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Friday, September 23, 2011
Correcting The Record About That Syrian Nuclear Reactor
By Michael V. Hayden
The site where the secret nuclear reactorwas located
estimates about foreign nuclear programs seem to lead unhappy, often
was the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate that Iraq had reconstituted its
nuclear weapons program. That was wrong, of course. But there is a body of
thought, built up on the American left, that the estimate was beyond wrong. It
holds that there was a conspiracy to cook the intelligence to support a
preconceived course of action; that the Bush administration, especially the
vice president, pressured intelligence workers to reach the conclusions they
did. “Bush lied, Americans died” was the commonly heard mantra.
fact, we just got it wrong. In one of my last meetings with Leon Panetta when
he was taking over as director of the CIA, I cautioned against accepting the
left’s urban legend and said, “Leon, this was our fault. It was a clean swing
and a miss.”
years later, it was the American right that attacked an intelligence estimate,
this one about Iran and its nuclear program. I heard one of its opponents
describe this estimate as “morally corrupt,” claiming that it was a sort of
revenge by the intelligence community for the controversy over its Iraq
fact, in the summer of 2007, U.S. intelligence analysts were working to update
an aging assessment on Iran. That older assessment held that Iran was
“determined” to acquire a nuclear weapon, and we were preparing to publish an
update that reaffirmed that conclusion, though we were also going to downgrade
the confidence level from high to medium — not because we had information to
the contrary but simply because the confirmatory information was aging and we
had little fresh data to support it.
summer, however, new data began to accumulate. The information suggested that
Iran had stopped the weaponization of fissile material, work that would be
required to design a reliable warhead. The more difficult tasks — creating
fissile material and developing missile delivery systems — continued unabated,
but there appeared to be good evidence that this one aspect had largely been
put on the shelf.
of us was blind to the reality that this conclusion would make it more
difficult for the United States to isolate Iran and build an international
consensus against its nuclear program. We also knew that we could be wrong. But
this is where the data were taking us, and the Bush administration, to its
credit, directed that we make our findings public. We did, with predictable
we are engaged in controversy over a third estimate, this one dealing with the
nuclear reactor at al-Kibar, in eastern Syria. The debate has been stoked by
former vice president Dick Cheney’s memoir and some follow-up articles.
in The Post last week, Bob Woodward described my assessment given at a meeting
in the White House residence during the summer of 2007: “That’s a reactor. I
have high confidence. That Syria and North Korea have been cooperating for 10
years on a nuclear reactor program, I have high confidence. North Korea built
that reactor? I have medium confidence. On [the question whether] it is part of
a nuclear weapons program, I have low confidence.”
be clear about the last point: I told the president that al-Kibar was part of a
nuclear weapons program. Why else would the Syrians take such a risk if they
were not gambling on such a game-changer? And, besides, we could conceive of no
alternative uses for the facility. But since we could not identify the other
essentials of a weapons program (a reprocessing plant, work on a warhead,
etc.), we cautiously characterized this finding as “low confidence.”
describes the intelligence as fact-based but then says it was shaped to
discourage a pre-emptive U.S. strike.
not what intelligence does, and confusion on that point may have been generated
by a coin, mentioned by Woodward, that CIA folks working on al-Kibar made after
the facility was destroyed. On that coin, emblazoned across a map of Syria,
were the four words that had been the rallying cry of this effort: “No core, no
that “no war” was never taken to mean no kinetic option against al-Kibar.
Rather, it referred to the overall policy direction we were following: Whatever
we did to make this reactor go away (“no core”), it could not lead to a
generalized conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean (“no war”).
knowledge of the facility was closely held within the U.S. government.
Congressional notifications were limited. Even within the executive branch, the
data were compartmentalized. All of this was designed to prevent a leak and
preclude a circumstance in which we put Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a position
where he felt publicly humiliated and thought he had to respond if the facility
it happened, the plutonium plant at al-Kibar was destroyed by the Israelis in
September 2007. Neither the Syrian, U.S. nor Israeli governments said much
about it. Assad let the facility’s destruction pass. “No core, no war.”
puzzling to me why al-Kibar has been resurrected. We were wrong about Iraq’s
nuclear program. Fair enough. History will tell how right or wrong we were
about Iran. I can accept that.
we got al-Kibar right. And the debate in the U.S. government over its fate was
informed by hard facts. The debate reflected differing views, differing
approaches. They were aired. Decisions were made. Isn’t that how it’s supposed
-This opinion was published in The Washington Post on 23/09/2011
-The writer was director of the CIA from 2006 to 2009