It was one of the Israeli army's most successful operations, but was censored for over a decade. Now, a Haaretz investigation goes behind the scenes of the 2007 strike on 'The Cube,' shortly before it became an active nuclear reactor: From the intelligence failures and American foot-dragging, to the arguments at the top levels and the threats of a total war with Syria
The Syrian nuclear reactor, before the Israeli strike. Google Maps
This is the story of a single night more than a decade ago, and a daring, hair-raising operation executed by the Israeli air force, army and intelligence community that destroyed an atomic plant in northeastern Syria. Yet no less, it is also a story of a big intelligence failure – the worst since the Yom Kippur War, according to a number of top intelligence people – in which Israel somehow managed for years not to notice a reactor being built right under its nose, in a neighboring country on whose surveillance Israel was spending vast amounts of money.
The operation was the finest hour of a prime minister who just a year earlier had led Israel into a failed war in Lebanon and who less than two years later would be compelled to resign before going on to serve a prison term for crimes of corruption. And it was also the start of the intense hostility between that prime minister and his defense minister, which took root during that summer of 2007, and of the impassioned war over who among the top brass in the military organizations deserved the credit.
It is especially surprising that this is also the story of a secret that was maintained for a long time here in Israel despite the considerable personal interests of a number of those who are now involved in its publication. Only now, more than a decade later, has the military censor allowed the Israeli media to report the history of this affair – and even that, still with restrictions.
The Haaretz investigation of the bombing of the nuclear reactor is based on conversations with 25 of the individuals who were involved in the operation and in the events connected to it, in Israel and in the United States. One of the key figures who led to the decision to bomb the Syrian reactor, the head of the Mossad at the time, Meir Dagan, died in March last year.
“Many of the people involved in the action deserve to get credit and also demand it,” said one person who played a key role in planning the operation. “Ultimately, however, the bombing of the reactor would not have happened without three people who believed in the mission and pushed the operation forward, unstintingly, throughout: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Mossad chief Meir Dagan and Israel Air Force commander Eliezer Shkedi.”
A large, cubical building that was still under construction in the heart of the Syrian desert, not far from Deir al-Zour, was a focus of the Israeli defense establishment starting from the end of 2006. Very quickly, it was given a name: the Cube. As the months went by, the suspicion grew that beneath the broad roof of the building hid President Bashar Assad’s secret flagship project: a nuclear reactor produced in North Korea, intended to provide the younger Assad with the achievement that had eluded his father, Hafez Assad, on the battlefield and between wars – and to lead toward a point of strategic balance that could cancel out Israel’s clear military and technological advantage.
The first indication of the Syrian regime’s interest in purchasing nuclear research facilities came to the notice of Israel and the Western countries in the late 1990s, toward the end of the elder Assad’s rule. However, Israel began to pay serious attention to that inclination only after the discovery of a serious intelligence gap in another country: Libya.
“On December 19, 2003, a Saturday morning, I turned on the radio and heard on a news broadcast that the Americans and the British had persuaded Libya to dismantle its nuclear program,” says Amnon Sufrin, who was then head of the intelligence division at the Mossad. “The next morning I assembled my people and I said we had experienced two total failures here: We’d had absolutely no idea that such a program even existed and, second, we didn’t know that negotiations to dismantle it had been going on for eight months. We started to back-analyze the Libyan program and try to figure out where else in the region similar programs could be hiding.”
According to Sufrin, after a month and a half of investigating, the Mossad research team concluded that Syria was working on a nuclear program of its own. The Mossad intelligence division distributed a document with an assessment to that effect in February 2004. Meir Dagan was skeptical about the findings; Syria was not a top priority for Mossad activity and the assessment did not constitute a breakthrough in the gathering of substantial proof.
A similar possibility regarding Syria was also considered during those years at the research branch of Military Intelligence. In 2005, Col. (today reserve brigadier general) Eli Ben Meir had taken up the position of head of the technology field in the research branch. “Iran was the focus of our interest,” Sufrin says now, “but we delegated a team of researchers to examine the possibility of a nuclear program in Syria. All the intelligence people who knew Bashar told me: It’s not like Bashar. But when you put researchers on a project, if there’s something they will find it.”
