If people had known how close we came to World War III that day there would have been mass panic. That is how a very senior British ministerial source recently characterized Israel’s September raid on what was apparently a Syrian nuclear installation. Whether matters were quite that grave is an open question. Yet it does seem clear that the full story of the Israeli raid has not been told, nor its full significance recognized. Now two key members of Congress have raised an alarm about this event, thereby throwing our nuclear agreement with North Korea into question.
Peter Hoekstra and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, as senior Republicans on the House Intelligence and Foreign Affairs Committees, respectively, were among the mere handful of members of Congress briefed on the Israeli air strike. What they learned obviously dismayed them greatly, as is evident from “What Happened in Syria?” a Wall Street Journal opinion piece published by Hoekstra and Ros-Lehtinen this past Saturday.
In that piece, Hoekstra and Ros-Lehtinen protest the “unprecedented veil of secrecy, thrown over the airstrike” noting that the vast majority of foreign relations and intelligence committee members have been left in the dark on the details of the raid. Hoekstra and Ros-Lehtinen acknowledge that they have personally been “sworn to secrecy,” yet add that: “…based on what we have learned…it is critical for every member of congress to be briefed on this incident, and as soon as possible.”
Hoekstra and Ros-Lehtinen obviously believe that Syria obtained “nuclear expertise or material” from outside state sources. And while they base their concern on press reports, it seems likely that their top-secret briefings confirmed this fact. Notable here is Hoekstra and Ros-Lehtinen’s repeated use of the phrase “North Korea, Iran, or other rogue states” when referring to Syria’s possible nuclear collaborators. After their briefing, Hoekstra and Ros-Lehtinen seem just as concerned about Iranian involvement as North Korean.
Hoekstra and Ros-Lehtinen protest the administration’s willingness to provide the press with anonymous information on background, “to shape this story to its liking,” while keeping members of Congress in the dark. “We believe this is unacceptable,” they say, noting that the administration has ignored numerous letters from Congress asking that all members be briefed. Hoekstra and Ros-Lehtinen specifically express concerns about two administration-influenced stories in the New York Times and one in The Washington Post. Finally, Hoekstra and Ros-Lehtinen threaten to oppose any nuclear deal with North Korea unless all members of congress are briefed on the reasons for the Israeli raid.
While the secrecy that surrounds this issue forces us to read between the lines, two broad factual questions emerge from Hoekstra’s and Ros-Lehtinen’s oped. First, in what sense has the administration been shaping (or misshaping) the Syria story to its liking? Second, is there more to this story than recent press reports have indicated?
North Korea’s Role
Consider one of the articles singled out by Hoekstra and Ros-Lehtinen, an Oct. 14 New York Times story by David Sanger and Mark Mazzetti.
While this story confirmed that Israel had struck “a partially completed nuclear reactor, apparently modeled on one North Korea has used to create its stockpile of nuclear weapons fuel,” the article also raises doubts: “…American and foreign officials would not say whether they believed the North Koreans sold or gave plans to the Syrians, or whether the North’s own experts were there at the time of the attack. It is possible, some officials said, that the transfer of the technology occurred several years ago.”
Yet the suggestion that North Korean personnel might not have been involved in the ongoing construction of the reactor contradicts a New York Times story of October 9, just a few days before, which said that within the administration “there appears to be little debate that North Koreans frequently visited a site in the Syrian Desert that Israeli jets attacked Sept. 6.” The story on October 9 was that the North Koreans were surely present at the Syrian installation, but that the nuclear nature of the site was less certain. Once nuclear activity at the site was confirmed by the Times on October 14, however, administration sources on background apparently did their best to foster uncertainty about North Korean involvement. In other words, if the Koreans are there, it might not be nuclear, and if it’s nuclear, the Koreans might not be there.
The point is that the administration is subtly attempting to cast doubt on any reported link between North Korea and the Syrian reactor (without directly denying such a link). Otherwise it would become obvious that North Korea is flagrantly violating its nuclear agreement with the United States. Apparently, their secret briefing has led Hoekstra and Ros-Lehtinen to believe that the administration is obfuscating the reality of North Korean proliferation, in order to preserve the six-party deal.
