Analysts: Israel Targeted Syrian Nuclear Reactor In early September, Israel conducted an air strike on a target in northwest Syria. The New York Times recently reported that the target was a partially constructed Syrian nuclear reactor modeled after a North Korean nuclear plant. David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times, explains.
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Analysts: Israel Targeted Syrian Nuclear Reactor

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This past summer, Israeli aircraft attacked a target in northwest Syria, near the border with Turkey. That's been the subject of speculation ever since. The mystery deepened when, not just Syria, but North Korea, protested the raid. Now, the New York Times reports that the target was the construction site of a nuclear reactor believed to be modeled on a North Korean facility that produces enough plutonium to make one nuclear weapon per year.

The implications of this story include concerns about nuclear proliferation on the one hand, and delicate negotiations with North Korea and Syria on the other.

In a moment, David Sanger, the chief Washington correspondent of the New York Times joins us. If you have questions about the story and what it might mean for U.S. relations with North Korea and Syria, our number is 800-989-8255. E-mail is talk@npr.org. And you can find a link to the New York Times story in our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

David Sanger joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. DAVID SANGER (Chief Washington Correspondent, New York Times): Good to be back here.

CONAN: And there's a great deal we don't know about the story. We'll get into that in just a moment. But you remind us in your story of a blunt warning that President Bush issued to North Korea on the subject of nuclear proliferation.

Mr. SANGER: He did. When North Korea set off its nuclear test, the somewhat failed nuclear test, just a year ago last week - I should say a partially successful test - he went downstairs in the White House issued a very blunt statement about how North Korea would be held responsible if it was ever caught exporting nuclear materials or if it was ever caught proliferating nuclear weapons designs.

It's not clear in this case that they did anything or that they did what President Bush warned against. Here's what we know, Neal. We know that the Israelis struck a site, and we know that Israeli and American analysts who looked at the satellite photographs prior to that strike last night came to the conclusion that they thought that that was the beginnings of a nuclear reactor being constructed, one that Syrians had never talked about publicly.

The Syrians had before tried to obtain nuclear reactors from Russia and Argentina. And it looked to be of a North Korean design. But the North Korean design, you know, does not necessarily mean the North Koreans were deeply involved. We know that North Korea and Syria have very healthy trade in missiles and missile technology from many years. And this whole thing has been surrounded in secrecy. It sort of been the great parlor game of Washington, which is what exactly was it that the Israelis struck.

But I think there's a lot we probably still don't know about this, including who supplied the Syrian, and how far along they have gone.

CONAN: This site, about as far from Syria's border with Israel as you can get and still be in Syria, that was part of the confusion because if it was - why would Israel risk a general war - which is what happens when you bomb a site in a neighboring country - why would Israel make that risk? What for? What could possibly be worth it?

Mr. SANGER: Well, that's one of the reasons the people have thought, that this was not just an ordinary kind of missile trade or the kind of thing that's going on for sometime.

You remember, Neal, I think you and I talked about this a few years ago. There was a lot of discussion in Washington about preemption after President Bush issued a new national security strategy in 2002.

Well, preemption looks a little more complicated to the Bush administration now after Iraq, and it was certainly complicated enough that they have not been able to use it in the case of even North Korea or Iran. But to the Israelis, this seemed like it was a moment, I think, to send a message. It was a message to the Syrians, many believed, that say we won't let you get started. It was a message to the Iranians that the - that Israel could if Iran's program got along far enough, might be tempted to do the same. That would be a very difficult operation for Israel.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And yet, the analogy that everybody draws that you drew in your piece was to the Israeli raid on the Osiraq reactor in Baghdad some years ago. But that was a facility that was nearly completed…

Mr. SANGER: That's right.

CONAN: Represented, at least in Israeli minds, an imminent threat to Israel. There was no way that this embryonic site, whatever it may have been, represented any kind of an imminent threat.

Mr. SANGER: That's right. The Osiraq reactor was about to be fueled and that, you know, then an attack becomes much more complicated because you risk spreading nuclear material around. That was not an issue here if the Israeli and American analysis is right. If in fact it was a reactor, they were basically saying - you will not even going to start down that line, which was what many Israelis believe the position of Israel should have been about Iran years ago. But they're past that point.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Then, there is the question of intelligence. Intelligence has been wrong - well, not so very long ago and then very important in Syria's ways. This was of an important attack. The Syrians are obviously very upset about it for any number of reasons. How do we know that the Israelis knew what they knew?

