Yet in his new memoir, “In My Time,” Cheney shows he has not fully absorbed that lesson when he writes about the administration’s response to the 2007 discovery of a nuclear reactor in Syria that the North Koreans had helped build.
In Cheney’s telling, the evidence showed “a clandestine nuclear reactor, built by two terrorist-sponsoring states.” Given the potential threat, he argued privately to Bush, and later to top national security officials, that the United States should destroy the reactor.
In a National Security Council session that June, he writes, “I again made the case for U.S. military action against the reactor. Not only would it make the region and the world safer, but it would also demonstrate our seriousness with respect to non-proliferation. It would enhance our credibility in that part of the world . . . . But I was the lone voice. After I finished, the president asked, ‘Does anyone here agree with the vice president?’ Not a single hand went up around the room. I had done all I could, and I’m not sure the president’s mind would have been changed if the others had agreed with me.”
He notes with some relish that two months later the Israelis took unilateral action and destroyed the reactor. The clear implication is that Bush and the others had lost their nerve, that they lacked the necessary spine to act as he had recommended.
But accounts from others in these meetings, a public briefing and Bush’s own memoir present a dramatically different picture of the intelligence on the Syrian reactor.
Cheney does not reveal that then-CIA Director Michael V. Hayden had a team working for months to examine the intelligence on the Syrian reactor. Participants at the meetings say that Hayden presented his findings to Bush, Cheney and the others before Cheney made his arguments for a military strike.
According to a principal participant, Hayden made four points, saying: “That’s a reactor. I have high confidence. That Syria and North Korea have been cooperating for 10 years on a nuclear reactor program, I have high confidence. North Korea built that reactor? I have medium confidence. On it is part of a nuclear weapons program, I have low confidence.”
Hayden emphasized the last sentence to underscore his uncertainty. He later told others that he stuck to the intelligence facts and intentionally shaped his presentation that way to discourage a preemptive strike because the intelligence was weak.
According to the CIA, there was no evidence of plutonium reprocessing capability at the site or nearby in that region of Syria, though a reactor of that type would be capable of producing plutonium for nuclear weapons. In addition, there was no identifiable means to manufacture uranium fuel.