The Great Nuclear Mystery


Photos released last week of what the CIA claims was a secret nuclear facility in Syria, cast a new and alarming light on the issues of policing nuclear non-proliferation.

The images were released as part of a brief to Congress on the events surrounding the bombing by Israeli jets of a secret Syrian installation in that country’s remote eastern desert.

The CIA claims Syria was building a secret nuclear facility with help from North Korea. It released photos and a video which it claimed showed that the facility was essentially identical to the North Korean reactor at Yongbyong.

That F-15 jets from the Israeli air force did indeed bomb a Syrian target on 6 September 2007 is not in question. Both Israel and Syria have issued statements confirming the bombing.

It’s the events that led up to and followed the bombings that make the case so interesting.

Why, for instance, was the official Syrian response so muted? Immediately after the attack, Syria denounced Israel’s incursion into its airspace, but gave few details of the bombing, merely noting that the jets had released some munitions over an unpopulated area. Even a fortnight later, the Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa was back-peddling. "I cannot reveal the details," he told the London Times on 20 September. "All I can say is the military and political echelon is looking into a series of responses as we speak. Results are forthcoming." It wasn’t until October 1 that Syrian President Bashar Assad confirmed in a BBC interview that a target on the ground had indeed been destroyed, though he added it was "only a building, a construction".

What Assad didn’t add was that only days after the attack, the wreckage of the site had been quietly bulldozed by the Syrians.

Likewise, Israel kept notably quiet about the raid, especially in comparison to its headline-grabbing announcement immediately after the 1981 bombing of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear facility at Osirak. Despite this, there were several reports that the authorisation for the raid went to the highest level (as it must have, given that it was in legal terms an act of war). The Sunday Times reported that Israeli Defence Minister and former Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, personally directed the raid, which used on-the-ground laser targeting from Israeli special forces.

Respected journalists like Sarah Baxter from The Times and Seymour Hersh from the New Yorker began to follow the story closely.

As Hersh reported in the New Yorker in February: "By the end of October, the various media accounts generally agreed on four points: the Israeli intelligence community had learned of a North Korean connection to a construction site in an agricultural area in eastern Syria; three days before the bombing, a ‘North Korean ship’, identified as the Al Hamed, had arrived at the Syrian port of Tartous, on the Mediterranean; satellite imagery strongly suggested that the building under construction was designed to hold a nuclear reactor when completed; as such, Syria had crossed what the Israelis regarded as the ‘red line’ on the path to building a bomb, and had to be stopped. There were also reports – by [US] ABC News and others – that some of the Israeli intelligence had been shared in advance with the United States, which had raised no objection to the bombing."

More questions loomed. If the site really was a nuclear reactor or enrichment facility, why wasn’t there a tell-tale plume of radioactive dust after the explosion? Was this really a nuclear facility? Hersh quoted Mohamed ElBaradei, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency as saying, "Our experts who have carefully analysed the satellite imagery say it is unlikely that this building was a nuclear facility."

The mystery continued long enough to become a story in itself, as journalists started to write about the refusal of Israel and the US to officially comment on the raid. Which makes last week’s CIA revelations to Congress all the more important.

If the Syrians really were building a nuclear facility with North Korean assistance, why has it taken so long for the US to make an official statement?

The answer may have nothing to do with the Middle East. Instead, according to several reports, this new CIA intelligence briefing is really about gaining leverage for a tough negotiation stand against North Korea at the current six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program. That’s certainly what US Republican congressman Peter Hoekstra believes. He told CNN’s Late Edition, "I think the Administration believes it will help them get to a deal with North Korea."

It seems fairly clear that North Korea was involved. As Hersh reported, a 1700 tonne freighter, the Al Hamed, docked at the Syrian port of Tartous only three days before the air strike. Haaretz later reported that the shipping reports for the Al Hamed had been altered, changing its nationality from North Korean to South Korean for its passage through the Suez Canal. As Australians might recall from the Pong Su affair, dodgy freighters are a North Korean specialty. Now Japanese news network NHK is reporting that as many as 10 North Koreans may have been killed in the attack.

Can we believe the CIA? Of course we can’t, as the events of 2003 made all too clear. Saddam’s missing WMD program means that US intelligence can not now be taken at its word. And the credibility of US military intelligence in general is now under serious question, in the wake of an extensive New York Times investigation that revealed that the Pentagon used retired generals posing as "independent military analysts" to disseminate its propaganda. No wonder the Syrians are claiming the CIA photographs were fabricated.

This is the context behind Mohammad ElBaradei’s criticism of Israel and the US’s failure to publicly release their intelligence sooner: "the unilateral use of force by Israel is undermining the due process of verification that is at the heart of the non-proliferation regime," he said in a statement.

It’s further evidence if more were needed, of the fragility of the international non-proliferation regime, and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty itself.

Yet despite the very dangerous world we live in, Australia remains more than happy to let mining giants BHP and Rio Tinto sell their uranium to the rest of the world, especially at its current high spot prices. Already this year, Kevin Rudd’s Resources Minister Martin Ferguson has quietly reconvened the Uranium Industry Framework, a pro-uranium and pro-nuclear advisory group hand picked by the previous government. As Katherine Murphy of The Age reported on April 2, policies on the group’s agenda include "a forthcoming information campaign, paid for by the uranium industry, to address public concern about uranium mining."

"Some countries see nuclear as part of their commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," Ferguson is quoted in the article as saying. Of course, some of those countries – such as India – also maintain nuclear weapons programs and have withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

When Australia agreed to sell uranium to India last year, Kevin Rudd in Opposition was highly critical of the decision. "It is a very bad development indeed when we have the possibility of the government of Australia stepping outside the nonproliferation treaty, saying it’s okay to sell uranium to a country which isn’t a signatory," Rudd told reporters. "If that is what the government has done, it is wrong."

So far, Rudd has stuck to his guns, vetoing Indian uranium sales until they sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty. But in other areas, Labor’s uranium policy is changing. The "three mines" policy is gone, abandoned at the 2007 Party Conference. It remains to be seen how long Labor’s inconsistent support for uranium production, but not nuclear power generation, will last in the face of environmental reality and economic opportunity.

What can’t be denied is the danger the world faces from uncontained nuclear proliferation. After all, the jump from peaceful uranium generation to nuclear weapons can be as simple as a set of blueprints from AQ Khan.


Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.