Jeffrey LewisRipping Off Ronen Bergman

The blog-o-sphere is all worked up over an op-ed (in German) by Hans Rühle claiming that Iran funded Syria’s Al Kibar reactor.

Central to Rühle’s stardom is the credence lent to his claims by his former position — he is the “former chief of the planning staff of the German Defense Ministry.” (He is the father of Michael Rühle, a senior NATO official.)

The truth is a little uglier.

First, Ruehle left the German Ministry of Defense in 1988. Whatever “inside” information Rühle had dates back more than two decades. His information about Al Kibar, therefore, is second hand. Second, by “second hand,” I mean plagiarized.

Most of Rühle’s article comes straight from Ronen Bergman’s book The Secret War with Iran, mainly the chapter “Ghost Raid.”

Let’s take a look.

Here is how Ruehle describes the raid against the Al Kibar reactor:

Am Morgen des 6. September 2007 starteten sieben israelische F-15-Jagdbomber nach Norden. Sie flogen entlang der Mittelmeerküste, streiften die Türkei und drangen nach Syrien ein. 50 Kilometer vor dem Ziel feuerten sie 22 Raketen auf die drei identifizierten Objekte innerhalb des Kibar-Komplexes ab. Die Syrer waren völlig überrascht. Als ihre Luftabwehrsysteme einsatzbereit waren, befanden sich die israelischen Flugzeuge längst ausserhalb ihrer Reichweite. Die Mission war erfolgreich, der Reaktor zerstört.

That translates roughly as “On the morning of September 6, 2007 seven Israeli F-15 fighter-bombers started toward the north. They flew along the Mediterranean coast, touched on Turkey and then penetrated Syria. 50 kilometers from the finish, 22 rockets were fired on the three identified objects within the Al Kibar complex The Syrians were quite surprised. By the time their air defense systems were ready for use, the Israeli aircraft were long beyond their reach. The mission was successful, the reactor was destroyed.”

This is almost word-for-word from Bergman’s book:

At 3 a.m. on the morning of Thursday, September 6, seven Israeli air force F-151s took off and headed north over the Mediterranean. … They flew very low along the Mediterranean coast and then over Turkey, before entering Syrian airspace. At a range of 50 kilometers, they launched twenty-two missiles at the three sites within the nuclear complex.

The Syrians were taken completely by surprise. Their air defense systems only detected the firing of the missiles, leaving no time for the sites to be evacuated. A few antiaircraft missiles were dispatched, but only after the planes were long gone. American and Israeli satellites hovering above Syria confirmed that the targets had been destroyed.

There are lots of other examples, like Rühle’s description of Ali-Reza Asgari’s defection and revelation about the Syrian project mirror’s Bergman’s, down to certain phrases: “Iran finanziere ein geheimes Nuklearprojekt von Syrien und Nordkorea” (translate) compared with: “Iran was financing a joint nuclear venture launched by North Korea and Syria.”

Ruehle also lifted Bergman’s description of the commando raid:

Mitte August flogen 12 Mann einer Kommando-Einheit in zwei Helikoptern zum Reaktorgelände al-Kibar, nahmen Bodenproben und fotografierten die Anlage. Die Auswertung ergab eindeutig, dass es sich um einen Reaktor nordkoreanischer Bauart handelte. (translate)

Compare that with

As a result, on a cloudy night in mid-August, twelve men from Israel’s Sayeret Matkal commando unit were flown into Syria in two helicopters. They did not penetrate the site itself, but took soil samples from beyond the vast concrete apron surrounding it. … The results provided clear-cut proof of the joint nuclear project.

There are just too many similarities to ignore.

Rühle’s apparent plagiarism creates a false “confirmation” of Bergman’s account — here is how the at the Associated Press described the report:

Ruehle, who did not identify the sources of his information, regularly publishes and comments on security and nuclear proliferation in different European newspapers and broadcasts, and he has held prominent roles in German and NATO institutions.

One is naturally encouraged to conclude the Rühle’s account is the official Geheimdienst version, filtered through a favorite source.

In the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t discover the plagiarism — Bergman is (rightfully) complaining about it to friends and colleagues. Moreover, I can’t read German — Josh Pollack, and Google Translate, helped out there.


  1. Josh

    Bergman may not be the only victim. Allen Thomson, who maintains an exhaustive compendium of reportage on this subject, pointed out earlier that the Ruehle article appears to be a pastiche of previously published work. Credit is due to Allen for being so perceptive.

    Bergman does appear to be the primary victim, though. Ruehle even lifted his idiosyncratic transliteration of عسگری as “Askari.”

