5:00 PM, Sep 13, 2011 • By MICHAEL ANTON
Bob Woodward’s recent piece in the Washington Post argues that the debacle of the Iraq-WMD case should have made the Bush administration more circumspect about intelligence—and that everyone understood this lesson except the vice president. He offers the Syrian nuclear reactor destroyed by the Israelis in September of 2007 as an example.
At a National Security Council meeting in June of that same year, Cheney urged a U.S. strike on the reactor that U.S. intelligence had discovered the reactor months before. The president declined and would later write in his memoirs that he was dissuaded by the doubts—fully shared by virtually the entire intelligence community—expressed by CIA director Michael Hayden.
Woodward parses Hayden’s warning in an attempt to distinguish between hard facts and judgment. He concludes that while Bush stuck to the facts, Cheney was too willing to go beyond those facts and make unsupported judgments. “A key lesson of the 9/11 decade for presidents and other national security decision makers,” Woodward writes, “is the importance of rigorously testing intelligence evidence: poking holes in it, setting out contradictions, figuring out what may have been overlooked or left out.”
Here, then, are some contradictions in Woodward’s account, as well as something things that he—or his sources—overlook or leave out. Woodward reports that at the June 2007 NSC meeting, Hayden presented four key judgments:
1. There was high confidence that the building in question was in fact a reactor;
2. There was high confidence that Syria and North Korea had been cooperating for ten years on a nuclear reactor program;
3. There was medium confidence that North Korea built the reactor; and
4. There was low confidence that the reactor was part of a weapons program.
It’s not clear how Hayden arrived at the third from the first two. Why only “medium confidence” given a ten-year relationship between the two countries specifically devoted to a reactor program? If all Hayden meant was that he could not be sure, that would be one thing. But intelligence is almost never 100 percent sure about anything, yet the community still routinely states certain assessments with “high confidence” despite a lack of perfect certainty.
Did the intelligence community have evidence that some other country might be helping Syria? If so, who? The cohort of potential helpers is small—the declared nuclear powers and a few others. It’s safe to scratch from the list the Western powers plus Israel, India, and Japan. That leaves Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea. Iran spent decades unsuccessfully trying to start its own reactor with intermittent Russian help and without success until the Russians finally committed. So scratch Tehran off too, as incapable of providing meaningful assistance.
Did the intelligence community have any evidence that Russia, China, or Pakistan was helping Syria with a reactor? If so, that would be significant news. I suppose, if it were true, those who told this story to Woodward might have left that part out. Implicating any one of those three countries in yet another proliferation scheme would greatly complicate U.S. foreign policy. On the other hand, if the intelligence community really wanted to cast doubt on North Korean involvement and it knew that some other country was engaged in nuclear cooperating with Syria, then it would have an interest in saying so.
We don’t know. What we do know from the reported facts is that we have significant reason to believe that North Korea was behind the reactor and little reason to believe it was not.
But even if the Syrians had managed to build the reactor all by themselves (a highly dubious proposition), other problems with the analysis remain. As reported, the bases for point four—low confidence that the reactor was part of a weapons program—are weak. The CIA acknowledged that the reactor could produce plutonium, which can be used to make nuclear weapons. But first it has to be reprocessed from spent reactor fuel rods. The CIA claimed that it could find no evidence of reprocessing “capability at the site or nearby in that region of Syria.” Leave aside that, in Donald Rumsfeld’s words, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” There is no reason why a reprocessing facility has to be located at the site of a reactor. Most such facilities around the world are not.