Analysis: Israel's intelligence battle over 2007 Syrian nuclear operation

The Mossad and IDF intelligence agencies butted heads time and again in the lead up to the operation that took out a Syrian nuclear reactor.

March 21, 2018 20:00
3 minute read.
Undated image shows what is believed to be a Syrian nuclear reactor built with North Korean help

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. (photo credit: US GOVERNMENT / AFP)


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No one says that the final chapter of Israel’s 2007 strike on the Syrian nuclear reactor was anything but a smashing success for all of Israel’s intelligence agencies, notably IDF Military Intelligence and the Mossad.

But that is only part of the story. The other part includes an internal battle of intelligence agencies.

Colonel A. on the 2007 IAF bombing of a Syrian nuclear reactor site. (Marc Israel Sellem/IDF Spokesperson's Unit)Some time ago, former IDF intelligence chief Amos Yadlin told The Jerusalem Post that he had needed to convince then-Mossad chief Meir Dagan that Syria really was developing a nuclear program.

At the time, Yadlin made it clear that this, along with other details, could not be printed.

On Wednesday, Yadlin and others, including former IDF intelligence head of research Eli Ben Meir, went public with the assertions that they had to convert a skeptical Mossad to play ball on the issue.

What is fascinating is that the top Mossad officials who were involved at the time, such as subsequent Mossad chief Tamir Pardo and deputy chief Ram Ben Barak, have not denied the claims.

Rather, they have put the Mossad versus Military Intelligence debate in context.

Pardo said on Wednesday at a conference honoring Dagan that the Mossad had penetrated Syria so completely that it seemed inconceivable that they had not heard about such a significant undertaking.

Accordingly, much of the Mossad believed the tip to be false.

Ram Ben Barak told the Post on Wednesday that “there were some indications about a Syrian [reactor] core, but we thought maybe it was a false lead,” confirming what Pardo said about the Mossad’s direct access to and penetration of Syria.

These doubts were significant because intelligence agencies, however well-funded, have limited resources and budgets.

Investing in a wild goose chase in Syria could have meant drawing down on intelligence resources invested in Iran or elsewhere. Hence, the battle or debate between Mossad and Military Intelligence.

A SOURCE close to the debates said that Military Intelligence was sold on the possibility of a Syrian nuclear program quicker than the Mossad. But the source also said that even Military Intelligence was not certain until the Mossad provided detailed photographs.

This last piece puts things into context.

In fact, Ben Barak said that “since we were talking about nonconventional weapons, you do not leave that as an open question, so there was a decision to invest many resources and efforts to either confirm or disprove” the Syrian nuclear reactor idea.

Ben Barak explained that the Mossad then ran some operations, most of which did not provide a definitive answer one way or the other.

So there was an intense debate between the Mossad and Military Intelligence, and institutional resources were at stake. But at the end of the day, the Mossad decided, that even if its initial view was to be skeptical of Military Intelligence’s theory, it did all it could to nail down the issue – way beyond a single operation.

Only in the last operation, after showing perseverance through many operations which did not get the needed results, did the Mossad get the smoking gun which confirmed for all involved that Military Intelligence’s theory had been right.

Ben Barak looks back on the battle between the Mossad and Military Intelligence and says that the debates led to “forging a higher quality approach... I don’t want everyone to have the same thoughts. It is good to have different views. It’s better than if everyone always thinks the same things.”

Unlike the politicians who are accusing and denying claims they are making against each other regarding the Syria nuclear core saga, the Mossad is ready to admit that it did not buy into the idea from the start.

The agency certainly invested heavy efforts repeatedly in investigating a theory that it did not buy.

Maybe then the story of the Mossad versus Military Intelligence battle is a success story of the intelligence agencies avoiding “bubble style” thinking – where no one contradicts the consensus.

The US September 11 Commission said that avoiding bubble thinking might have led to preventing the infamous attacks.

Perhaps, the willingness to think outside the bubble and to heatedly debate, but also to be ready to follow leads requested by other agencies, is the crucial intelligence lesson, more so than the interagency battles themselves.

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