    On a side note, does the sourcing to Bergman make the story any more credible? At the margins: Bergman has a reputation as a journalist, is closer to real sources than Ruehle would have been, and gives his readers some hints about sourcing. But to be honest, I’m still skeptical of some details.

  2. Omar

    I’m interested in hearing opinions of others who actually read Bergman’s book, but I have to admit I found it quite amusing.

    The whole book is mostly based on NSA intelligence passed to Israel’s various intelligence agencies then somehow passed on to Bergman.

    There is nothing inherently wrong with that, asides from the fact he is freely talking about very highly-classified NSA SIGINT.

    Additionally, the books reads like all of the reported stories/reports are solid facts, when it is mostly based on Israeli “intelligence sources” reporting from Israeli and/or NSA intelligence.

    To the article: I’ve read the original in the NZZ and found it strange the author “Ruehle” never mentioned his sources. Moreover I never heard of any Ruehle of the German MoD (there was an unrelated Ruehe Defense Minister).

  3. Michael Ruehle (History)

    Dear Jeffrey,

    Although I once vowed never to engage in blogging, the allegations made about my father’s handling of the sources for his article on the destruction of the Syrian reactor prompt me to respond.

    First, some info for doubting Omar: My father, Hans Ruehle, does indeed exist (otherwise, I wouldn’t), and he headed the German MoD’s Planning Staff from 1982-1988. Volker Ruehe is indeed a former German Defense Minister, and, to make matters even more confusing, Lothar Ruehl used to be Under Secretary of Defense at around the same period in the 1980s.

    On my father’s article: One point I would like to clarify here is something that seemed to have been “lost in translation”. The news story by AP, which serves as the source for most commentators, contains the wording “Ruehle did not identify the sources of his information”. However, the German original article reads “… according to Israeli sources that have recently become available …” This is a small yet significant difference. And the journalists who called my father, from Haaretz to the Wall Street Journal, were told about Bergman’s book.

    Still, the question remains why my father did not explicitly mention Ronen Bergman’s book in his article. My father was fascinated by the chapter “Death Raid” in Bergman’s book. He considered the information about the debriefing by General Askari to be among the best-kept secrets of Western intelligence services, including the Mossad. Bergman’s publication of this sensitive material raised the question why the Mossad, which must have reviewed and cleared the book before publication, allowed for this chapter to be published. My father, who has a pretty solid experience of handling intelligence matters, drew the conclusion that the Mossad wanted this story to be published. In order to avoid a debate about this point, and after discussions with friends and colleagues, my father finally decided to anonymise the sources – even at the risk of causing misunderstandings.

    Since I type my father’s handwritten manuscripts, I get to study them quite carefully. In this particular case, the first thought that crossed my mind was not whether Ronen Bergman needed to be explicitly credited (arguably, the reference to “Israeli sources” seemed enough). Rather, I wondered why this story had not received more publicity in the first place. After all, Bergman’s book has been out for quite a while. And when John Bolton confirmed some of the information just two days later in the WSJ, in an article that was prompted by the news reports about my father’s piece, I realised that my father had struck a chord that Bergman’s book, though excellent, didn’t.

    Michael Ruehle
    Brussels, Belgium

  4. Tom


    thanks very much for the clarification. Does this mean that Bergman’s book is the only source your father based his article on? Or does he have any corroborating information?

  5. scud

    We should thank Michael Ruehle for his explanations and ACW for being, once again, THE place for debating nonpro/arms control issues.

    Michael’s post is interesting in the sense that it reveals what many of us know: that in a world where so much information is published, it is easy to miss an important source. Many people had not read the Bergman book. I, for one had read it, but it took me a while to make the connection with Ruehle’s father’s article. The silver lining in this whole story is that it may bring people to revisit the hypothesis of an Iranian involvement in the project. The question is: why is there so much discrepancy between (1) what Bergman’s sources told him and (2) what the US intelligence community say (“we’re pretty sure that only the DPRK and Syria were involved”).

  6. Omar

    Re: Michael Ruehle
    I never doubted the existence of Mr. Ruehle who published the article. What felt strange was that there was one Hans Ruehle who popped out of nowhere to write an quite detailed article with supposedly insider information on the topic. Adding to this was his connection the the German MoD, which, after this clarification, has nothing to do with the whole story or his article.

    Still, Bergman’s book and the Ghost Raid part very much depends on unverifiable sources, and there are several very strange episodes in the book.

    My favorite is the supposed mid-1990s Hezb operation in South America, which was prevented by American SFs coming and leaving in C5 Galaxy transporters out of nowhere. (And without any public trace.)

