LYNN NEARY, host:
When Israel launched a seemingly unprovoked attack on Syria last September, the media in Europe and the United States, according to unnamed sources, reported that Israel had destroyed a nuclear reactor which was under construction. But there are still many questions about the attack and its target.
New Yorker staff writer Seymour Hersh spent months talking to U.S., Syrian and Israeli officials and a number of other intelligence authorities. In the latest issue of the New Yorker, he writes that whatever was being instructed at that Syrian facility probably had little to do with nuclear weapons, and that the bombing may have been a warning signal to Iran about its nuclear intentions.
Mr. Hersh joins us now in Studio 3A. Good to have you with us.
Mr. SEYMOUR HERSH (Staff Writer, New Yorker): Glad to be here.
NEARY: First of all, why was that facility in Syria thought to be a nuclear reactor in the first place?
Mr. HERSH: Well, the Israelis will tell you that it was a large building. It was along a river. It had the physical dimensions of a reactor that was similar to the size, length and width of a reactor in North Korea.
And I think their attitude in Israel was they had some other intelligence. They had reason to believe North Koreans were there. They say they have empirical data that they have not made public. And that's the rub of the story. They have data that they have not made public that would prove it, but they're not making it public.
Their best ally in the world, the Americans, our government, is also clearly involved in some of the planning for this raid - that I can establish, I did establish rather easily - and we're not talking about it publicly.
Syria complained quite a bit in the beginning about it and then stayed relatively mute. They didn't do much about it. And so it's become sort of a conundrum. The press went, as you said - look, who am I to be talking about anonymous sources?
Mr. HERSH: I've written, spent much of my career writing about anonymous sources. But the people I talk to, basically, are people inside who are critical of policy. In this case, the policymakers themselves were giving the various newspaper reporters - the correspondents who cover the State Department and the White House - they were giving him their version without saying that this - there's been no official statement by the United States or Israel at all.
Mr. HERSH: And that's the story, it seems to me. We're talking about an act of war.
Mr. HERSH: And we're talking about three major countries that won't talk about it.
NEARY: Well, I was really curious about a lot of things that you wrote about. But I was really curious about why Syria has been relatively quiet, as you said, about this, and apparently sort of got rid of any evidence that may have been there as to what actually was in this facility.
Mr. HERSH: Well, what they did was this. They said nothing - very little. They complained. They wrote a letter to the U.N. Essentially, what they did find, yes, indeed, there were Koreans there and, yes, indeed, there was a military building being constructed. It wasn't finished. The best I get it was partially done, was slowed up, I think, because of our war in Iraq obviously. They started it before the war and finished it - just went back to it this spring.
I think they were sensitive about the fact there were South Koreans.
(Soundbite of coughing)
NEARY: North Koreans.
Mr. HERSH: North Koreans. I think, also - I should say think because the only thing we know is that the president, Bashar Assad, publicly said it was an unfinished military building. But beyond that, they've said nothing else.
What I was writing - what I'm reporting in the New Yorker this week is pretty much new. The question is: Is a building that has some military significance with North Koreans there, does that justify a raid across the border, an act of war?
And I can tell you, the amazing thing for me about the way people in the Middle East think about things - and you have to understand we're different. We do think differently. When Hezbollah, the Party of God, the Shiites in Lebanon captured two Israeli prisoners, the response from Israel was 34 days of bombing with America sort of looking on, saying nothing.
Here, Israel goes across the border, bombs something - it's not - you know, a building, whether it was nuclear or not, and nobody in the world says anything.
Mr. HERSH: So there is a double standard at work. I think for Syria also, it's very hard to acknowledge they did nothing. It's a matter of shame for them that they did not respond. They took the hit.
But beyond that, the ultimate bigot - for me, the focus, of course is, as an American, I - what's my country doing in this game? Why are we spinning stories anonymously, not talking publicly? And what I discovered in doing the reporting - I did played border reporter for months on this. Every single fact - I should say that many of the salient facts that were pushed by the various anonymous sources - a boat showed up, called the el-Hamid(ph) three days before it landed in a port in the Mediterranean in Syria with hot stuff in it. That boat, when you check it out, had been into - had been in North Korea in 10 years…
Mr. HERSH: …was a tramp steamer, essentially not very useful. And it could not possibly have been the boat that the Israeli press and the American press reported it was. And so you find so many other disconnects in the story. And yet, the story is still there. If you ask anybody to read accounts, it's Syria had a nuclear reactor that was destroyed by Israel; (unintelligible) another day in the world.
And I quote a man, Morton Abramowitz, who is - was an ambassador for the American government and was the head of intelligence in the Bush years. Morton Abramowitz, who was now a director of the international crisis group, said, you know, what's going on with us? An act of war? Violation of a border, a raid, and nobody says anything and no - so that was the motive.
The motive in this - doing this story is just to say, you know, there are standards.
Mr. HERSH: Yeah - excuse me.
