The Bush administration briefed the U.S. Congress on Thursday about the reasons behind the Sept. 6, 2007, Israeli raid on Syria. According to the secret briefing — the content of which, of course, not only was leaked immediately (as was intended) but was essentially confirmed by a White House spokeswoman — the target was a nuclear reactor, able to produce plutonium, that had been built with the assistance of North Korea. The administration showed a videotape, apparently produced by Israeli intelligence, showing faces that were said to be in the facility and to be clearly Korean.
What is important to note is this information is not new. It is a confirmation of the story leaked by the administration shortly after the attack and also leaked by the Israelis a bit later. The explanation for the attack was that it was designed to take out a reactor in Syria that had been built with North Korean help. There are therefore three questions. First, why did the United States go to such lengths to reveal what it has been saying privately for months? Second, why did the administration do it now? Third, why is the United States explaining an Israeli raid using, at least in part, material provided by Israel? Why isn’t Israel making the revelation?
It has never been clear to us why the Israelis and Americans didn’t immediately announce that the Syrians were building a nuclear reactor. Given American hostility toward Syria over support for jihadists in Iraq, we would have thought that they would have announced it instantly. The explanation we thought most plausible at the time was that the intelligence came from the North Koreans in the course of discussions of their nuclear technology, and since the North Koreans were cooperating, the United States didn’t want to publicly embarrass them. It was the best we could come up with.
The announcement on Thursday seems to debunk that theory, at least to the extent that the primary material displayed was U.S. satellite information and the Israeli video, which was said to have been used to convince the United States of the existence of the reactor and of North Korean involvement. So why didn’t the administration condemn Syria and North Korea on Sept. 7? It still seems to us that part of the explanation is in the state of talks with North Korea over its own program. The North Koreans had said that they would provide technical information on their program — which they haven’t done. Either the United States lost its motivation to protect North Korean feelings because of this or the Bush administration felt that Thursday’s briefings would somehow bring pressure to bear on North Korea. Unless the United States is planning to use these revelations as justification for attacks on the North Koreans, we find it difficult to see how this increases pressure on them.
More interesting is the question of why the United States — and not Israel — is briefing on an Israeli raid. Israeli media reported April 23 that the Israelis had asked the Americans not to brief Congress. The reason given was that the Israelis did not want the United States to embarrass Syria at this point. As we noted on April 23, there appeared to have been some interesting diplomatic moves between Syria and Israel, and it made sense that revealing this information now might increase friction.
If this read is true, then it would appear that the United States briefed deliberately against Israeli wishes. Certainly, the Israelis didn’t participate in the process. One answer could be that the United States is unhappy about Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s moves on Syria and wants to derail them. The United States wanted Syria out of Lebanon. The Israelis have a more complex view of their presence. In some ways, they see the Syrians as a stabilizing force. And they certainly aren’t eager to see Bashar al Assad’s government fall, since whatever might replace the al Assad government would probably be worse from the Israeli point of view. That would mean that the Israelis would want to take out the reactor, but not necessarily rub the Syrians’ nose in it.
So there are two plausible answers to Thursday’s show. One is to increase pressure on North Korea. The second is to derail any Israeli-Syrian peace process. The problem is that it’s hard to see why North Korea is going to be moved by the official declaration of what Washington has been saying from the beginning. The second would assume that U.S.-Israeli relations had deteriorated to the point that the United States had to use this as a lever. That’s tough to believe.
The senior Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, Peter Hoekstra, said after the briefing, “This administration has no credibility on North Korea. A lot of us are beginning to become concerned that the administration is moving away from getting a solid policy solution to ‘let’s make a deal.’”
So that seems to undermine the prep for strike theory. That leaves tension between the United States and Israel as the last standing theory. Not a good theory, but the last standing one.