In the course of the examination, the researchers identified the Cube. At a distant and isolated site called Al Kibar, less than a kilometer west of the Euphrates River, the Cube aroused their interest in particular. It was a square building with an area of about 1,600 square meters (more than 17,200 square feet), which was 20 meters (close to 66 feet) high. “We had satellite pictures of a large building in the middle of the desert, with no explanation,” says the MI chief at the time, Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin.
According to Sufrin, “The Koreans and the Syrians built a camouflage structure on top of the reactor that made it look like a factory from the outside. You don’t see what is happening inside. It is far from any settlement. There is no reason for anyone to be in this area except for herdsmen. We began to suspect that there, in broad daylight, a reactor was hiding.”
Rubble was scattered around the building and the place looked fairly neglected, perhaps intentionally so. There was not much traffic in the area. The people who were seen nearby mostly arrived on motorcycles; it looked as though the structure stood empty at night. No security arrangements – fences or guards – were visible there nor had batteries of ground-to-air missiles been stationed there for defense from air strikes.
The first research breakthrough occurred in November 2006. Major Y., a researcher in MI’s technology branch, composed a document headed “An Issue for Examination.” This is a well-known procedure in MI whereby, with the approval of the head of the organization and the head of the research division, a researcher is permitted to publish a dissenting assessment, even if it is not accepted by the chain of command, in order to prompt examination of a new hypothesis. Until then MI had been focusing on the more accepted channel of countries working their way toward a nuclear project – an installation for enriching uranium, based on centrifuges. Y. reached the conclusion that they were looking in the wrong place. Assad was building a plutonium nuclear reactor, he argued. The 20-page document was distributed to top defense officials. At the Mossad they remained skeptical.
In January 2007, a pipeline leading from the Cube to the Euphrates was identified in satellite photos. The researchers believed that this was the sign of the existence of a cooling system, an essential element in a reactor. At both MI and the Mossad, they started to act to confirm or refute the hypothesis proposed by Major Y. The Mossad led several overseas operations as part of that intelligence gathering. “Dagan assigned us the task of finding out whether or not there was a nuclear project,” says Rami Ben-Barak, a senior Mossad official at that time. “The approach was: confirm or rule out. There is no in-between. Meir Dagan was very determined. A lot of people told him that it wasn’t possible that there was a reactor, and that it would be a pity to waste the resources and the time. However we, under his orders, did not let go of it for a long time.”
Smoking gun in Vienna
The next breakthrough, in fact the turning point of the whole affair, occurred in Vienna in early March 2007. Israel has never officially acknowledged or accepted responsibility for it, and the following is based on an investigative report published by American journalist David Makovsky in The New Yorker in 2012. According to the report, Ibrahim Othman, head of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission, had come to Austria to participate in the deliberations of the International Atomic Energy Agency. A cell of Mossad agents from the Keshet unit broke into the apartment where Othman was staying and within less than an hour “vacuumed up” the information that was on the Syrian official’s personal computer, which had remained in the apartment while he was taking part in the conference.
Othman’s negligence turned out to be the worst security offense in the history of Syria. Had it not been for his carelessness and the Mossad’s brilliant work, it is doubtful that the operation to destroy the reactor would have taken place.
When the material taken from the computer was received in Israel, it was found to include about 35 photographs from inside the mysterious building in the Syrian desert. In the pictures, the inside of the reactor is visible, and in it are fusion cylinders and bars and also some Korean workers.
When the intelligence people analyzed the material from Vienna, they were appalled. The material left no room for doubt: The plutogenic reactor that Y. had written about did indeed exist – it had been found in the heart of the desert and was in advanced stages of construction, and nearing completion.
“The material was analyzed on a Wednesday night,” recalls Amnon Sufrin. “Dagan’s weekly meeting with the prime minister in Tel Aviv was scheduled for 8 A.M. the next day. It is a plutogenic reactor,” the head of the Mossad told Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
The intelligence people say they told him: “There are no more question marks. Now there are only exclamation points.” The prime minister “breathed a sigh and asked: ‘What do we do with this?’ We said to him: ‘We destroy.’” (In Olmert’s circle, as often happens in such cases, they remember an opposite course of events. “Dagan asked: ‘Mr. Prime Minister, what do we do?’ Olmert replied: ‘We destroy it.’”)