NEARY: Well, why - you've said the United States was involved in - what was the United States involvement and what was the motivation for the U.S. involvement?
Mr. HERSH: What I know from inside - and I have contacts inside. And what I know from inside, in the Pentagon, at the JCS level, and also into the vice president's office, this mission, this raid was being discussed in the summer before it took place. It took place last September 6th.
In the late summer, there was talk and planning of going into Syria with Israeli planes monitored by American intelligence aircraft and taking a sweep - a good look at their radar. The defense intelligence agency reported last year that Syria had upgraded its radar, not to the point where the Iranian - as good as the Iranians - but to a level getting close. So the idea was just to go - as my friends knew it - to go and take a look and knock down their radars, take a look and see how they responded, copy as much as we can, learn as much. And lo and behold, about 10 days afterwards, my guys, who thought it was a radar raid, began to hear this talk about hitting a nuclear reactor.
And in fact, the Israelis had no intention of doing anything but going in and hitting a nuclear reactor. And if you ask me what I really think about this, I think the Israeli government had some very high level contact - off the record if you will, perhaps with the vice president, perhaps even with the president -in which they said what was going on but did not tell the American system.
We have an amazing situation in this country, where we do have the - particularly the vice president, will operate outside the chain of command.
Mr. HERSH: He will move forces, he will make orders, move - make military decisions, and not tell the appropriate generals in the chain of command. He deals directly - Dick Cheney deals directly with our joint special operations command, for example, that the three-star general runs. And he gets in the phone and says go do this and that. And the rest of the officers have to scramble and find out what's going on. We - you know, again, the concept behind the story, really, was to say we have to hold everybody to a high standard here.
NEARY: But if it wasn't a nuclear reactor that was under construction, what was this building?
Mr. HERSH: Best guess was there was - the Syrians have decided a long time ago that - the trouble with having chemical warfare reactor weapons, if you use it against Israel, the Israeli response is nuke. You're incinerated. So the real issue for them was, years ago, I think they made a decision - I was told this - to go what they call asymmetrical.
If you remember, when Israel invaded Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, they fired rockets. Well, Syria is going to do the same thing. They've been manufacturing low-level, low-yield rockets that can - they're probably going to be better than the ones Hezbollah had. They're going to be able to hit - go deep into Israel perhaps as far as Tel Aviv, from the Golan Heights and from the areas in the north. And the idea is just to shower Israel in response with rockets.
They can't match Israel man for man, if the Israelis decided to attack. What makes the invasion or the attack last September so interesting, there have been a summer of tension over the Golan Heights. And in the middle of this, Israel makes a strike. I, frankly, I still sit here and I think about it. I say, have we become so unnerved(ph) and so numbed by the seven years of this government that there's no - even not much of a corner for outrage when somebody goes across the border? Yes, Israel is an ally of ours and it always will be. But that doesn't mean we have to countenance a raid across the border.
NEARY: We're talking with Seymour Hersh about an article he wrote in the New Yorker about an Israeli attack on a Syrian military facility and the many unanswered questions about that.
If you have any questions from Mr. Hersh, the number is 800-989-8255. Or you can send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
What about the role of the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency? And Syria didn't ask them to come in and do any inspection today. And what was their take on whether or not this really was a nuclear facility?
Mr. HERSH: They - their opinion based on the satellite imagery, the same imagery that an America was accepted as fait accompli, the IAEA's experts - and you know they use a lot of overhead, they do a lot of analysis because they monitor compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty - they didn't see any evidence there was a building. Somebody - I quoted somebody as saying, "a building is a building." They didn't see any evidence of any nuclear reactor there.
On the other hand, I did see some senior officials in Syria. I quoted the vice president: "If I saw people actually higher, not on the record." And a very senior intelligence general did say to me at some point when I asked him about this, why didn't you go and invite the IAEA into? He said, they never asked to come. That's not true. They did ask to come.
Mr. HERSH: And so the Syrians, I must say, to put it mildly, fell all over themselves into response. They didn't - there wasn't a straight answer out of what was going on. Within a few days, they gave…
NEARY: That's what's so peculiar to me about this. It contains…
Mr. HERSH: Well, you know, those countries are so weird. The New Yorker is an incredible checking department. Almost everything that gets written, even from all my anonymous sources, these sources are contacted and approved and go - we go through the notes. We want to make sure we're totally accurate, not being unfair to anybody - try and check with the Syrian. The foreign minister, the head of intelligence - it's just a - they're just in another planet.
The checking department just couldn't get anybody to respond. They were going to the ambassador here, trying to verify what I was writing. And the - we always kind of end up using my notes, but the idea is not to, to get beyond my notes, do independent verification above and beyond what I produce.
It's very hard. They're just - the foreign minister said one thing. The head of intelligence said another thing. Their press agency said a third thing. Nobody even admitted a building had actually been bombed for almost four weeks after the event inside Syria. It was hapless.
