Has IDF Intelligence learned the lessons from the Syrian reactor strike?

A number of the lessons we learned at that time are still relevant today.

By ELI BEN MEIR
March 21, 2018 09:27
A picture of all the IAF pilots that participated in the operation of bombing a Syrian nuclear react

A group picture of all the IAF pilots that participated in the operation of bombing a Syrian nuclear reactor site in 2007. (photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S OFFICE)

Up until now, the “secret security affair,” aka the Israeli attack on the Syrian nuclear reactor, has only been reported in foreign media due to censorship regulations. Now that it has been approved for publication in Israeli media, too, I am excited to recall that period 10 years ago when I served as head of the IDF Technological Intelligence Department in the Research Division and later as deputy head of the entire division. In essence, I was the leading IDF intelligence officer at the time of the attack.

I have many and varied memories from that time. My department was the first to uncover the existence of the nuclear reactor, just a few months before the attack took place. We immediately alerted our superior officers and then continued to be involved in the progress of the affair. We participated in dozens of deliberations in which the situation was assessed and then reassessed and details about a possible attack were discussed. We carried out numerous simulations and articulated what the probable reactions from the Syrians and especially Bashar Assad could be.

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Ironically enough, the actual attack took place the same evening as the wedding of two of my colleagues, Liron, who was the IDF chief of staff’s secretary, and Oron. For many days and nights following the attack, we continued to closely observe all activity in Syria so that Israel would be ready in case Damascus decided to retaliate.

I’m sure that numerous commentaries and personal accounts will now be written about that fateful night – in fact, I believe there are enough to fill dozens of books and movies. But without going into too much detail, discussing controversial issues or who deserves credit for different aspects of the campaign, there are a number of issues that must first be examined so that the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate can be sure to learn the necessary lessons.

The courage/ability to express a differing opinion

The researchers in the IDF Technological Intelligence Department that I commanded from the end of 2005 suspected that there was secret nuclear activity taking place in Syria, but we could not prove this unequivocally. Throughout 2006, my team and I fought against various officials in IDF intelligence and the Mossad in an effort to convince them to allocate resources and manpower to investigate this threat. Despite the fact that I was met with great resistance, I was not deterred and continued to lobby for additional funding and to present our findings at every possible forum in Israel as well as overseas, even if we knew there was little chance we’d be listened to.
Colonel A. on the 2007 IAF bombing of a Syrian nuclear reactor site. (Marc Israel Sellem/IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

The importance of intelligence research as the primary axis of intelligence gathering

This affair makes it unequivocally clear that intelligence gathering, and especially the research department, is the mainstay of Military Intelligence. If it weren’t for the IDF Technological Intelligence Department, the State of Israel would have woken up one morning to a declaration by Bashar Assad that an active nuclear reactor exists in Syria! The fact that the number of research staffers has been cut, the unit’s status lowered, and its influence on information collection reduced, has harmed the ability of Military Intelligence units to keep Israel safe.

Everyone can predict the future and argue about the past

Unfortunately, it is difficult to find people today who will admit that they rejected out of hand the numerous assertions we made proving that a nuclear reactor existed in Syria. (These objections continued from the end of 2005 until the beginning of 2007.) This continued, despite the fact that there were many people who rejected these facts.

But because we are not discussing the issue from the point of view of those who opposed carrying out the attack, we are not learning from our mistakes.

Delegation to and trust of commanders

Due to the fact that my team and I were the ones who discovered the existence of the reactor, as well as the ones who carried out the verification of the information, my commanders appointed me to be the intelligence commander of the operation. Because Research Division head Brig.-Gen. Yossi Baidatz, Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin – who was head of Military Intelligence – and Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi had complete confidence in me, I was able to personally brief prime minister Ehud Olmert and his team on a weekly basis regarding the status of the project. I informed them about our operational plan, alternative plans, and all the possible forms of retaliation we might expect. I was never asked to process any material through the Military Censor, or to provide them with a preview before approaching the prime minister.

The connection between excellent research capabilities and operational understanding

Needless to say, the Arab Spring would have evolved quite differently had Syria’s military had nuclear capabilities. My broad operational intelligence background allowed me, on the one hand, to push for the disclosure of the secret nuclear activity in Syria and to present it to the relevant military and security echelons. On the other hand, I was also capable of producing operational intelligence that opened up a variety of options for Israel. This critical juxtaposition of research intelligence and operational understanding is becoming more and more rare.

The ability and obligation to take responsibility

It is vital to take responsibility on a daily basis when gathering intelligence.

Our professional and personal prestige is put to the test during unique times, such as during the Syrian nuclear reactor affair.

On top of this, I was faced with tremendous opposition from Syria specialists and other senior IDF intelligence and Mossad officials. It was clear to me that my professional status, as well as that of my team, was at risk if we were to fail due to under- or overestimating the seriousness of Syrian nuclear capability. If it turned out that our claim that Syria was building a nuclear reactor was false, this would have been disastrous for the security of the State of Israel, and have been extremely damaging for the reputation of the Technological Intelligence Department, as well as for me personally. Despite these pressures, I did not hesitate to relay the information we had at hand. After it became clear that our assessment had been correct, the appropriate bodies were able to begin the process of preparing operational plans.

Undated image released during a briefing by senior US officials in 2008 shows what US intelligence officials said was a Syrian nuclear reactor built with North Korean help. US intelligence officials said the facility had been close to becoming operational when it was destroyed in early September 200. (US government/AFP)

Investigations and conclusions

After the attack was completed, I led the Military Intelligence investigation and was appointed by the chief of staff to join the team that prepared overviews of IDF processes. This team carried out an extensive investigation whose findings were presented to the chief of staff and the head of Military Intelligence. A number of the lessons we learned at that time are still relevant today, but I am doubtful that many current senior Military Intelligence officials are familiar with them.

The importance of people

As head of the Technological Intelligence Department during that period, I was privileged to command a group of professional operatives who had a wide range of knowledge in engineering and science, as well as unique research and intelligence capabilities. They used advanced methodologies to gather intelligence, and were not discouraged by the many objections they encountered along the way. I feel deep gratitude to each and every one of them.

On a personal note – the responsibility an intelligence officer has over a 30-year career is tremendous. The daily uncertainty that arises from the unexpected actions of the enemy is a job that requires being available 24/7 and is very challenging.

There are, however, situations in which you feel that all your hard work had been worth it, and that the challenges you’d faced suddenly seem to shrink. I valued the opportunity to work with high-quality officers and soldiers and help them develop professionally. I also feel that we were successful in preventing attacks that would have brought about the loss of many lives, and preventing the escalation of tensions that could have led to war.

Few officers have the chance to participate in such fateful events like the attack on the Syrian nuclear reactor. I feel privileged and grateful to my commanders and the Technological Intelligence operators who served under me during that time.

To conclude, this is also the first opportunity I’ve had to divulge to my wife, Galit, and to my daughters why I was absent so much during those few months of 2007, why my presence was needed overseas and why I received a letter of commendation from prime minister Ehud Olmert.

Brig.-Gen. (res.) Eli Ben Meir is a veteran Israeli intelligence officer who served as head of Military Intelligence’s Research Division.

Translated by Hannah Hochner.


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