In fact, from the beginning until the present, press reports have given strong indications of ongoing North Korean involvement in the Syrian nuclear project. One of the first reports (and still arguably the most extensive and important report) on the raid, from the London Sunday Times of Sept. 16, quoted Andrew Semmel, who was the acting deputy assistant secretary of state for nuclear nonproliferation policy. Speaking of Syria’s nuclear project, Semmel was asked if North Korean technicians were present there. Semmel replied, “There are North Korean people there. There’s no question about that.”
Another Sunday Times piece, of Sept. 23, offered further evidence of North Korean involvement. Israeli intelligence had suggested to the administration over the summer that North Korean personnel were at the Syrian site, said the Sunday Times. In fact, Israeli defense sources were said to have taken to referring to the target site as the “North Korean project.” The Sunday Times also noted the unusual stridency of North Korea’s condemnations of an event so far from East Asia. In a sense, the North Koreans were outing themselves by their protests. The Sunday Times also reported that diplomats stationed in North Korea and China, based on intelligence reports reaching Asian governments, believed that a number of North Koreans had actually been killed in the raid.
More recent reports have taken up the same theme. On October 7, Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland noted that a senior official with access to highly classified intelligence reports said that “…the Israelis destroyed a nuclear-related facility and caused North Korean casualties at the site….” And October 19, ABC News quoted “a senior U.S. official claiming that the Syrians could not have built their reactor without North Korean ‘expertise,’ meaning that ‘the Syrians must have had ‘human’ help from North Korea.'”
If these reports are true, Hoekstra’s and Ros-Lehtinen’s concerns about efforts by the administration to lead the press away from the North Korean connection (without explicitly denying it), is completely understandable. Again, Hoekstra and Ros-Lehtinen appear to fear that the administration’s now dominant policy-making faction (led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates) is trying to protect the six-party agreement by suppressing the reality of North Korean proliferation.
What about Iran? As noted, the persistent and strong emphasis Hoekstra and Ros-Lehtinen place on possible Iranian participation in the Syrian nuclear program can’t help but make us suspect that their secret briefing contained reports of Iranian involvement. Yet Hoekstra and Ros-Lehtinen refer to press reports of an Iranian role, and there are some such reports.
Former U.N. ambassador John Bolton has expressed concerns that both North Korea and Iran may be “outsourcing” their nuclear programs in Syria. We know that Syria has served as a conduit for North Korean shipments of missile components to Iran, and there are concerns that North Korean nuclear material may have taken the same route (see Sunday Times, Sept. 16). On Sept. 12, a New York Times report said “The Israelis think North Korea is selling to Iran and Syria what little [nuclear material] they have left.” A useful recent overview of the Israeli raid titled “How close were we to a third world war?” adds an important bit of new information based on earlier reports in the Kuwaiti press. Ali Rheza Ali, a former Iranian deputy defense minister who defected several months ago, supplied intelligence sources in the West with information about the site targeted by the Israelis. Of course, that knowledge would imply close Iranian involvement in Korea’s nuclear project. (For more on possible Iranian involvement, see my “Deterrence Lost.”)
Distress over North Korean and Iranian involvement in nuclear proliferation to Syria — possibly as a way of hiding their own nuclear programs from the United States — would certainly make sense of Hoekstra’s and Ros-Lehtinen’s public complaint. Yet there may be more at work. The American press reports cited by Hoekstra and Ros-Lehtinen have so far seemed to confirm only the existence of a “nascent” plutonium reactor modeled on North Korea’s facility at Yongbyon, a construction project that could take as many as three to six years to complete (see NYT Oct. 14). While Syrian wrath at Israel’s destruction of even a nascent nuclear reactor could certainly have led to a retaliatory attack and general war in the Middle East, worries over a potential “world war three” caused by Israel’s destruction of a reactor three to six years from completion seem a bit overblown. These worries might make more sense if there is something more to this story than what American news sources have confirmed.
