This is the story of a single night more than a decade ago, and a daring, hair-raising operation executed by the Israeli air force, army and intelligence community that destroyed an atomic plant in northeastern Syria. Yet no less, it is also a story of a big intelligence failure – the worst since the Yom Kippur War, according to a number of top intelligence people – in which Israel somehow managed for years not to notice a reactor being built right under its nose, in a neighboring country on whose surveillance Israel was spending vast amounts of money.
The operation was the finest hour of a prime minister who just a year earlier had led Israel into a failed war in Lebanon and who less than two years later would be compelled to resign before going on to serve a prison term for crimes of corruption. And it was also the start of the intense hostility between that prime minister and his defense minister, which took root during that summer of 2007, and of the impassioned war over who among the top brass in the military organizations deserved the credit.
It is especially surprising that this is also the story of a secret that was maintained for a long time here in Israel despite the considerable personal interests of a number of those who are now involved in its publication. Only now, more than a decade later, has the military censor allowed the Israeli media to report the history of this affair – and even that, still with restrictions.
The Haaretz investigation of the bombing of the nuclear reactor is based on conversations with 25 of the individuals who were involved in the operation and in the events connected to it, in Israel and in the United States. One of the key figures who led to the decision to bomb the Syrian reactor, the head of the Mossad at the time, Meir Dagan, died in March last year.
“Many of the people involved in the action deserve to get credit and also demand it,” said one person who played a key role in planning the operation. “Ultimately, however, the bombing of the reactor would not have happened without three people who believed in the mission and pushed the operation forward, unstintingly, throughout: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Mossad chief Meir Dagan and Israel Air Force commander Eliezer Shkedi.”
A large, cubical building that was still under construction in the heart of the Syrian desert, not far from Deir al-Zour, was a focus of the Israeli defense establishment starting from the end of 2006. Very quickly, it was given a name: the Cube. As the months went by, the suspicion grew that beneath the broad roof of the building hid President Bashar Assad’s secret flagship project: a nuclear reactor produced in North Korea, intended to provide the younger Assad with the achievement that had eluded his father, Hafez Assad, on the battlefield and between wars – and to lead toward a point of strategic balance that could cancel out Israel’s clear military and technological advantage.
The first indication of the Syrian regime’s interest in purchasing nuclear research facilities came to the notice of Israel and the Western countries in the late 1990s, toward the end of the elder Assad’s rule. However, Israel began to pay serious attention to that inclination only after the discovery of a serious intelligence gap in another country: Libya.
“On December 19, 2003, a Saturday morning, I turned on the radio and heard on a news broadcast that the Americans and the British had persuaded Libya to dismantle its nuclear program,” says Amnon Sufrin, who was then head of the intelligence division at the Mossad. “The next morning I assembled my people and I said we had experienced two total failures here: We’d had absolutely no idea that such a program even existed and, second, we didn’t know that negotiations to dismantle it had been going on for eight months. We started to back-analyze the Libyan program and try to figure out where else in the region similar programs could be hiding.”
According to Sufrin, after a month and a half of investigating, the Mossad research team concluded that Syria was working on a nuclear program of its own. The Mossad intelligence division distributed a document with an assessment to that effect in February 2004. Meir Dagan was skeptical about the findings; Syria was not a top priority for Mossad activity and the assessment did not constitute a breakthrough in the gathering of substantial proof.
A similar possibility regarding Syria was also considered during those years at the research branch of Military Intelligence. In 2005, Col. (today reserve brigadier general) Eli Ben Meir had taken up the position of head of the technology field in the research branch. “Iran was the focus of our interest,” Sufrin says now, “but we delegated a team of researchers to examine the possibility of a nuclear program in Syria. All the intelligence people who knew Bashar told me: It’s not like Bashar. But when you put researchers on a project, if there’s something they will find it.”
In the course of the examination, the researchers identified the Cube. At a distant and isolated site called Al Kibar, less than a kilometer west of the Euphrates River, the Cube aroused their interest in particular. It was a square building with an area of about 1,600 square meters (more than 17,200 square feet), which was 20 meters (close to 66 feet) high. “We had satellite pictures of a large building in the middle of the desert, with no explanation,” says the MI chief at the time, Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin.
According to Sufrin, “The Koreans and the Syrians built a camouflage structure on top of the reactor that made it look like a factory from the outside. You don’t see what is happening inside. It is far from any settlement. There is no reason for anyone to be in this area except for herdsmen. We began to suspect that there, in broad daylight, a reactor was hiding.”