In a rare public reference to these developments while giving testimony in the trial against him in the affair involving Morris Talansky (involving unlawful acceptance of gifts of cash from a New York businessman), the prime minister related: “The head of the Mossad called me. I meet with him as a matter of course. It’s only rarely that a Mossad chief calls and says: ‘I have to see you.’ The Mossad chief arrives and sits in my office. They put on the table an intelligence finding of the type rarely encountered in this country. There was silence. I looked at them. He looked at me I knew that from that moment on nothing would be the same. [The threat] at the existential level is of an unprecedented order of magnitude.”
After the photographs were shown to nuclear experts, among the head of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission at the time, Gideon Frank, and his deputy, Eli Levita, it emerged that the Cube was indeed a North Korean reactor, which was in turn a copy of an outdated British reactor built in the 1950s. The technology experts at MI located the plans of the British original.
“We were able to say with certainty: This reactor is intended to produce plutonium – and for military purposes only,” says Yadlin.
Depressed PM and army
In Olmert’s circle they describe a bleak mood prevailing after the discovery. “It had never happened that they came to an Israeli prime minister and told him: Very close to your home something is being built that could destroy the state. This isn’t about bunkers with centrifuges 1,500 kilometers [more than 900 miles] away. This is right next door. This is very serious.”
In the background, of course, there was the historical memory of “the Begin doctrine” and the precedent of the bombing of the reactor in Iraq in 1981 (an operation in which MI chief Yadlin had been one of the eight pilots who carried out the attack). It was the prime minister at that time, Menachem Begin, who established the doctrine whereby Israel will not allow any of its foes in the Middle East to develop nuclear weapons.
Olmert was a very unpopular prime minister. Israel was still grappling with its disappointment after the Second Lebanon War. In some public opinion polls, the level of support for the premier didn’t rise above the single digits. In April 2007 the Winograd commission published its devastating interim report on the conduct of the war, in which it was very critical of Olmert’s functioning the previous year. The politicians were waiting in suspense for the final report, which was due to be published in January 2008. Alongside the urgent necessity of removing the surprising new threat in Syria, Olmert was keen to mend the flaws revealed in his functioning in Lebanon – as well as the public’s impression of him.
The vast majority of those who took part in the meetings describe a very sharp, determined leader, almost chomping at the bit. Moreover, this time careful attention was paid to the procedures of the discussions and decision-making, for the neglect of which Olmert was severely chastised in the interim report. The process, say many, was very organized, strictly by the book and a paragon of order by Israeli standards.
To hear opinions from individuals beyond the heads of the military and the intelligence communities, Olmert consulted (as did then-Defense Minister Amir Peretz, separately) other experienced people and external oversight teams. The advisers, as well as a number of ministers, first and foremost Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, were for the most part summoned individually for personal meetings with the prime minister at his residence, where they were informed about details of the affair, mostly by Yadlin and Dagan. Later, somewhat larger forums were also convened.
Olmert consulted, individually, three of the previous prime ministers: Shimon Peres (who a few months later was elected president of Israel), leader of the opposition Benjamin Netanyahu and citizen Ehud Barak. In those meetings Netanyahu and Barak were very firm in their opinion that Israel had to attack the reactor. Peres, who as leader of the opposition at the time of the bombing of the reactor in Iraq had expressed reservations about that attack as well, surprised Olmert with the suggestion that Israel should attempt to talk with the Syrians first. The prime minister chose to ignore this suggestion.
An extensive process of preparation got underway in the IDF. The then-newly appointed chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, found an army that was depressed and mired in a deep crisis after some of its top brass had resigned, while others were still fighting the conclusions of the internal investigations and on edge about what might be said about them in the final report on the Second Lebanon War. The war and the investigations revealed hugs gaps in the army’s capabilities and the readiness of its units. The new chief of staff initiated a process of rehabilitation but when he was shown the findings from Othman’s computer, Ashkenazi realized that he was facing a series of problems completely different from what he had been preparing for: how to get rid of the new threat in a way that would not spark a new war with Syria and Hezbollah – and if a war did break out – how to ensure that the IDF would win this time.
To make sure the reactor would be destroyed, it was necessary to deploy tremendous firepower, in the form of a relatively extensive aerial bombardment. However, an extensive action was liable to be perceived as a humiliation by President Assad and push him into a corner so that he would feel obliged to retaliate. A quiet and relatively clandestine action would probably be perceived in Syria less emotionally but in such a case, there would be no certainty that the nuclear threat had been eradicated. Olmert had to take into account a reaction that was liable to include direct hits on civilian and military infrastructures, from northern Israel to the Tel Aviv area.
