Defense minister regrets releasing details of attack on Syrian nuclear reactor
Too much talking and bickering over credit for 2007 strike

Defense minister regrets releasing details of attack on Syrian nuclear reactor

Liberman condemns public spat between former military intelligence and Mossad chiefs over who uncovered intel on reactor

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman leads a faction meeting of his Yisrael Beytenu party in the Knesset, March 12, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman leads a faction meeting of his Yisrael Beytenu party in the Knesset, March 12, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Wednesday said he regretted approving the publication of information on Israel’s airstrike on a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007, as former security officials locked horns over who was responsible for the success of the mission.

Earlier on Wednesday, Israel officially acknowledged that it destroyed the al-Kibar nuclear reactor in Deir Ezzor, ending a decade-long ban on Israeli publications from reporting on the raid.

Liberman, who spoke from Africa where he is on a three-day official visit, said the public spat that broke out Wednesday among various Israeli political and intelligence leaders “and the wave of mutual recriminations” made him regret giving the go-ahead to the military censor to release details of the mission.

“I am sorry I gave permission to the censor to publicize the affair,” he said.

A pilot and navigator from the Israeli Air Force’s 253rd Squadron prepare for an operation to bomb a Syrian nuclear reactor in Deir Ezzor on September 5, 2007. (Israel Defense Forces)

The fight for credit was also an “injustice” to the pilots who carried out the operation and the numerous members of the intelligence community involved in planning the operation, Liberman added.

“I urge everyone to act responsibly. Credit isn’t everything in life,” said Liberman.

The rubble of the Syrian al-Kibar nuclear reactor, which was destroyed by Israel, on September 6, 2007. (Israel Defense Forces)

In their haste to talk about the events, information about intelligence operations is being disclosed that could cause future harm to Israel’s security, Liberman said.

He said that when he returns to the country on Friday, he intends to reexamine censorship policies regarding books written by former senior officials. Ehud Olmert, the prime minister who approved the 2007 strike, is about to publish an autobiography which relates to the attack.

Liberman, who at the time of the raid was minister for strategic affairs, also rejected outright a claim by then-defense minister Ehud Barak, who said in an interview with Israel Radio that the mood in the cabinet room when the decision to bomb the reactor was taken was “hysterical and apocalyptic.”

Rather, Liberman said, there was an air of “seriousness and responsibility.”

Former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo speaks at a conference in memory of his predecessor as head of the spy agency, Meir Dagan, on March 21, 2018. (Tamir Bergig)

Earlier, Tamir Pardo, who was the Mossad’s deputy chief in 2007, said that Mossad agents were responsible for uncovering intelligence that led to the strike on the reactor. Pardo said the discovery of the reactor by the Mossad agents in mid-2006 corrected a “resounding intelligence failure” — referring to the years that elapsed before Israel knew definitively of the reactor’s existence.

Until that point, Israel had suspicions of the reactor’s existence, but lacked definitive evidence, Pardo said during a conference in memory of his predecessor as Mossad chief, Meir Dagan, who died in 2016.

The intelligence found by the Mossad agents was a collection of pictures taken inside the nuclear reactor, which was located in the Deir Ezzor region of northeastern Syria. The photographs confirmed Israel’s suspicions that Syria was constructing the reactor to enrich plutonium for nuclear weapons.

Pardo’s comments were seen as a snipe at the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate for failing to have picked up on the reactor’s existence beforehand.

Speaking to the Hebrew-media Ynet website, Amos Yadlin, who was head of the IDF intelligence unit in 2007, defended the unit’s actions at the time.

Former military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin in Jerusalem, February 22, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“Intelligence is a puzzle,” Yadlin said. “In order to get an intelligence picture of the issue, you need to put together, for example, a thousand pieces. Some come from human intelligence, some from satellite, from listening methods. In 2006, in the IDF Military Directorate, and in no other place, a young major came forward and said to me… ‘there is suspicion of a nuclear program in Syria.'”

Yadlin said that after taking over as head of the military intelligence unit in January 2006, he put an emphasis on uncovering nuclear programs in countries not known to have atomic capabilities.

“Regarding Syria, the assumption was that the country doesn’t have a nuclear infrastructure, there were no device, there is no capability, and that the country was busy with other thing and that the strategic balance with Israel was achieved with a heavy chemical weapons system,” said Yadlin.

Yadlin said the Syrians — like the North Koreans — hid the reactor building from satellite imaging inside a large hangar that appeared to be for agriculture.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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