  7. Allen Thomson (History)

    > The silver lining in this whole story is that it may bring people to revisit the hypothesis of an Iranian involvement in the project.

    I very much agree, as long as we keep it firmly in mind that we’re talking about a hypothesis, not an assertion. Although I have doubts about some details of the description of the raid Bergman gives, the really big question he raises is that of Iranian involvement in the alleged/presumed SY/NK plutonium production project.

    I’m thoroughly agnostic on this hypothesis at the moment. There’s no really good evidence (IMO) for it, but the involvement of an inconvenient third party might — just might — explain some of the very peculiar post-strike behaviors of Israel, Syria and the US that have been much noted.

    Iran is certainly the leading candidate for a third party, but one can think of other possibilities. Pakistan is probably second in line, and there are others.

  8. Michael Ruehle (History)

    Ronen Bergman’s book was my father’s only source regarding Iran’s involvement in the Syrian-North Korean reactor project. By contrast, regarding the importance of Askari’s debriefing on al-Kibar, there exists a pretty strong hint from US intelligence sources. The protocol of the “Background briefing with Senior U.S. Officials on Syria’s Covert Nuclear Reactor and North Korea’s involvement” of 24 April 2008 says: ”In the spring of last year, we were able to obtain some additional information that made it conclusive”. This reference to spring 2007 seems a thinly veiled reference to Askari’s debriefing.
    Although my father used Bergman’s book as a source for his article, Iran’s involvement in al-Kibar has now been confirmed by John Bolton in his Wall Street Journal piece of 21 March. Reading the article, my father and I both came away with the impression that Bolton is relieved that this specific aspect of the Syrian adventure has now become widely known. Bolton seems to have known about Askari’s debriefing, yet he was not allowed to talk about it. Despite Bergman’s uncovering of a crucial part of Askari’s debriefing, U.S. intelligence services and those of key allies seem bent on keeping the whole briefing secret. The reasons for this appear obvious: Askari must have said many more things that touch upon a host of Middle Eastern issues. Hence, intelligence services have no choice but to continue denying everything related to Askari.
    Omar rightly points out that Bergman’s book is based on “unverifiable sources”. In a Haaretz interview in September 2007, Bergman said that “99,9 per cent” of his book consisted of “non-declassified material”. Needless to say, this raises the question as to who is the “author” of what? This dilemma was part of my father’s reasoning for not mentioning Bergman’s name and referring to “Israeli sources” instead. At the same time, even though my father had some doubts about the accuracy of some parts of Bergman’s account, it was clear that the story of al-Kibar could only be told exactly as Bergman had told it – including the details about the commando raid in August and the attack in September. There was simply no point (nor space) in nitpicking.
    As for my father’s doubts about Bergman’s account, there are two in particular. For one, Bergman creates the impression that the commando raid in August was necessary in order to get conclusive evidence about the true nature of al-Kibar. By contrast, the US briefing mentioned above indicates that the information gathered in spring 2007 “included photographs of the interior and the exterior of the building … showing key features of the reactor”. Moreover, these photographs appear to have been taken “handheld”, i.e. by people who were on the reactor site. Does one really need even more confirmation?
    There are also certain doubts about Bergman’s account of the attack on al-Kibar. Bergman creates the impression that the missiles that were released 50 kilometres off al-Kibar were self-guided and hit the target bullseye. However, the much more detailed account of the Sunday Times of 16 September 2007 reports that these missiles were guided to their target by ground-based laser-designators, i.e. by people who were close to the target.
    These details appear small, yet their implications are significant. If Israel were to attack Iranian nuclear installations, it would require certain key people to be on-site in Iran. A formidable challenge.

  9. Michael Ruehle (History)

    Correction: The Bergman interview which I am alluding to is from 2008, not 2007

  10. Allen Thomson (History)

    I just checked the sourcebook and it turns out, FWIW, that the possibility that Asgari provided intelligence related to the strike was reported less than three weeks after the event. (Both the URLs below seem to have expired.)

    More juice on the Syrian air strike
    September 28th, 2007

    The Kuwaiti press claims a pair of scoops on the September 6 Israeli air strike in Syria.

    The Al Jerida newspaper reported Friday [] that retired Iranian general Ali Reza Asgari, who defected in February, gave Israel the intelligence on Syria’s missile program used in the Syrian airstrike. After the former deputy defense minister and Revolutionary Guard commander disappeared during a visit to Istanbul in February of this year it was widely reported in both the English and Arabic press that he was providing a gold mine of info to Western intelligence agencies.