September 15, 2011

Bob Woodward wrote a curious op-ed this week about the Bush administration’s response to the secret al-Kibar nuclear reactor built by Syria and North Korea. As officials who participated in the administration’s deliberations, we believe that Woodward’s account — and that of the anonymous sources who gave him background information — represents a revisionist and misleading history. Woodward’s op-ed purports to demonstrate that then-Vice President Dick Cheney, who advocated a U.S. strike to destroy the Syrian reactor, failed to learn important lessons from intelligence failures in Iraq. In fact, it is Woodward who misunderstands the reality of al-Kibar.

First, Woodward’s account of the intelligence about Syria’s nuclear program is woefully incomplete. He neglects to mention three other sites in Syria that the CIA suspected were related to al-Kibar. In the four years since Israel destroyed the reactor, Syria has refused access to these sites, despite repeated requests from the International Atomic Energy Agency. Together, these activities indicated a broad-based covert nuclear program that had been underway for nearly a decade. As for the reactor itself, it was in the middle of the desert and — according to the CIA — “was not configured to produce electricity.” For what likely purpose was it built, then, if not to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons?

As a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Syria could have legitimately built a civilian nuclear power plant under the auspices of the IAEA. Instead, it chose to violate its international treaty obligations by secretly cooperating with North Korea to build a reactor well-suited for producing plutonium for nuclear weapons. At no point during our deliberations were U.S. intelligence analysts able to identify a reprocessing facility to turn the spent fuel into weapons-grade plutonium, and everyone was mindful of the debacle surrounding the bad intelligence in Iraq. But we also knew that in 1991, the world had dramatically underestimated how close Saddam Hussein was to a nuclear device. More often than not, history teaches that foolproof evidence becomes available only when it is too late. At al-Kibar, no intelligence analysts were able to alert policymakers that a reactor even existed until irrefutable evidence emerged in April 2007.

As Cheney relates in his memoir, he asked repeatedly over a period of years before 2007 about reports of North Korean nuclear officials traveling to Syria. U.S. intelligence analysts acknowledged the reports but had low confidence that any nuclear cooperation existed because of a lack of hard evidence. It was only when the Israelis produced photos of a nearly completed reactor in mid-2007 that low-confidence judgments switched to high-confidence judgments. Still, because we had no photos of a reprocessing facility, the analysts stuck to their low-confidence judgment about a weapons program.

Woodward’s benign view aside, advisers to President George W. Bush had few doubts about the true nature of Syria’s nuclear cooperation with North Korea and treated it as a deadly threat. Senior policymakers, including CIA Director Michael Hayden, reached consensus early on about Syria’s intentions. In meetings with the president’s top advisers, Hayden made it clear that he believed the facility was connected to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The New York Times reported in April 2008 that, despite having failed to identify a reprocessing facility, the intelligence community “had told President Bush . . . they could think of no other explanation for the reactor” than developing nuclear weapons.

The real dispute was what to do about the most brazen nuclear proliferation case in history. Despite Bush’s October 2006 threat of serious consequences if North Korea proliferated nuclear technology, Pyongyang and Damascus persisted with the reactor. Here was the world’s worst proliferator providing nuclear assistance to one of the world’s worst state sponsors of terrorism — which also happened to be facilitating attacks on American troops in Iraq. It is hard to imagine a more egregious challenge to the Bush Doctrine and America’s war against terrorism.

There were legitimate policy arguments for and against destroying the reactor, and the president’s advisers made them. Some were concerned, for example, about sparking a wider war with Syria. Some believed that the threat could be handled diplomatically. Cheney cast valid doubt on the international community’s meager record in preventing rogue states from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Some of us believed the United States should attack the reactor. Some believed Israel should act. Others were sympathetic, in principle, to a U.S.-led diplomatic initiative. Whatever our individual views, Woodward is dead wrong to present the vice president’s arguments as unreasonable. His advice was seriously considered at the time, and his claims look even more prescient in hindsight.

Ultimately, when President Bush decided against military action, the Israelis took it upon themselves to destroy the reactor. Syria then spent months trying to sanitize the site and stonewall the IAEA — confirmation of its non-peaceful intentions. The Israeli attack in September 2007 was flawless, Syria and North Korea did not lash out, and a dire proliferation threat was eliminated for good. America and the world are safer for it.

Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was deputy national security adviser in 2007. Eliot Cohen, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, was counselor of the State Department in 2007. Eric Edelman, the Hertog practitioner in residence at SAIS, was undersecretary of defense for policy in 2007. John Hannah, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, was national security adviser to the vice president in 2007.

Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle East policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, was deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush.