WASHINGTON — The US prepared plans to attack Syria in 2007 after receiving evidence from Israel that the Syrian regime was en route to building a nuclear weapon, former secretary of defense Robert Gates revealed in his memoir, which was released Tuesday.
Israel has never fully disclosed the events leading up to its September 2007 strike against what was believed to be a Syrian nuclear weapons production site, but Gates’s memoir reveals that the US suffered a major intelligence failure while Israel brought back compelling evidence regarding Syria’s intentions.
In “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War,” a book that has drawn fire for its insider descriptions of still-sensitive material, Gates reveals that the US had identified the future site of the Syrian reactor two years earlier — some eight years after contacts are believed to have been established between Syria and North Korea. The intelligence trail, however, stopped there until spring 2007, when Israel provided the US with photos of the inside of the reactor itself.
Only then, he recounts, did US analysts conclude that the Syrian facility was similar to a North Korean reactor at Yongbyon, and based on the evidence turned over from Israel, US analysts believed that the reactor would be — once online — capable of producing plutonium for nuclear weapons.
“Early detection of a large nuclear reactor under construction in a place like Syria is supposedly the kind of intelligence collection that the United States does superbly well. Yet by the time the Israelis informed us about the site, the reactor construction was already well advanced,” Gates recalls. “This was a significant failure on the part of the US intelligence agencies, and I asked the president, “How can we have any confidence at all in the estimates of the scope of the North Korean, Iranian, or other possible programs given this failure? Surprisingly, neither the president nor Congress made much of it. Given the stakes, they should have.”
In a discussion that, according to Gates, “prefigured in many respects the arguments regarding the Iranian nuclear program in 2008 and later,” the second-term administration of George W. Bush was divided about how to respond.
Gates says that their “options were constrained by the fact that the Israelis had informed us of this stunning development and therefore were in a position to significantly influence — if not dictate — what could be publicly divulged and when.” Reactions from Bush’s closest advisers’ ran the gamut from vice president Dick Cheney, who pushed for an immediate attack, to Gates, who was highly reluctant.
Nevertheless, Gates did respond by asking Martin Dempsey, then acting commander of Central Command, to provide a number of military options and target lists associated with each.
At the same time, Gates argued against a military solution, leveraging a number of points that he says he listed on a piece of paper in front of him, including that “as much as US credibility on the existence of weapons of mass destruction had been limited, Israeli credibility is equally suspect, if not more so, in the Middle East, Europe, and maybe significant elements of the US public.” Gates also reiterated at least two times in the same subchapter that “US and Israeli interests are not always the same.”
Gates was also concerned that unilateral Israeli action “will be seen as provocative, aimed at restoring their credibility and deterrent after their indecisive war with Hezbollah and at shoring up a weak Israeli government.”
Gates, a former CIA official, suggested that other members of the administration — particularly those at the top — were excessively supportive of Israel. In the same chapter, Gates characterizes Bush and Cheney as “very pro-Israel” and said that Bush “greatly admired” then-prime minister Ehud Olmert.
Gates says he felt that the Israelis were pressing the US to act, perhaps even against its own interests. He claims to have warned Bush that “Olmert was trying to force the US’s hand” and told the president that “he should tell Olmert very directly that if Israel went forward on its own militarily, he would be putting Israel’s entire relationship with the United States at risk.”
The top defense official in America felt that he was trapped by the Israelis, recalling that “If we didn’t do exactly what [Olmert] wanted, Israel would act and we could do nothing about it. The United States was being held hostage to Israeli decision making.”
“I am, and always have been, strongly pro-Israel…but our interests are not always identical…and I’m not prepared to risk vital American strategic interests to accommodate the views of hard-line Israeli politicians,” Gates writes of the incident.
Gates’ account of the incident is striking for its detail regarding an otherwise secretive operation.
In his book “Decision Points,” Bush himself recalls cagily that “in the spring of 2007, I received a highly classified report from a foreign intelligence partner. We pored over the photographs of a suspicious, well hidden building in the eastern desert of Syria.”
“Our strong suspicion was that we had just caught Syria red handed trying to develop a nuclear weapon capability with North Korean help,” he continues.
Gates’ and Bush’s accounts dovetail regarding the intense pressure that Olmert put on the American leader to pursue — or at least enable — a military strike against Syria. According to Bush, in one phone call, Olmert addressed the president, telling him “George, I’m asking you to bomb that compound.”
Gates notes that a diplomatic route with a military option proved insufficient for Jerusalem. Bush asked Olmert in mid-July to allow the US to “take care of this” but Olmert responded that Israel saw a nuclear Syria as an existential threat which it could not “trust diplomacy to fix.”
In his discussion of these events of 2007, Gates’ memoir seems to draw parallels between the outcome of the Syrian attacks and lessons for future negotiations with Iran. “By not confronting Olmert, Bush effectively came down on Cheney’s side. By not giving the Israelis a red light, he gave the Israelis a green one.”