Tuesday, September 18, 2007

That Syrian Snark Hunt

By Cernig

The various neocon noisemakers are still hyping up speculation about what, exactly, Israel bombed in Syria recently.

Via Brian Ulrich at American Footprints, comes this from reporter Trish Schuh - who did the obvious thing a journalist should do and actually went to look.
At the Syria-Qusayba checkpoint near the Iraq border, I was stopped by the Syrian military. Across the road on the Iraqi side, sounds of American military operations puttered as blackhawk helicopters flew overhead. "No photos," said the Syrian military captain. Cameras could draw US sniper fire.
The surrounding terrain is flat barren desert, with visibility extending for miles. It is difficult to see how smugglers, insurgents or anything that moves could penetrate here. This is also where CNN claimed Israel punched "a big hole in the desert" by attacking North Korean nuclear materials. But the big hole could be in CNN's story.

...Several days ago, after the attack on Syria's "nuclear program", I spoke to western oil company officials in Deir Ez Zor. One technician told me they routinely monitor radiation as part of the refining process. They registered no heightened levels of nuclear residue in the area as there would have been if the Israelis had hit a North Korean atomic stockpile. Operations and technical foremen put it this way: "The nuclear claims against Syria are pure bullsh*t."
The Syrian smoking gun is the complete lack of any mushroom cloud.
The thing about Snark Hunts is that the hunting is always more important than the actual existence of the Snark.

Update The BBC's diplomatic correspondent, Johnathan Marcus, writes that "just sometimes, that mighty media machine has to admit that it just does not know" while hinting mightily that the Snark is an invention of Bolton and the Murdoch press empire.
The story put about by largely unnamed US sources and backed up by the former US ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, is that North Korea - under international pressure to scale down its own nuclear weapons programme - has recently transferred equipment or technology to Syria. And it is this equipment - possibly at a fledgling research centre - that the Israelis hit.

All sorts of questions remain. Experts on North Korea's nuclear programme are highly sceptical about the alleged technology transfer.

Joseph Cirincione, director for nuclear policy at the Washington-based Center for American Progress, a liberal think-tank, has gone so far as to describe the story as "nonsense". Selective leaks are being used to play up the Syria-North Korea connection, he writes on the online site of the journal Foreign Policy.

"This appears to be the work of a small group of officials leaking cherry-picked, unvetted 'intelligence' to key reporters in order to promote a pre-existing political agenda. If this sounds like the run-up to the war with Iraq, then it should," he writes.

Gary Samore of the Council on Foreign Relations, another leading North Korea nuclear expert, was less dismissive when I spoke to him, but equally sceptical.

"I know that the Israelis have been worried for some time that the Syrians were eager to get nuclear technology from North Korea," he said. "The North Koreans are looking to liquidate at least part of their enrichment programme, and perhaps want to offload the centrifuges and so on that they obtained from Pakistan." So the Syrians might be "dabbling" with enrichment technology, but this would not represent "a near-term threat", Mr Samore says.

"There are North Koreans in Syria in connection with missile technology," he said, but on the nuclear front "we just don't know". One thing he saw as strange, however, was the possible location of the "target" that the Israelis may have hit. This seems to have been very close to the border with Turkey - an odd place for a potential nuclear research establishment.

Of course much of the controversy - given the fact that the Syrians and the Israelis have said very little (which is instructive in itself) - centres on the nature of the messengers, the shadowy leakers in Washington. Only one of them, Andrew Semmel, a senior non-proliferation official, has gone on the record, and then there is the involvement of the controversial Mr Bolton. Critics suggest that at least some of these people have a strong desire to derail the Bush administration's current negotiations with Pyongyang.

For whatever reason, the latest round of the six-party nuclear talks involving the two Koreas has been postponed at the last minute, apparently at the North Koreans' request. But as Mr Samore pointed out: "Just because John Bolton is using this for political purposes doesn't mean that it is not true."
Well, that's true enough. It's remotely possible John Bolton is telling the truth and still hyping it for political purposes. However, on balance, it seems to me that yet again the intelligence is being fixed around the neocon's policy.

In intelligence, "assessment" usually means a careful and informed guess. However, where the neocons and Cheneyites are concerned, "we assess" always means "we want this to be true because it would further policy". Careful and informed have little to do with the thing.

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