Magazine article The American Conservative

Phantoms over Syria

Magazine article The American Conservative

Phantoms over Syria

Article excerpt

Eveything Israel wants you to know about its secret airstrike

ON SEPT. 6, Israeli F-15s and F-16s attacked a site near Dayr az-Zawr in northern Syria, though the strike wasn't confirmed for nearly two weeks. The Washington Post reported on Sept. 13 that according to a former Israeli official, "it was an attack against a facility capable of making unconventional weapons." Two days later, Syria had an accomplice: "Israel had recently provided the United States with evidenceknown by the code name 'Orchard,'" the Post reported, "that North Korea has been cooperating with Syria on a nuclear facility."

Beyond that, details are sketchy-perhaps deliberately so. On Sept. 19, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged the attack, but said it was "too early to discuss this subject" Pressed at a White House news conference the following day, President Bush twice refused to comment-though he did warn North Korea about selling nuclear weapons or expertise.

American intelligence has been unable to confirm the existence of any Syrian nuclear program, and the Post admitted, "[M]any outside nuclear experts have expressed skepticism that Syria, which has mostly focused on chemical and biological weapons, would be conducting nuclear trade with North Korea." But facts may not be prime property in this situation.

In the intelligence community, a disinformation operation is a calculated attempt to convince an audience that falsehoods about an adversary are true, either to discredit him or, in an extreme case, to justify military action. When such a campaign is properly conducted, information is leaked to numerous outlets over a period of time, creating the impression of a media consensus that the story is true, as each new report validates earlier ones.

We've been here before: the leaking of unreliable information to New York Times reporter Judith Miller was just one example of disinformation used to make the case for the invasion of Iraq. More recently, Iran has been on the receiving end of what appears to be an officially orchestrated but poorly executed disinformation campaign regarding its involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now a new operation-brought to us by the old players-may be unfolding.

A chronology of the case against Syria is revealing, and the role of former UN ambassador and leading neoconservative John Bolton is key. Bolton, now at the American Enterprise Institute, has repeatedly clashed with the intelligence community over the issue of Syrian intentions, most notably in 2002 and 2003 when he was undersecretary of state for arms control. At one point, Bolton was forced to strike from a speech language suggesting that Syria had a nuclear program. On another occasion, Bolton's judgments on Syria were challenged by Robert Hutchings, director of the National Intelligence Council, who charged that Bolton "took isolated facts and made much more of them ... cherry picking ... to present the starkest possible case."

On Aug. 31, one week before the Israeli attack on Syria, Bolton wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal that concluded, "We know that both Iran and Syria have long cooperated with North Korea on ballistic-missile programs, and the prospect of cooperation on nuclear matters is not far-fetched. Whether and to what extent Iran, Syria or others might be 'safe havens' for North Korea's nuclear-weapons development, or may have already benefited from it, must be made clear." Perhaps this was just good timing. Perhaps it was something more-possibly representing information provided by Bolton's excellent contacts within the Israeli government

Comments made by a State Department official on Sept 14, in the wake of the Israeli attack, bolstered the neoconservative argument that Syria is a serious threat. Andrew Semmel, acting deputy assistant secretary of state for nuclear non-proliferation policy, stated that Syria was on the U.S. nuclear "watch list" and that Damascus "might have" a number of "secret suppliers" from which to obtain nuclear equipment as part of a covert program. …

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