The National Interest

Lessons of the Syrian Reactor

The office of the assistant to the president for national-security affairs in the West Wing of the White House is a spacious, well-lit corner room in a building where space is at a premium. It contains not only the national-security adviser’s large desk but also a table for lunch discussions and other small meetings as well as a couch and easy chairs for more relaxed discussions. In April 2007, this commodious setting was the scene of a remarkable meeting. Stephen Hadley, the national-security adviser at the time, welcomed Meir Dagan, head of the Mossad, who came with a special briefing for his American host. Dagan revealed a secret nuclear reactor in the final stages of construction in the Syrian desert, developed with the help of North Korea. Knowledge of this project constituted a stunning intelligence coup for Israel.

Later that year, on September 6, 2007, the Israeli Air Force destroyed Syria’s nuclear facility at Al Kibar along the Euphrates River. The mission emerged from more than two decades of comprehensive intelligence collection and analysis by American and Israeli intelligence services targeting Syria’s development of weapons of mass destruction. It was a dramatic demonstration of intelligence success—all the more so given the ongoing civil war that has devastated Syria since 2011. The world does not need to worry about a Syrian nuclear reactor under threat of capture by Islamic radicals. Israel took that concern off the table.

But the incident also demonstrated that once a policy-intelligence feedback loop becomes dysfunctional, as happened to the George W. Bush administration after it exaggerated and distorted intelligence estimates to justify the Iraq War, there are serious policy implications. Israel wanted America to take out the reactor, but Bush was constrained by an intelligence community unwilling to cooperate with another major military operation based primarily on intelligence data.

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