More than a decade after the Israeli military and intelligence services launched an audacious mission that uncovered and later destroyed a nuclear reactor in the Syrian desert, Israeli officials have opened up about how the operation went down.
Today, with the cooperation of top Israeli officials involved in the operation, the Israeli news outlet Haaretz published an insider account about how the intelligence agencies first got wind of the reactor, how officials at the top of the Israeli government aggressively deliberated about it and, eventually, how the pilots pulled off the secret dark-of-night strike in 2007.
The account is full of the cloak and dagger details of intelligence collection and analysis. Below are a few of the most surprising or interesting tidbits.
Before Syria, a Massive Intelligence Failure in Libya
In a surprising admission, a top Israeli intelligence official goes on the record in the report to say that Israel was stunned to learn from news reports that the Americans and the British had convinced Libya to abandon its nuclear program in late 2003.
"The next morning I assembled my people and I said we had experienced two failures here: We'd had absolutely no idea that such a program even existed and, second, we didn't know that negotiations to dismantle it had been going on for eight months," Amnon Sufrin, then-head of the intelligence division of Israel's Mossad intelligence agency, is quoted as saying.
Israel was so taken aback by this failure that they began to reassess the whole region, looking for other blind spots.
'The Cube' Facility Was Camouflaged as a Factory
Within months, the Israelis began to focus on a large building in the Syrian desert that came to be known as "the Cube."
Sufrin reportedly said that the Syrians and North Koreans, who allegedly sold the facility to Syria, attempted to disguise it as a factory.
But to sell that camouflage, the Syrians were forced to forgo many of the security measures a normal nuclear facility would have -- no guards, gates, or visible anti-aircraft systems.
The problem, however, was the Israelis noted the building's odd position. If it was a factory, it wasn't near any settlements and, as Sufrin said, "there is no reason for anyone to be in this area except herdsmen."
Amid Skepticism, a Dissenting Analysis Gains Traction
Didn't think you'd see a reference to World War Z in here did you? Well I only mention it because that film describes what it calls the "tenth man" rule.
Credited to the Israelis in that movie, the tenth man rule basically encourages a dissenting opinion to challenge the accepted view. In the Haaretz report, a dissenting opinion credited to Major Y. said that when attempting to identify nuclear proliferation, Israeli intelligence was wrong to focus solely on uranium enrichment facilities and should be on the look out for less-common plutonium nuclear reactors. (For another Hollywood example of a dissenting opinion intelligence discussion, see the "red team" scene from Zero Dark Thirty.)
A Black-Bag Job in Vienna Seals the Deal
The next breakthrough for the Israelis came not from the analysts' computers, but from one sitting in a hotel room in Vienna, Austria.
The laptop belonged to a top Syrian atomic energy official, who was in town for deliberations with the International Atomic Energy Agency. According to a report in the New Yorker in 2012, which the Haaretz reports quotes because the Israeli officials apparently would not confirm this part, said that when the official was out of the room, a team of Israeli intelligence agents broke in and managed to steal all the data from the official's personal computer.
The pilfered data reportedly included nearly three dozen photos from inside the Cube -- evidence that Israeli analysts said clearly showed it house a plutonium reactor, allegedly of North Korean make, based on an old British design.
With the Strike Impending, a Wedding
Over the months of deliberation about what to do about the reactor, the Israelis landed on a delicate operation that would destroy the facility, but would allow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to downplay the whole thing.
The thinking went, if it was clearly a military strike by Israel deep into Syrian territory, Assad would feel pressure domestically to respond, perhaps sparking a new war in the Middle East.
Once the decision was made to strike -- in part prompted by an apparent leak to an American media organization that there was a nuclear reactor in Syria -- the Israelis briefed the pilots and aircrews on where they were going and what exactly they'd be doing. (As part of its feature, Haaretz interviews an F-15 pilot who took part in the mission with his flight helmet on, so he cannot be readily identified.)
Within hours of the strike, then-Israeli Defense Force Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and other senior officials attended the wedding of the daughter of another official, so as not to arouse suspicion, in a moment reminiscent of President Barack Obama's casual appearance at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner as the operation to kill Osama bin Laden was underway.
"I looked at the dancing guests and I said to myself: Five hours from now, we could be waking them up with sirens and Scud missiles falling in the center of the country," Ashkenazi said recently, according to Haaretz. "At the cabinet meeting I had already warned the ministers: Anyone who talks will be responsible for Assad reacting. Anyone who goes running to television risks causing a war."
One of the pilots on the mission told Haaretz that they flew the mission in total silence. They managed to sneak through Syrian airspace and each drop two bombs on their targets. The code word for a successful mission, for some reason, was "Arizona."
After the success of the operation, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called then-U.S. President George Bush.
"Do you remember something in the north that was bothering me?" he said. "It isn't there any more."
"Very good," Bush reportedly replied.
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