And that does - they are so - I won't say difficult. They're just in a different planet when it comes to what we do in the West with their 24-hour cable television, et cetera.
NEARY: We're talking with Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Now, you - it seems to me, at the end of your article, you came to the conclusion - or you indicated that what this really may have been about was kind of a warning signal to Iran about its - what it's doing with it's nuclear capability.
Mr. HERSH: I can say this, that one of the selling points inside the White House for doing the exercise just in terms of lighting up the radar was let's show the Iranians that we can - we're going to go study the Syrian radar, and that'll help us understand what could happen to us if we go into Iran. We can't go into Iran and do what we did in Syria, because the Iranians will do something. It's a country of 70 million.
Syria, you can just walk over. They're a small country, small army. The Israelis have been penetrating their airspace, and I will tell you right now American combat soldiers and special operators have been crossing the border all the time. We just sort of - Syria is not - it's just sort of taken as not somebody who's going to stick, you know, a fork in our eye as the Iranians might if we did something like this.
But then, the bottom line came out to be this that for the Israelis, many of them believe there was something there. They did not want to wait around. There's a building, and they didn't like it. There was a building and they saw Koreans there. They had intercepts. They heard the Koreans yakking away. That was enough. And they're not going to wait and see what it is going there. Maybe it's going to be nuclear, maybe it's going to be missile - we're going to take it out. That's their reasoning.
Also, it has other advantages. One, it demoralizes the Syrians. It reminds the president of the Syria not to get too cocky after the victory last summer of his ally, the Lebanese Hezbollah, somewhere a year and a half ago. And Israel believed that Assad got very puffy, full of himself after the Hezbollah took down Israel in that big fight during the summer of '06.
The other factor was, of course, domestically it was terrific. Olmert needed something. This raid, once it became not officially known but unofficially in the chatter class, gave him a lot of publicity, and there was a lot of support for it.
Mention the word, anybody in the Middle East with a nuclear weapon, any Israeli attack is always applauded. And most significantly, in terms of the White House, in terms of the vice president, why he would support something like this, according to my friends, is it's a message for the Iranians: Look out. We're not done. There may have been a very negative National Intelligence Estimate, negative in terms of the Israeli point of view because it said there's no ongoing weapons program, but don't think we're not coming. We're capable of coming.
And that was a message too. I think we're in a real crisis in this country. For those people who want to do something about Iran, they're really flailing now. The NIE has undercut it totally. I don't think America could do it. I think probably half the Joint Chiefs of Staff would resign or do something anyway.
NEARY: Let's see if we can take one call in here from Chuck. He's in San Francisco. Hi, Chuck.
CHUCK (Caller): Hi. This seems to be an example of a phenomenon that I find very troubling, which is the - what seems like the increasing frequency of proxy fighting proxies, like, if Israel is bombing Syria so the United States can send a message to Iran, it seems like more and more, what was, you know, Hamas and Hezbollah, being a proxy for Iran and, you know, the Pakistani intelligence forces kind of operating through forces in Afghanistan.
If you can kind of separate yourself from accountability for your actions and you empower other parties to act for you, doesn't this kind of open a whole can of worms that could be very dangerous?
Mr. HERSH: Well, absolutely. You've just described the reason - I think one of the great underlying reasons that we have so many contract employees, you know, particularly fighting the war for us, like Blackwater did. In Iraq, which has a separation of responsibility, I don't think there's any question. If Israel takes any aggressive action against, let's say Iran or even dramatically against Hezbollah again, that the United States will not be far behind in - just in terms of, as you say, maybe even using the Israelis as a proxy. But certainly, sharing the ideas and pumping up funds in support for the Israeli forces doing the actual military action, you're totally right in my book.
NEARY: All right. Thanks for your call, Chuck.
CHUCK: Thank you.
NEARY: And just one last question. We don't have much time, but you've mentioned the North Koreans - and I'm not sure we explained completely what the North Koreans were doing there at that site.
Mr. HERSH: Well, there's certainly were North Koreans intercepted. I learned this from basically, believe it or not, from the Syrians, initially. There - in Syria - when I go to Syria, I'm watched a little bit. I'm taking interviews with - accompanied to people's office. I did see some people - I've been there many times. That's what I do for a living. And I saw a senior officer who just, you know, without anybody knowing I was there, I went to his home. And he said to me, look, they were doing construction. There may have been high-level technicians, too, involved, and if there were rockets involved.
And basically, they were there. They were chattering away on phones back home, sending fax messages and money sent home. They were intercepted, and the Syrians are pretty sure the Israelis intercepted it. I've learned from the Americans they were there. And I think it was embarrassing for the Syrians. That was the fact they didn't want to advertise. And that's maybe another reason they didn't talk.
NEARY: All right.
Mr. HERSH: It's all mystifying.
NEARY: All right.
Seymour Hersh is a staff writer for the New Yorker. His article is in the February double issue, out today. Thanks so much for being with us.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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