclear weapons related materials and technology to Syria and that this should raise concerns to levels that should preempt proceeding with the Six Party negotiations and a deal with North Korea.
Sanger and Mazzetti reported:
Israel’s air attack on Syria last month was directed against a site that Israeli and American intelligence analysts judged was a partly constructed nuclear reactor, apparently modeled on one North Korea has used to create its stockpile of nuclear weapons fuel, according to American and foreign officials with access to the intelligence reports.
When it came out, I wrote a short response piece questioning it — and even speculated about whether they may have been getting “Judith Miller’d”.
I really shouldn’t have used such a term as I think Judith Miller was often eager to run with material from the administration that she had not thoroughly checked out. I actually know that this is not true in the case of Sanger and Mazzetti who have been receiving materials from the administration but who also are working a huge machinery of other sources. I have learned this from sources other than these two reporters and know that they are leading in the reporting.
Neither has zapped me for the reference to Miller for which I’m grateful — but I do withdraw it in any case as that is not what I really meant. They are not just sponging in administration intel. That I know — but I and others have thus far been unable to get senior intel and military officials to lead us the direction that Mazzetti and Sanger have gone. It’s very frustrating.
Here’s what I know. Immediately after the Israel raid, a close friend of mine communicated with senior staff in Israel’s Ministry of Defense. The only word that came out of his mouth was “unconventional.” He would not say anything else.
John Bolton and others opposing the Six Party Talks may also have been speaking to similar sources and speculated that this could be nuclear arms related proliferation from North Korea. During the same week, I met with and had lunch with former Korean President Kim Dae Jung — who despite his “sunshine policy” stance towards the North Koreans is not naive — who said that he had been told by Korean intelligence and the incumbent Korean foreign minister that North Korea was not proliferating nuclear materials but probably was proliferating missile related technology.
Then, a journalist friend of mine — not at the New York Times — confided to me that they were being pressed by the White House and by fellow travelers of the Cheney gang to pump up the Syria nuclear story. This is one of several people who actually used the term “being Judith Miller’d” to me to describe how they felt in their interactions with the administration. Even the way they were using it, it still doesn’t describe properly the kind of interaction going on.
Jane’s Defense apparently had a leak that the Syrians were experimenting with chemical warheads for the scud missiles — and that these warheads had airburst capacity. Some folks I spoke to in the Pentagon — who were not in the deep core of knowledge — but close enough that they helped indicate the right and wrong direction of inquiry led me to believe that the Syrians had worked with North Koreans to assemble some kind of new machine tooling operation that would transform the thousands upon thousands of rockets that Syria was producing to aim at Israel — and also to supply Hezbollah with — into more sophisticated “air burst” warhead compatible scuds.
Then someone I can’t mention but very close to the action on the Arab side of the equation essentially confirmed the story above.
I just failed — as have others — to get the nuclear reactor bit of the story that Mazzetti and David Sanger were able to get. But there should be other pieces to the story now I’d think.
What does the early stages of nuclear reactor development look like? I thought — perhaps incorrectly — that new reactors involved digging a major hole in the ground and filling it with massive amounts of concrete. That doesn’t seem to be the case here. Also, Center for American Progress nuclear prolifertion expert Joe Cirincione has posed the question of where the fuel for the facility would come from?
So, there are lots of questions out there yet. And I guess, I’m still scratching my head about the Syria nuclear reactor story because I can’t make it add up yet. I certainly can’t match the sourcing that Sanger and Mazzetti have been able to do.
But on a more theoretical level, I guess one question I have is why would Syria even start down that path given all that Iran is now going through. Missile enhancements seems understandable — but this nuke path, if correct, doesn’t make strategic sense.
— Steve Clemons