An Oct. 13 New York Times front-page story claiming American and
foreign intelligence confirmation that the Israeli strike on Syria last month was on a nuclear reactor being constructed with North Korean aid was based on misleading information leaked by Eliott Abrams and Stephen Hadley at the National Security Council. Other than Hadley and Abrams, there were no other American sources for the Times’s account.

There is no American satellite photography indicating that the area bombed was a nuclear site. Moreover, U.S. satellites and ground collector facilities did not detect any radiation emissions following the bombing, something that would have resulted if uranium or plutonium was actually present. A CIA briefing of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Oct. 8 concluded that the intelligence community has nothing that points to a Syrian nuclear program. The Israeli information on the alleged Syrian nuclear site is not being shared with most of the U.S. intelligence community to avoid provoking negative responses.

Some senior officials in the Bush administration are worried about the media campaign directed by Vice President Dick Cheney and carried out by Abrams and Hadley trying to link North Korea to a Syrian nuclear program. Based solely on Israeli-provided evidence, Cheney appears to actually believe that North Korea is helping the Syrians establish a nuclear program, and he has discounted the skepticism of the CIA. There is high-level concern over how decisions regarding Israeli and U.S. operations directed against Syria and Iran are being made and how key officials at Defense and State are being bypassed. Cheney is alleged to be directing the campaign from an underground operations center on the grounds of the Naval Observatory in Washington, where the vice president’s official residence is located. Cheney regularly remains underground, staying in contact through secure video conferencing, while his official motorcade proceeds to the White House each day as if he were in it.

An Israeli source has revealed that the Syrian raid was intended as a warning to the Iranians that Israel is fully capable of penetrating sophisticated air defenses. That was a likely consequence, but the real purpose of the incursion was to gather intelligence on a new anti-aircraft radar system being installed by Russia in both Syria and Iran. The system is called a synthetic aperture radar array. Forcing the Syrians to turn on their radar systems in response to an overflight is a way to test the effectiveness and characteristics of the system, but the Syrians apparently did not co-operate precisely because they feared that the Israelis would acquire valuable intelligence. The Israeli strike was conducted in co-ordination with the Pentagon, which is also concerned about the effectiveness of the new air defenses if there is an American attack on Iran.

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA Officer, is a partner in Cannistraro Associates, an international security consultancy.