Mr. SANGER: You know, intelligence has been wrong before, famously in the case of Iraq. They'll be intelligence failures again in the future. And there have been journalistic failures, which we've also discussed when it comes from writing for the intelligence, so we try to write these with some care. We tried, in our story on Sunday, to explain what the American and Israeli analysts believe they saw that led Israel to make this attack.

Does that necessarily mean that they interpreted the evidence correctly? No, it does not. But, you know, we also all forget that there have been huge intelligence failures in the nuclear side in the other direction, in the case of China and the Soviet Union and…

CONAN: And in…

Mr. SANGER: …India and Pakistan. We have failed to pick up indicators of nuclear activity until it was way too late so…

CONAN: And Iraq as well.

Mr. SANGER: Iraq was a huge failure in the other direction. In fact, Iraq was sort of the first huge failure in the direction of overestimating how close they were. Oh, you're talking about Iraq in 1991.

CONAN: Back in '91, yes, when they underestimated Iraq's nuclear program and then overestimated it 15 years later.

Mr. SANGER: Absolutely right. And so I try to remind the critics of the U.S. Intelligence Agency and the critics of the New York Times and other newspapers that report on intelligence that we have seen huge intel errors happen in both directions - underestimation and overestimation.

CONAN: We're talking with David Sanger, the chief Washington correspondent of the New York Times. 800-989-8255, if you'd care to join us. E-mail: talk@npr.org. Eric is on the line with us from Auburn, New York.

ERIC (Caller): Yeah. I was wondering along these lines, how the Israeli have intelligence? They don't have satellites, I don't believe. So was the U.S. feeding them information? How did they get the information?

CONAN: I believe Israel does have satellites, David Sanger?

Mr. SANGER: They have some new overhead capability, but they share a huge amount of U.S. data. And frequently, they and other countries that share U.S. satellite data see things on our satellite photographs that the U.S. hasn't seen because the U.S. is focused elsewhere, and you can't be looking at every image and every spot. And we believe - but don't know for certain - that in this case, they were using U.S. intel. I don't know whether they were initially, or they came around with. But certainly, there was a lot of U.S. imagery of this site.

CONAN: Good question, Eric. Thank you.

ERIC: Thank you.

CONAN: There is also the debate, which this intelligence set off within the Bush administration, which has been reported on in your piece and in an earlier piece of the New York Times that, well, one of the implications of this, if North Korea is indeed cooperating with Syria on a nuclear weapons program -well, didn't North Korea just agreed to dismantle its own nuclear facilities? And is the United States approaching Syria in a diplomatic vein as well?

Mr. SANGER: That's right. And my colleagues, Mark Mazzetti and Helene Cooper, did some really great pioneering work on this internal debate. There were a couple of levels of debate underway in the Bush administration. One was, simply, even if the intelligence is what the Israelis believed it was, was this project so premature that there was no reason to go out and do a military strike now. That was one level of debate, and that divided across sort of predictable lines in the Bush administration.

The second debate, which was brought up by some people surrounding Vice President Cheney and others who have been deeply suspicious of engaging in negotiations with North Korea is if the North Koreans were exporting these, does that mean that you could trust any agreement you reach with them? The counterargument to that is that these talks would be a way of beginning to restrain North Korean exports.

And if in fact, the North Koreans helped the Syrians - we don't know that for a fact yet - it'd be assumed now when that happened. And it could have been years ago that they sold them a design. Remember, North Korea is first and foremost broke. And when you're broke, you'll sell a lot of things.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Yet, North Korea - after Syria protested this, North Korea did as well.

Mr. SANGER: That's a fascinating thing. Here you have an Israeli attack on Syria. Did we hear from the Egyptians, the Saudis, people who you might expect to be upset about the fact with Israel went over a border and bombed an Arab country? Not a word. But the North Koreans, sitting on the other side of the world, about a day or two later issued a big protest. We thought that was interesting.

CONAN: And at the same time, Israel, normally not reticent about trumpeting what it might regard as a military success, has said nothing.

They have said nothing and the Bush administration has said a little less than nothing. There was one interesting set of comments by Defense Secretary Gates on one of the Sunday talk shows that was vaguely worded but suggested the North Koreans should be careful about proliferation as a general rule. You know, I've written about North Korea's nuclear programs since 1989 and I have never seen secrecy around a nuclear development or an attack or anything like that, the kind that we have seen around this incident.