Rubble was scattered around the building and the place looked fairly neglected, perhaps intentionally so. There was not much traffic in the area. The people who were seen nearby mostly arrived on motorcycles; it looked as though the structure stood empty at night. No security arrangements – fences or guards – were visible there nor had batteries of ground-to-air missiles been stationed there for defense from air strikes.
The first research breakthrough occurred in November 2006. Major Y., a researcher in MI’s technology branch, composed a document headed “An Issue for Examination.” This is a well-known procedure in MI whereby, with the approval of the head of the organization and the head of the research division, a researcher is permitted to publish a dissenting assessment, even if it is not accepted by the chain of command, in order to prompt examination of a new hypothesis. Until then MI had been focusing on the more accepted channel of countries working their way toward a nuclear project – an installation for enriching uranium, based on centrifuges. Y. reached the conclusion that they were looking in the wrong place. Assad was building a plutonium nuclear reactor, he argued. The 20-page document was distributed to top defense officials. At the Mossad they remained skeptical.
In January 2007, a pipeline leading from the Cube to the Euphrates was identified in satellite photos. The researchers believed that this was the sign of the existence of a cooling system, an essential element in a reactor. At both MI and the Mossad, they started to act to confirm or refute the hypothesis proposed by Major Y. The Mossad led several overseas operations as part of that intelligence gathering. “Dagan assigned us the task of finding out whether or not there was a nuclear project,” says Rami Ben-Barak, a senior Mossad official at that time. “The approach was: confirm or rule out. There is no in-between. Meir Dagan was very determined. A lot of people told him that it wasn’t possible that there was a reactor, and that it would be a pity to waste the resources and the time. However we, under his orders, did not let go of it for a long time.”
Smoking gun in Vienna
The next breakthrough, in fact the turning point of the whole affair, occurred in Vienna in early March 2007. Israel has never officially acknowledged or accepted responsibility for it, and the following is based on an investigative report published by American journalist David Makovsky in The New Yorker in 2012. According to the report, Ibrahim Othman, head of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission, had come to Austria to participate in the deliberations of the International Atomic Energy Agency. A cell of Mossad agents from the Keshet unit broke into the apartment where Othman was staying and within less than an hour “vacuumed up” the information that was on the Syrian official’s personal computer, which had remained in the apartment while he was taking part in the conference.
Othman’s negligence turned out to be the worst security offense in the history of Syria. Had it not been for his carelessness and the Mossad’s brilliant work, it is doubtful that the operation to destroy the reactor would have taken place.
When the material taken from the computer was received in Israel, it was found to include about 35 photographs from inside the mysterious building in the Syrian desert. In the pictures, the inside of the reactor is visible, and in it are fusion cylinders and bars and also some Korean workers.
When the intelligence people analyzed the material from Vienna, they were appalled. The material left no room for doubt: The plutogenic reactor that Y. had written about did indeed exist – it had been found in the heart of the desert and was in advanced stages of construction, and nearing completion.
“The material was analyzed on a Wednesday night,” recalls Amnon Sufrin. “Dagan’s weekly meeting with the prime minister in Tel Aviv was scheduled for 8 A.M. the next day. It is a plutogenic reactor,” the head of the Mossad told Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
The intelligence people say they told him: “There are no more question marks. Now there are only exclamation points.” The prime minister “breathed a sigh and asked: ‘What do we do with this?’ We said to him: ‘We destroy.’” (In Olmert’s circle, as often happens in such cases, they remember an opposite course of events. “Dagan asked: ‘Mr. Prime Minister, what do we do?’ Olmert replied: ‘We destroy it.’”)
In a rare public reference to these developments while giving testimony in the trial against him in the affair involving Morris Talansky (involving unlawful acceptance of gifts of cash from a New York businessman), the prime minister related: “The head of the Mossad called me. I meet with him as a matter of course. It’s only rarely that a Mossad chief calls and says: ‘I have to see you.’ The Mossad chief arrives and sits in my office. They put on the table an intelligence finding of the type rarely encountered in this country. There was silence. I looked at them. He looked at me I knew that from that moment on nothing would be the same. [The threat] at the existential level is of an unprecedented order of magnitude.”
