February 4, 2008 | 11:53 pm
Posted by Brad A. Greenberg
The answer to many of the questions associated with Israel’s summer air raid of a Syrian military facility remain unknown but to a few high-level Israeli and likely American officials, according to Seymour Hersh, who was on “Talk of the Nation” tonight discussing the “act of war,” which he wrote about for this week’s New Yorker.
At a news conference on September 20th, President George W. Bush was asked about the incident four times but said, âIâm not going to comment on the matter.â The lack of official statements became part of the story. âThe silence from all parties has been deafening,â David Ignatius wrote in the Washington Post, âbut the message to Iranââwhich the Administration had long suspected of pursuing a nuclear weaponââis clear: America and Israel can identify nuclear targets and penetrate air defenses to destroy them.â
It was evident that officials in Israel and the United States, although unwilling to be quoted, were eager for the news media to write about the bombing. Early on, a former officer in the Israel Defense Forces with close contacts in Israeli intelligence approached me, with a version of the standard story, including colorful but, as it turned out, unconfirmable details: Israeli intelligence tracking the ship from the moment it left a North Korean port; Syrian soldiers wearing protective gear as they off-loaded the cargo; Israeli intelligence monitoring trucks from the docks to the target site. On October 3rd, the London Spectator, citing much of the same information, published an overheated account of the September 6th raid, claiming that it âmay have saved the world from a devastating threat,â and that âa very senior British ministerial sourceâ had warned, âIf people had known how close we came to World War Three that day thereâd have been mass panic.â
However, in three months of reporting for this article, I was repeatedly told by current and former intelligence, diplomatic, and congressional officials that they were not aware of any solid evidence of ongoing nuclear-weapons programs in Syria. It is possible that Israel conveyed intelligence directly to senior members of the Bush Administration, without it being vetted by intelligence agencies. (This process, known as âstovepiping,â overwhelmed U.S. intelligence before the war in Iraq.) But Mohamed ElBaradei, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations group responsible for monitoring compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, said, âOur experts who have carefully analyzed the satellite imagery say it is unlikely that this building was a nuclear facility.â
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