Mark Mazzetti and Bill Broad have two very good stories on the suspect site in Syria — one placing the leaks in context of Administration internal debates over North Korea; the other reporting on new satellite imagery showing that North Korea has wiped clean the site.
I am sitting in an airport, but I thought a few points bear mention:
- Syria has long expressed a desire to have a nuclear reactor; North Korea would probably sell a reactor if the price was right. On face, the story is not implausible.
- The pictures showed a large building near a river. That’s about it. If the building was a reactor, it was very far from completion. Absent reliable human intelligence, I see nothing that conclusively demonstrates the building was a reactor although IAEA inspections would have been decisive on this point.
- Assuming it was a reactor, it is much too early to make design determinations based on imagery. Overhead identifications of reactors can, and are, often wrong as they were in the cases of Baotou — a fuel fabrication facility in China mistaken for a plutonium production reactor — and the gigantic North Korean whole in the ground that is Kumchang-ri. As I noted the other day, IC estimates of the size and type of the Yongbyon reactor, at a comparable stage, were incorrect.
- The people leaking are those dissatisfied with US policy. “A sharp debate is under way in the Bush administration,” Mazzetti and Helen Cooper reported, about “whether intelligence that Israel presented months ago to the White House … was conclusive enough to justify military action by Israel and a possible rethinking of American policy toward the two nations.” Obviously, that rethinking hasn’t happened yet. The people who lost that debate are leaking national security information, appealing to the press. That is precisely why Hoekstra (R-MI) and Ros-Lehtinen called for more information — this is about North Korea, not Syria.
- We haven’t heard from the people who, as Mazzetti and Cooper reported, were “cautious about fully endorsing Israeli warnings” or “remain unconvinced that a nascent Syrian nuclear program could pose an immediate threat.” They might have important information to add, were they willing to leak it.
- Syria has wiped the site clean — a move that Albright and Brannan note “dramatically complicates any inspection of the facilities.” What ever Damascus may have been doing, we’re much less likely to know, now. One of the best reasons for pressing for inspections at the site, rather than bombing it, is to get answers to the questions about what the site was and how it got there. After Israeli bombed Osirak in 1981, Iraq simply continued its nuclear weapons program in secret. It was not the bombing of Osirak, but rather UN inspections, which eventually disarmed Saddam Hussein.
In short, we don’t know what the site was, what (or who) survived the strike, and where it is now.