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The Intelligence Failure: It Took Years for Israel to Discover Syria's Reactor

'The scary thing is that Assad and the North Koreans were building a plutogenic reactor right under our noses for five or six years'

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Handout released by the Israeli military on March 21, 2018, pertaining to the airstrike it was revealed Israel had carried out to destroy the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007.
Handout released by the Israeli military on March 21, 2018, pertaining to the airstrike it was revealed Israel had carried out to destroy the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007. Credit: \ HANDOUT/ REUTERS

The excitement of the Israeli political and security leadership after the successful operation to bomb the Syrian reactor quickly obscured a critical question: How did Bashar Assad’s secret nuclear project escape the notice of Israel’s intelligence community, which boasted for years about its ability to track even the slightest shifts in military deployments by its northern neighbor?

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Neither the Olmert government nor the intelligence community seriously addressed this question by means of an in-depth investigation. The failure to detect the Libyan nuclear program (see main article) in 2003 led to extensive criticism and a classified investigation by the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, which became a source of much tension between committee chair MK Yuval Steinitz (Likud) and the heads of the various intelligence branches. In the case of the Syrian reactor, however, the tremendous lapse seems to have somehow been forgotten – apart from mention in some internal reviews in the intelligence organizations that were never fully addressed or resolved in an intra-organizational framework.

A satellite image of 'The Cube' built over the Syrian nuclear reactor – taken more than two years before detected by Israeli intelCredit: Google Earth

A person who held different senior roles in the intelligence community says that the belated discovery of the reactor, about six months before it was due to become active, was “Israel’s greatest intelligence failure, maybe even greater than the Yom Kippur War.”

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“The operation went smoothly, fine," he says. "The government decided to carry it out and it did so, but the scary thing about the whole story is that its detection happened completely by chance. Assad and the North Koreans were building a plutogenic reactor right under our noses in Deir al-Zour for five or six years. God knows how long. And we had no idea, with respect to our most highly covered intelligence target, that there was this reactor that was nearly at the activation stage. The reactor was practically finished when we bombed it, it wasn’t just the foundations. If the Mossad hadn’t happened to bring in materials from Vienna that proved that a reactor had indeed been built there – the project would have been completed. We had to rev up from zero to 100 very quickly. How could this have happened?”

He adds: “The failure can be ascribed to a conception, one held by the West and not just Israel. This conception says that an Arab state would not enter into a project like this with a third party. Building a nuclear reactor that can only be for military use, when there is no local trained manpower to operate it – this is something that's unprecedented in the history of nuclear weapons. The Koreans did everything there. It’s crazy. We didn’t know that the number of people within Syria who were in on the secret was so small. There is no technician in Syria who would know how to operate the reactor. The Iraqi reactor in Osirak that we bombed in 1981, on the other hand, was an openly known project.”

In retrospect, the former intelligence official says he thinks that the North Koreans may have intended to operate the reactor themselves: “They were the ones who would have reaped the main benefit from this project. North Korea is a target country for the West. All eyes are on it. We removed the threat by bombing the reactor, but the Americans went to sleep and didn’t understand what went on here. There's a question as to whether there aren’t more such reactors in other places in the world.”

He notes that the North Korean threat to the Americans and to South Asian countries still exists, of course, but since the bombing in Syria, no intelligence relating to North Korean activities in that country has been forthcoming.

“Publicly, it’s convenient for everyone that the reactor was destroyed – but it was a disgrace,” he continues. “Israel was oblivious as the reactor was being developed for years right under its nose. And the United States just didn’t want to know. But when they’re handing out medals, there aren’t going to be any commissions of inquiry.”

Haim Ramon – who, at Prime Minister Olmert’s request, rejoined the government in June 2007 as his deputy – recalls a conversation he had with Olmert a few days before assuming his new role.

“He had everyone else leave the room, and then he said to me: I’m about to commit a serious censorship offense, but I’ll be forgiven because I’m the prime minister,” says Ramon. “Then he told me about the reactor and said he needed me in the cabinet. Based on what Olmert described, this was one of the intelligence community’s biggest failures ever. This thing had been moving forward for five years or so and we didn’t know a thing about it. I was in shock.”

Military Intelligence officials take a bit more forgiving view of the lapse. Maj. Gen. (res.) Yossi Baidatz, who headed MI's research division at the time, says now: “It’s the kind of thing I would have liked to have detected at least a year earlier. If we had found ourselves with a hot reactor that couldn’t be attacked from the air – that would have been another matter, even if it was still a long way from producing a bomb. But that didn’t happen.”

According to then-Col. Eli Ben Meir, head of technology in MI's research branch: “This was a success. Perhaps we could have discovered it three months earlier based on the information that was available. The important thing is that we found it before the reactor became operational.”

Gabi Ashkenazi, Israel Defense Forces chief of staff at the time, says: “Just as the intelligence community is being criticized for not having detected the reactor project earlier, it should be credited for its insistence on clarifying the situation and locating the reactor and preparing the operation to destroy it.”

People who worked with Olmert at the time say the realization that this was a grave, years-long lapse really dawned on them when the pictures arrived from Vienna. But they say that dealing with the problem itself, by destroying the reactor, took top priority. For this reason, in the months that passed between the discovery of the reactor and the actual bombing operation, there was no comprehensive investigation by the intelligence agencies about how such dramatic developments in Syria were missed. And even after the military strike, there was no such investigation of the critical intelligence fiasco that had gone on for years. Each agency apparently conducted its own review, but friction and rivalries among the heads of the various agencies kept a more in-depth investigation from taking place. Nor did Olmert call for such an inquest – perhaps because his people were already weary after being cross-examined by the Winograd Committee and opted to focus on the operation’s positive outcome.

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