Several early and unconfirmed reports on the Israeli raid point to the possibility that in the days immediately before the airstrike, the North Koreans may have shipped a cache of fissile material — possibly including a nuclear warhead — to Syria. According to the Sept. 16 Sunday Times, preparations for the attack began when the head of Israel’s intelligence agency, the Mossad, presented Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with evidence that “Syria was seeking to buy a nuclear device from North Korea.” The fear was that the warhead would be fitted atop one of Syria’s North Korean-made Scud-C missiles, already armed with North Korean designed chemical warheads. “This was supposed to be a devastating surprise,” said an Israeli source, “Israel can’t live with a nuclear warhead.” The Sept. 16 Sunday Times goes on to connect the warhead story with a Washington Post report that the raid was linked to “the arrival three days earlier of a ship carrying North Korean material labeled as cement but suspected of concealing nuclear equipment.”
A “nascent” nuclear reactor, three-to-six years from completion, does not give off radiation. Yet the London Sunday Times reported on Sept. 23 that Israeli commandos seized samples of nuclear material and returned them to Israel for examination. “A laboratory confirmed that the unspecified material was North Korean in origin.” The Washington Post’s Jim Hoagland reported on October 7 that a senior official with access to highly classified intelligence reports said that the Israelis provided the United States with “physical material and soil samples from the site — taken both before and after the raid.” Soil samples are commonly used to confirm the presence of fissile material.
Here is where we begin to see potential contradictions, or at least difficulties. Some stories speak of nuclear material or even warheads, while other stories refer only to an incomplete reactor, and even deny that fissile material was present at all. For example, the ABC story of Oct. 19, claims that “no fissionable material was found because the facility was not yet operating.” The U.S. hesitated to approve the attack, according to this report, precisely because of the lack of fissionable material. While the ultimate nuclear intentions for the site were “unmistakable,” the U.S. apparently worried that it would be challenged without the sort of absolute proof provided by fissionable material.
Reactor and More?
Yet reports that fissionable material of some sort was involved in the raid persist, and there are a ways in which these reports could be reconciled with the ABC story. The October third edition of Britain’s Spectator carried a more detailed account of the fate of the North Korean shipment of “cement” than earlier reports. This is the same article, by the way, in which “a very senior British ministerial source” said we’d come close to “world war three that day.”
According to the Spectator, the Israelis tracked the North Korean “cement” shipment to the same site that had already been under intense Israeli surveillance as a possible nuclear installation (i.e. the incomplete reactor). It was at this point, just days before the attack, that elite Israeli commandoes were dispatched to collect the soil samples that indicated the ship cargo had been nuclear (and, according to the London Sunday Times, of North Korean origin). So it’s possible that the ABC report and the report from the Spectator could both be correct. The U.S. may have worried through the summer months about attacking the nascent reactor because of the lack of fissile material (and also for fear of what a raid would do to the six-party talks). Yet the arrival of the North Korean shipment of “cement” three days before the attack, and the subsequent Israeli soil samples, may have turned the tide and led the U.S. to approve what the Israelis at that point surely felt compelled to do.
Our examination of diverse news accounts of the Israeli raid on the Syrian nuclear facility yields several conclusions. First, there is significant evidence of ongoing and recent North Korean involvement. Especially given the informed criticisms of Hoekstra and Ros-Lehtinen, apparent efforts by select administration sources to downplay North Korean involvement appear unconvincing. Second, especially in light of the informed concerns expressed by Hoekstra and Ros-Lehtinen, but also in light of press accoun
ts, there is reason to fear significant Iranian involvement in Syria’s nuclear program, either as a facilitator, as a destination for North Korean nuclear material transiting Syria, or both. Third, there is at least some significant evidence for direct North Korean transfer of fissile material — perhaps even a nuclear warhead — to Syria and/or Iran. That, of course, would constitute the most serious possible violation of the six-party agreement, and would be a grave threat to the security of the United States and the world.
In light of this evidence, should Congress now oppose America’s nuclear agreement with North Korea? And along with North Korea, should Iran be held to account in this affair? Perhaps. In any case, based on an analysis of press reports, and on the informed protests of Representatives Peter Hoekstra and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, it’s clear that we need more open information before we can confidently sign on to the six-party agreement. At a minimum, the scope of congressional briefings on the Israeli raid needs to substantially increase.
— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.