The latest disclosure by CIA Director Michael Hayden won't exactly bolster confidence in his beleaguered organization, the wider intelligence community, or the U.S. State Department.
Changing an assessment that was made less than a year ago, the CIA now concludes that Syria was close to becoming a nuclear power.
Speaking with reporters after a recent speech at Georgetown University, Hayden said that new intelligence information from Israel prompted the revised assessment. From the World Tribune:
In the course of a year after they got full up they would have produced enough plutonium for one or two weapons," Hayden said.
The new assessment was that Syria was weeks away from operating a North Korean-built plutonium production plant near the Turkish border. That facility, the intelligence community assessed, could have produced up to two bombs in the first year of operation.
Officials acknowledged that the U.S. assessment marked a near reversal of that in July 2007 when Israel provided aerial photographs of the plant and a video of the North Korean scientists inside. At the time, the officials said, the CIA and State Department said the North Korean facility — destroyed by the Israel Air Force in September 2007 — was years away from being completed and even tested.
Sound familiar? Don't forget, this is the same agency that tells us (publicly) that Iran won't have a nuclear weapon until the middle of the next decade--at the earliest. And, of course, the CIA played a leading role in crafting last year's flawed NIE on Tehran's nuclear efforts, declaring that key elements of the program were halted for several years, while admitting--in a footnote--that essential tasks (i.e., uranium enrichment) continued apace. You don't need to be an intelligence analyst to understand that the CIA had already adopted a similar "years away" position on Syria's nuclear program.
How did the agency (and other U.S. intel organizations) come so close to blowing the Syria call? For starters, it's obvious that Israel had far better sources--and reporting--from inside the country and apparently, inside the nuclear facility. That video of North Korean technicians at the nuclear complex wasn't taken by a spy satellite, it came from someone with direct access to the program and the facility. By comparison, our HUMINT reportig from Syria appears to be as bad as our spies in Iran.
More distressingly, there are also indications that turf battles and inter-agency politics also influenced the assessment. As the World Tribune observes:
Officials acknowledged that the State Department, particularly Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sought to play down the Israeli evidence. They said Ms. Rice and her aides recruited CIA analysts who asserted that the Syrian facility, termed Al Kibar, was not designed for an atomic bomb.
Ms. Rice and Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill were said to have argued that any determination of a North Korean nuclear facility in Syria would torpedo U.S.-led negotiations for Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. Officials said Israel did not report any uranium shipments to Al Kibar.
In other words, many of the same factors that led to the faulty NIE on Iran's nuclear program were producing a similar assessment on Syria--until the Israelis offered irrefutable evidence. At that point, the CIA had little choice but to climb on the analytical bandwagon.
Despite that rather painful conclusion, General Hayden tried to put a positive spin on the revised assessment, claiming:
Our team effort on the Al Kibar reactor is a case study in rigorous analytic tradecraft, skillful human and technical collection, and close collaboration with our community colleagues and liaison partners," Hayden said on April 24. Our officers put in long hours on this issue for many months, and their hard work paid off by directly advancing our nation's security and that of our allies."
But the CIA's reversal on the Syrian nuclear program--and the State Department's efforts to influence the assessment--are anything but reassuring. Admittedly, the CIA faced a difficult task in deciphering the intentions of Bashir Assad and his North Korean partners. With a dearth of HUMINT reporting from inside the country, agency analysts were forced to rely on "national technical means" to monitor that facility on the Euphrates. And by most accounts, the Syrians and North Koreans did a good job in hiding the complex. Did we mention that both Damascus and Pyongyang are highly proficient at denial and deception?
Relying on the "old standbys" of analytical tradecraft (satellite imagery, SIGINT and sketchy HUMINT reporting), the CIA reached a familiar conclusion; if the facility on the Euphrates was a reactor, it was years away from completion and operation. We'd also guess that factions within the CIA--the same groups at war with the Bush Administration--were pushing that conclusion and played a key role in making it our "official" position, until the Israelis proved otherwise.
There's something very disconcerting about the agency's willingness to model Syrian nuclear efforts along the Iranian template. True, intel analysis typically errs on the side of caution, but the initial Syrian assessment appears to be another example of fitting the facts to a particular (and convenient) model. With apologies to General Hayden, there's nothing particularly rigorous about that. It's even more disturbing to hear that the State Department tried to downplay obvious nuclear ties between Damascus and Pyongyang, lest those disclosures disrupt the Six Party nuclear talks.
Neither the CIA nor the State Department covered themselves in glory on this one. We'll give the folks at Langley grudging credit for accepting obvious evidence from the Israelis (what's that line about a blind hog?). Meanwhile, we can only shake our heads at the team from Foggy Bottom. Just how much intelligence are they willing to reject in pursuit of their ill-advised nuclear accord with North Korea?