Jeffrey LewisSyria-NORK Nuclear Cooperation

Though it has long sold its missile technology — to Syria, Iran, Pakistan and other customers — North Korea has never been known to export nuclear technology or material.

Mark Mazzetti and David Sanger, “Israeli Raid on Syria Fuels Debate on Weapons,” The New York Times, September 22, 2007.

Um, I guess I appreciate Mazzetti and Sanger being all restrained in pointing out how little evidence there is to support the claim that North Korea was assisting Syria with a clandestine nuclear program.

But doesn’t David Sanger feel even a little bit weird writing “North Korea has never been known to export nuclear technology or material …”? I mean, this is the same David Sanger who reported “Scientific tests have led American intelligence agencies and government scientists to conclude with near certainty that North Korea sold processed uranium to Libya …”

Oh, right, “near certainty” turned out be not so certain. Makes you wonder about this one, doesn’t it?

Anyway, the article is otherwise quite careful, joining WaPo’s Glenn Kessler and Robin Wright and FT’s Demetri Sevastopulo in starting to untangle this story.


  1. Ohadi Langis (History)

    Would be interested in your take on the Times of London 2nd report on the Israeli raid in which the paper again says the Syrian site had nuclear materials?

    Links and futher comments here.

  2. Mark Hibbs (History)

    I’ve been in Vienna the last two weeks during the whole time a couple of very powerful news organizations have expended some credibility capital asserting that there was an Israeli attack on a nuclear installation/material/infrastructure in Syria.

    It’s been a little bizarre.

    During this time, some official delegates to the BOG and the GC were asking ME if it was true. THEY have security clearances, don’t THEIR governments know what the facts are? The head of Israel’s nuclear program was there, as was the US ambassador to the IAEA. Couldn’t they just ask THEM?

    One of the organizations that has been printing these claims gets fairly routine VIP access to IAEA people on the top three floors at the VIC. But I haven’t heard anything authoritative about this story from these quarters the last two weeks.

    On Friday, I talked to the Syrians. They seemed quite at ease about the matter. We didn’t speculate, but instead printed what they told me on the weekend.

  3. Nell (History)

    Mark Hibbs’ comments reinforce a point made by Cernig of the Newshoggers blog: If it were the case that Israel had retrieved evidence of nuclear program related activity in Syria, then they’d be using it at the IAEA to wrong-foot the new chair of the governing council, wouldn’t they?

    Instead, we’re treated to hogwash. Better than Sarah Baxter in the Times is an appallingly low height at which to set the bar for Glenn Kessler. Almost nothing he writes now will undo the damage of the headlines and prominence of his previous bogus reports.

  4. Glenn Kessler (History)

    I am not sure what to make of the comment about “headlines and prominence of his previous bogus reports.” We have tried to be very careful with this story. My first two stories were buried in the newspaper; in fact, the first one was a follow-up to a NY Times report that I duely credited. (We actually had heard of this intelligence more than a week earlier but had been unable to get confirmation to our satisfaction.) But I think we have demonstrated that this is what the Israelis told the Americans, and that this is why Israel conducted the attack. At that point we put the story on the front page. There can be many questions raised about the quality of the Israeli and/or US intelligence. It certainly is very strange that the administration has not tried to explain this. But that shouldn’t mean we should not report why Israel conducted an attack. I would be careful about immediately labeling stories as bogus or nonsense. This is a highly competitive story, and we are trying to put together bits and pieces of a puzzle. I welcome constructive criticism, because every story can certainly be made better. (And for those who think I just parrot Bush administration spin, trust me: They aren’t trying to spin this. And please look at my new book, “The Confidante: Condoleezza Rice and the Creation of the Bush Legacy,” especially the chapters on the India nuclear deal, North Korea and Iran. I especially welcome comment and constructive criticism on those sections of my book, which I think would be of interest to any person who cares about nonproliferation.)

  5. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    The larger story here is about NPT circumvention in the 21st century:

    Suppose you are a ‘new’ player in the game of acquiring nuclear weapons.

    You know all about the NPT, the inspection regime, safeguards, the methods used to detect a Nuclear Weapons program, and past techniques used to circumvent it.

    You would have studied the histories of every state that tried to acquire nuclear weapons, and learned from the experience of ‘successes’ like Israel, India, Pakistan, DPRK, South Africa and the ‘failures’ of Taiwan, ROK,Iraq, Iran, etc.

    From these studies, you would then go about looking at how the world has changed, where the critical bottlenecks are presently vs. before, how technical advances in certain areas have made past bottlenecks moot, how information that use to be closely held are now relatively public, how formerly military only technologies have found civilian applications that can be used as cover, and how the players (suppliers and enforcers of the NPT regime), have changed and expanded, etc.

    A concerted attempt can then be made to acquire nuclear weapons using these parameters.

    Suffice to say that if such a study were done, it may show that the task of the nuclear weapons acquirer have gotten easier —- much easier.

    One of the greatest danger to the NPT is that it is premised on having the luxury of time to convert ‘telltales’ into evidence of circumvention, giving the international community time to act.

    Any serious program will aim to shrink this amount of time and ensure that there are little or no telltales to be found before it is too late.