Five years ago, Israeli Mossad agents broke into the Vienna home of Syria’s Atomic Agency director, where they found pictures taken inside a nuclear reactor in Syria. A few months later, eight Israeli fighter jets dropped 17 tons of explosives on the Syrian site, destroying it.

These details and the full story of the attack, dubbed Operation Orchard, against Syria’s nuclear reactor near al-Kibar in September 2007, were reported in the New Yorker magazine on Monday. Israel has never publicly claimed credit for the strike, and Syria has never acknowledged that its reactor was destroyed.

In March 2007, according to the magazine piece by David Makovsky, Israeli agents forced their way into the home of Ibrahim Othman, the head of Syria’s nuclear program. The break-in took place in light of growing concerns in the US and Israel over Syria’s nuclear ambitions, and intelligence reports about the facility in the northeastern desert region of Syria.

The raid provided the information Israeli decision-makers were looking for. Dozens of pictures from inside the facility showed North Korean workers in the facility, and the design indicated the structure was, indeed, a plutonium nuclear reactor.

Israel then decided to destroy the reactor, in accordance with a doctrine established by prime minister Menachem Begin in 1981, when it bombed Iraq’s Osirak reactor: never to allow enemy countries to obtain nuclear weapons.

All those summoned by Olmert signed a secrecy agreement before being debriefed

Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan presented the new information obtained in the 2007 break-in to Ehud Olmert, the prime minister. Olmert in turn shared it with security and intelligence officials and the country’s former prime ministers — Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu.

The subsequent decision-making process described in the piece could provide some insight into the possible process of the current debate over an Israeli strike in Iran.

First, all those summoned by Olmert signed a secrecy agreement before being debriefed. “Amir Peretz, the Defense Minister; Gabi Ashkenazi, the Israel Defense Force’s chief of staff; Amos Yadlin, the IDF. head of military intelligence; Yuval Diskin, the head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s security service; and Dagan, of the Mossad — met most Fridays from late March of 2007 through early September. Each member signed a secrecy agreement.”

Next, Olmert discussed the data with the Bush administration in Washington, which started its own investigation. Bush, Makovsky reported, was still traumatized over the lack of proper information regarding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. The president reportedly said of the information, and the possible repercussions of action against Syria, “Gotta be secret, and gotta be sure.”

A CIA task force was established. It “compared ‘handheld’ photographs of the site with ‘overheads’ taken by American satellites.” The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency confirmed the two sets of pictures matched, as did American nuclear experts.

Israel wanted to take military action before the reactor was active. It feared a late strike could result in the Euphrates river being heavily polluted. Washington didn’t see eye-to-eye with Jerusalem when it came to the Syrian timetable and nuclear weapons program, even though it agreed on most of the other details.

Two words uttered in June ’07, at the halfway mark between the break-in in Vienna and the attack in Syria, led former president Bush to back down from military action, Makovsky writes: “Recounting that period for a 2011 Washington Post article, former CIA director Michael Hayden said that he ‘told the President that Al Kibar was part of a nuclear weapons program’ and that ‘we could conceive of no alternative uses for the facility.’ But, because they ‘could not identify the other essentials of a weapons program,’ such as a reprocessing plant or active work on a warhead, Hayden wrote, ‘we cautiously characterized this finding as ‘low confidence.’”

Olmert had hoped the US would lead a strike on the reactor, but when Washington decided not to use military action, he decided Israel would act swiftly and unilaterally.

Preparations for military action shifted into a high gear in late-summer. Olmert summoned and briefed cabinet members, always having them sign a secrecy agreement before telling them anything.

“On September 1st, Olmert’s advisor told the White House that preparations were almost complete. Israel informed one other country’s intelligence service before the strike — Britain’s MI6 — but did not share the exact timing of the attack with either country,” the article said.

Israeli Air Force F-16B jets, June 2011 (photo credit: Ofer Zidon/Flash90)

Israeli Air Force F-16B jets, June 2011 (photo credit: Ofer Zidon/Flash90)

On September 5, the entire cabinet, with the single exception of Avi Dichter, voted in favor of military action. Barak, Olmert and foreign minister Tzipi Livni were given the authority to decide the exact timing of the strike.

“After the cabinet session, Olmert, Barak, and Livni reconvened in the briefing room adjacent to Olmert’s office. The chief of staff came into the room and recommended attacking that night… After the chief of staff left, Olmert, Barak, and Livni voted unanimously to proceed.” The order was given to the IDF, and the Air Force scrambled.

Just before midnight on September 5, eight fighter jets — four F-16s and four F-15s — took off toward their target. The jets flew along the Mediterranean sea before turning east and following the Syria-Turkish border. Using electronic jamming devices, Israel blinded Syria’s early warning systems.

In the article, the moments leading up to the attack are described as follows: “In Tel Aviv, in a room of the underground IAF command-and-control center known as ‘the pit,’ Olmert, Barak, Livni, and senior security officials followed the planes by radar. The room would serve as a bunker for Olmert in the event that the strike sparked a war; the Israelis had also prepared a military contingency plan.

Air Force commander Eliezer Shkedi “tracked the pilots by audio in an adjacent room. Sometime between 12:40 and 12:53 A.M., the pilots uttered the computer-generated code word of the day, ‘Arizona,’ indicating that seventeen tons of explosives had been dropped on their target. ‘There was a sense of elation,’ one participant recalled. ‘The reactor was destroyed and we did not lose a pilot.’”

The article reports: “As the planes returned to their bases, Olmert went to his secondary office, at the Kirya defense complex, in Tel Aviv, and asked to be connected to Bush, who was in Australia. ‘I just want to report to you that something that existed doesn’t exist anymore,’ Olmert told him. ‘It was done with complete success.’”

Since the attack five years ago, Syria has denied the site was intended for nuclear purposes. Israel has never officially confirmed it carried out the bombing. “Three weeks after the strike, President Assad told the BBC that Israeli warplanes had attacked an unused military building,” the report notes.

“Even as confirmation of some sort of strike came out in the world press, Syria did not strike back. This reinforced Israel’s initial psychological reading: as long as Assad could deny the existence of the reactor, he would not feel pressured to retaliate. The Israelis helped secure that zone of denial. They briefed their regional allies, including Egypt and Jordan, and urged their leaders to refrain from making public statements about the strike.”

The so-called Begin Doctrine, meanwhile, may again be relevant in 2012, with Israel reportedly considering a strike at Iran’s nuclear facilities. The likelihood of a unilateral resort to force, believed to have been high earlier this summer, is said to have receded of late. American politicians and military chiefs, and key Israeli figures including President Peres, have publicly opposed an imminent Israeli strike.

“Yet the situation in Iran differs fundamentally from the Syrian case,” the New Yorker piece notes. “The Syrian affair was known to only a small number of officials in Damascus, Israel, and Washington, whereas the prospect of striking Iran’s nuclear program has been vigorously discussed in public. Experts have pointed to the risk of civilian casualties and prolonged retaliation. What’s more, a key Iranian site lies deep underground outside the holy city of Qom, and it is strongly fortified; an attack on it would run a higher risk of failure. A strike might set back the Iranian program, but for how long, and at what cost? Some Israeli officials have expressed concern that a strike would only provide Iran with justification to pursue its nuclear program.”

Makovsky quotes Olmert as saying, “Each case must be examined separately… The Iraqi case was different from the Syrian case, and the Syrian case is different from the Iranian case… Worse comes to worst, and all options have been tried, then, naturally, it may force Israel to act to defend its existence… But it must be clear that we tried with the international community, and particularly with the United States, to act together before we resort to the last option of an Israeli military operation.”