After the photographs were shown to nuclear experts, among the head of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission at the time, Gideon Frank, and his deputy, Eli Levita, it emerged that the Cube was indeed a North Korean reactor, which was in turn a copy of an outdated British reactor built in the 1950s. The technology experts at MI located the plans of the British original.
“We were able to say with certainty: This reactor is intended to produce plutonium – and for military purposes only,” says Yadlin.
Depressed PM and army
In Olmert’s circle they describe a bleak mood prevailing after the discovery. “It had never happened that they came to an Israeli prime minister and told him: Very close to your home something is being built that could destroy the state. This isn’t about bunkers with centrifuges 1,500 kilometers [more than 900 miles] away. This is right next door. This is very serious.”
In the background, of course, there was the historical memory of “the Begin doctrine” and the precedent of the bombing of the reactor in Iraq in 1981 (an operation in which MI chief Yadlin had been one of the eight pilots who carried out the attack). It was the prime minister at that time, Menachem Begin, who established the doctrine whereby Israel will not allow any of its foes in the Middle East to develop nuclear weapons.
Olmert was a very unpopular prime minister. Israel was still grappling with its disappointment after the Second Lebanon War. In some public opinion polls, the level of support for the premier didn’t rise above the single digits. In April 2007 the Winograd commission published its devastating interim report on the conduct of the war, in which it was very critical of Olmert’s functioning the previous year. The politicians were waiting in suspense for the final report, which was due to be published in January 2008. Alongside the urgent necessity of removing the surprising new threat in Syria, Olmert was keen to mend the flaws revealed in his functioning in Lebanon – as well as the public’s impression of him.
The vast majority of those who took part in the meetings describe a very sharp, determined leader, almost chomping at the bit. Moreover, this time careful attention was paid to the procedures of the discussions and decision-making, for the neglect of which Olmert was severely chastised in the interim report. The process, say many, was very organized, strictly by the book and a paragon of order by Israeli standards.
To hear opinions from individuals beyond the heads of the military and the intelligence communities, Olmert consulted (as did then-Defense Minister Amir Peretz, separately) other experienced people and external oversight teams. The advisers, as well as a number of ministers, first and foremost Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, were for the most part summoned individually for personal meetings with the prime minister at his residence, where they were informed about details of the affair, mostly by Yadlin and Dagan. Later, somewhat larger forums were also convened.
Olmert consulted, individually, three of the previous prime ministers: Shimon Peres (who a few months later was elected president of Israel), leader of the opposition Benjamin Netanyahu and citizen Ehud Barak. In those meetings Netanyahu and Barak were very firm in their opinion that Israel had to attack the reactor. Peres, who as leader of the opposition at the time of the bombing of the reactor in Iraq had expressed reservations about that attack as well, surprised Olmert with the suggestion that Israel should attempt to talk with the Syrians first. The prime minister chose to ignore this suggestion.
An extensive process of preparation got underway in the IDF. The then-newly appointed chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, found an army that was depressed and mired in a deep crisis after some of its top brass had resigned, while others were still fighting the conclusions of the internal investigations and on edge about what might be said about them in the final report on the Second Lebanon War. The war and the investigations revealed hugs gaps in the army’s capabilities and the readiness of its units. The new chief of staff initiated a process of rehabilitation but when he was shown the findings from Othman’s computer, Ashkenazi realized that he was facing a series of problems completely different from what he had been preparing for: how to get rid of the new threat in a way that would not spark a new war with Syria and Hezbollah – and if a war did break out – how to ensure that the IDF would win this time.
To make sure the reactor would be destroyed, it was necessary to deploy tremendous firepower, in the form of a relatively extensive aerial bombardment. However, an extensive action was liable to be perceived as a humiliation by President Assad and push him into a corner so that he would feel obliged to retaliate. A quiet and relatively clandestine action would probably be perceived in Syria less emotionally but in such a case, there would be no certainty that the nuclear threat had been eradicated. Olmert had to take into account a reaction that was liable to include direct hits on civilian and military infrastructures, from northern Israel to the Tel Aviv area.
The dilemma Israel faced with respect to the choice between effectiveness and secrecy did not end with the question of the operation itself. If the IDF had to prepare for the pessimistic scenario of Assad retaliating massively and a war breaking out – how could that be accomplished without preparing the units in advance, thereby revealing the secret and enabling the Syrians to prepare to thwart the bombing of the reactor?
Americans enter the picture