The dilemma Israel faced with respect to the choice between effectiveness and secrecy did not end with the question of the operation itself. If the IDF had to prepare for the pessimistic scenario of Assad retaliating massively and a war breaking out – how could that be accomplished without preparing the units in advance, thereby revealing the secret and enabling the Syrians to prepare to thwart the bombing of the reactor?
Americans enter the picture
After mulling everything over, and at the advice of former Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, Olmert decided to share the sensitive new information about Syria with the Americans. He hoped that perhaps the George W. Bush administration would take it upon itself to destroy the reactor. Defense Minister Amir Peretz briefed his American counterpart Robert Gates, who was in Israel on a routine visit. Gates was “pretty much in shock.” The prime minister’s two close advisers, Yoram Turbovich and Shalom Turgeman, flew to Washington to brief top administration people. In Washington the Israeli delegation met with Vice President Dick Cheney and top people in the CIA and the National Security Council.
Gradually, it became clear that there were three competing approaches within the administration, and that the president was trying to choose among them. Cheney, as usual the rapacious hawk, wanted the United States to attack and destroy the reactor as a public and deterrent message, a warning against the development of additional secret nuclear programs in other countries. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was recommending a diplomatic move to thwart the reactor by means of applying pressure on Assad. Gates and some of Bush’s advisers believed that an attack should be left in Israel’s hands. They were concerned about the possibility of a blunder that could develop from mistaken intelligence information, as had happened to the Americans in the affair of the weapons of mass destruction (that were not found) on the eve of the Iraq War in 2003.
In mid-June, Olmert arrived in the United States for a meeting with Bush. Prior to the meeting the president consulted his advisers. Michael Hayden, the head of the CIA, wrote years later in The Washington Post that he told Bush that his agency had concluded that the site at Al Kibar was part of a nuclear weapons program and there was no other explanation for its existence. However, Hayden added a reservation: No other elements of such a program were identified, such as development of a warhead. Therefore, the findings from the reactor were presented as findings “at a low level of certainty.” In Israel they were surprised by that conclusion.
In his memoirs, Bush wrote that following Hayden’s assessment, he told Olmert at their meeting on June 19 that he could not justify an American attack on a sovereign state. Olmert implored Bush and Cheney to attack nevertheless, and argued that such a move would also help deter Iran. “I am able to defeat Syria,” said Olmert in that conversation, “but I need you to act there specifically because of the Iranian nuclear program.”
On July 13, Bush informed Olmert in a conversation over the direct and secure “red phone” line between the White House and the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem that he opposed a military attack on the reactor. However, said the president, he had decided to send an envoy to Syria to pose an ultimatum to Assad to demolish the reactor, under international supervision. The prime minister warned the American president that setting the diplomatic channel in motion would make it possible for the Syrians to play for time in the talks while hastening the completion of the construction of the reactor. Israel and the West, he said, would lose the element of surprise.
In the Israeli defense establishment, the concern was that if the diplomatic channel were employed, Assad was liable to position anti-aircraft batteries near the reactor or even to establish something like a kindergarten there as a “human shield.” The prime minister was also afraid of a leak to the media by American officials who opposed an Israeli attack. He succeeded in persuading Bush to halt the diplomatic move and to commit to preventing leaks. Olmert did not ask Bush for authorization of an Israeli attack but let the president understand that he was of a mind to order the IDF to act. “If you don’t do it, we will,” he said.
One of the president’s close advisers later told a senior Israeli official that Bush replied in his typical Texas style: “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.” Bush also had another crude observation, about Olmert: “You see why I love him? Because he’s got the world’s biggest balls.”
Barak strikes again
In the week the prime minister went to Washington, a person who did not share Bush’s enthusiasm for Olmert returned to the core of decision-makers in Israel: Ehud Barak. In mid-June the former prime minister won the primary for Labor Party leadership, replacing Peretz in that position, and he announced that he himself would be the new defense minister. Though the relations between Olmert and Barak were fairly good, and it appeared that Olmert wanted Barak in Defense, Barak had voiced some harsh criticism of the prime minister’s conduct during the war in Lebanon. He did not revise his opinion when they sat together in sensitive deliberations in the cabinet and in smaller forums. Olmert’s behavior toward top people in the defense establishment seemed too “folksy” to him – too much hugging and backslapping, not enough considered judgment. At times, Barak told someone, he had the feeling that Olmert was playing the role of a leader based on what he had seen in American movies.