CONAN: David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent of the New York Times, is our guest. We're talking about a story he wrote in the Sunday editions of the New York Times, which reported that the target hit by Israeli aircraft this summer in northwestern part of Syria was a embryonic nuclear power plant, maybe. We're talking on about this on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line, Stephen, with us, Stephen calling from Sacramento.

STEPHEN (Caller): Yes, good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

STEPHEN: I was curious. It seemed the Syrians were very slow to protest this attack. I originally heard a report of it on the Internet Israeli Radio site. It was two or three weeks later before the Syrians seem to say a thing about it.

Mr. SANGER: They did initially say that their airspace had been violated by the Israelis, and they said that relatively quickly after the attack.

CONAN: And had repelled an attack.

Mr. SANGER: Right. Then, President Assad said in an interview about a week or week and a half ago that they hit a empty buildings and a military site, but that it didn't amount to much. That was a slightly different story than we had initially heard. There's a lot of speculation about why it is they haven't said more. One possibility is that they have spent a fair bit of money trying to invest in air defenses and it doesn't look like it did a whole lot of good on this particular case.

CONAN: Wasn't it an Israeli correspondent also able to go up to the northwestern part of Syria and stand in front of what he was describing as the target of this attack, which was an agricultural facility, which may or may not have been?

Mr. SANGER: You know, we're still having a hard time pinning down exactly where the attack placed. We haven't seen any pictures of the attack itself, and there are a number of coordinates all pretty much in the same neighborhood that people have been looking at as a possible site here. The Syrians invited some reporters up to the town that this was supposed to be closest to and said, look around. Do you see anything that happened here? And, you know, it was nothing.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SANGER: But I think that has something to do with the fact that we may not all be looking in the right place.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the call, Stephen.

STEPHEN: Thank you.

CONAN: And let's go now to Greg. And Greg's with us from South Dakota. Greg, you're on the air.

GREG (Caller): Oh, yes. Yeah, I think you - since I called, you actually started covering something about that the - that maybe the message here is -has more do with their sort of state-of-the-art defense system in Syria, which the Iranians also have a similar system. And it turned out to be pretty porous, and it's a good message that we can hit you when we want.

CONAN: Nevertheless, an Israeli attack on the Iran, given the distances involved and the countries that they would have to overfly, David Sanger, would be a much more ambitious prospect.

Mr. SANGER: A much more ambitious project. And remember that the Iranian nuclear program doesn't look anything like whatever this was in Syria. Iran has been using centrifuges to try to enrich uranium. They say for peaceful purposes, they have built at least one deeply underground major centrifuge center in Natanz, which the International Atomic Energy Agency has inspected. It would not be an easy thing taking that out.

But most importantly, the Iranians learned a lot of lessons from Osiraq, the Israeli attacked on Iraq in 1981, and they have spread out the nuclear facilities considerably. So it would be quite a job for the Israelis to go to that and they would probably require American help, and it's not at all clear that the U.S. would be willing to provide that help.

CONAN: Hmm. Thank for the call, Greg. One other item that today, the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna issued a statement that they had inquired to Syria about this report of a nuclear power plant on which they were uninformed by Syria. You pointed out in your piece, however, that the Syria would not have been obligated at this stage of construction - if it was a nuclear power plant - to report it to Vienna.

Mr. SANGER: That's right. There was some debate about at what point in time you have to go to the IAEA and say what you're intending to go build. And the IAEA board has interpreted some of their rules, and this is getting way down into the weeds of international law to say the Syrians would have had to notify them, but it's not at all clear that they would have.

CONAN: And finally, as the determination been made that it is - even if North Korea was involved and it was what the Israelis thought it was that the United States should continue its negotiations with North Korea and hope that they are trustworthy and will dismantle their nuclear systems.

Mr. SANGER: You know, the Bush administration spent the entire first term coming up with reasons not to talk to the North Koreans, and it didn't work out so well.

By the time we got in and out of - through the initial invasion of Iraq, the North Koreans had reprocessed their collection of spent fuel and now are believed to have enough fuel for six, eight, ten, maybe a dozen nuclear weapons. So in the first term, they tried to disengage an approach. I think in the second term, they fairly committed to trying the reverse approach.

CONAN: David Sanger, thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. SANGER: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: David Sanger, the chief Washington correspondent of the New York Times, joined us here today in Studio 3A. Again, there's a link to his article at our blog npr.org/blogofthenation.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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