The differences of opinion between Olmert and Barak on the matter of the reactor became evident relatively quickly. The prime minister was imbued with a sense of urgency and a desire to act. The prime minister was concerned about two possibilities that could thwart the operation – a prior leak to the media or the reactor becoming “hot” (activated) – a development that intelligence assessed was liable to happen toward the end of September. That was marked as a point of no return, because an attack on a “hot” reactor was liable to cause tremendous environmental damage.
Barak, however, began raising reservations. He believed that the operational plans the IDF had formulated for attacking the plant had not yet matured sufficiently and did not ensure complete success. He pushed for formulation of alternative proposals. Barak also thought an attack could embroil Israel in a war with Syria, in which it would again become clear that the IDF and the home front were not properly prepared. The new defense minister believed that before any attack on the reactor, the IDF had to be “98 percent prepared, not 80 percent.”
With the approach of summer, temperatures inside the conference rooms also rose. In a series of cabinet meetings, the hostility between the prime minister and his defense minister became more extreme. “These are discussions that none of the participants will ever forget,” says one of the cabinet ministers. “Barak tried to block approval of the operation and Olmert read out arguments from a piece of paper like a lawyer arguing in court, for the record. Come to think of it – the court of history. This was a breathtaking drama, and unfortunately it played out in front of the top military commanders.”
When Olmert expressed concern about the possibility that the Syrians would preempt Israel and activate the reactor, Barak downplayed the risk of attacking a “hot” reactor. A number of those who were present later observed that, as one of them put it, “Gideon Frank, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, blanched and nearly fainted. Attacking a hot reactor was liable to create tremendous environmental pollution. We said to Barak: For every baby who is born in the next 200 years along the Euphrates with a deformity or a genetic defect, they will blame us straightaway.” In a meeting on August 1, Barak forbade head of the IDF Planning Directorate Ido Nechushtan (who two years later would replace Shkedi as commander of the air force) to screen a presentation that reviewed the strategic picture and recommended a swift attack. Barak, shouting, argued that he had not authorized the presentation.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak, two days after the Israeli atrike. Photo REUTERS
Olmert, a few of the ministers and some of the army officers who clearly favored the prime minister, suspected Barak of being driven by hidden personal motives. The prevailing conspiracy theory held that Barak was waiting for the final version of the Winograd commission investigative report on the second Lebanon war, which was to be published within a few months, in the expectation that the commission would obligate Olmert to resign. Then, even if Livni were to replace him as prime minister, Barak would lead the Syria operation and take all the credit.
Barak’s behavior, says one of the top defense people, was simply deplorable, “Especially taking into account the disagreement about bombing the nuclear sites in Iran, which erupted two years later. Then, he in fact presented opposite arguments: Suddenly there wasn’t a problem in rushing to bomb, even though an attack in Iran was a far greater challenge than bombing in Syria. Historians in the future who will examine the minutes of those discussions won’t know what to do with this dissonance.”
In contrast, however, another senior officer says: “Had a war with Syria indeed broken out following the bombing and had the IDF been caught unprepared again, Barak was liable to have finished like Moshe Dayan after the Yom Kippur War. I don’t know what was going through his conspiratorial mind, but Barak’s view was correct in my opinion: Leave no stone unturned before you make such a fateful move.”
Barak, in a conversation with Haaretz, rejects the claims against him outright. All his arguments, he says, were to the point. It was in fact his comments that pushed the IDF to present alternative plans, one of which was ultimately the one that was carried out. And during the time that passed, the IDF’s preparedness for war was improved immeasurably. According to him, he did not recommend attacking a hot reactor, but rather said that it was necessary to prepare for any eventuality and that the reactor becoming operational should not cause the decision-makers in Israel to despair. Olmert, according to Barak, tended to act almost automatically, without due consideration. The disagreement between them was a meeting between “a certified lightweight who had never approved any real operational planning” (Olmert) and “a professional who had engaged in that for decades,” from the days of Sayeret Matkal (the elite commando force Barak had led), and up through the weekly discussions on operations and incursions in the defense minister’s and the chief of staff’s offices (Barak). There were no political considerations behind his recommendations.