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Militant Islam Monitor > Articles > Syria's Ruthless Ruler Assad Wanted A Nuclear Bomb - With North Korean Assistance

Syria's Ruthless Ruler Assad Wanted A Nuclear Bomb - With North Korean Assistance

June 6, 2017


"Mr. President, it looks like we may have a near-complete nuclear reactor in eastern Syria," CIA chief Michael V. Hayden told President George W. Bush in the spring of 2007. Michael Hayden, a four-star general who previously served as director of the National Security Agency (DNSA, between 1999 and 2005) and Deputy Director of National Intelligence (DDNI, between 2005 and 2006) wrote his memoirs "Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror" in 2016. It is one of the best books on counterterrorism that I have ever read. And Hayden knows what he is talking about.

As the back cover describes it: "The New York Times master narrative of America's intelligence wars, from the only person ever to helm both CIA and NSA." General Hayden is highly critical of the New York Times, though, because that paper published two articles that in his view posed a serious threat to US national security. The first article appeared in October 2004, the second in December 2005. Some reporters of that newspaper, Pullitzer Price Winners Tim Weiner and James Risen, for example, pursue their own agenda and are not interested in objective facts, Hayden writes. He describes James Risen as "an aggressive intelligence-beat veteran."

Hayden criticizes Weiner's book "Legacy of Ashes" as follows: "We thought it so bad that we allowed a CIA historian to review it on the agency Web site, an unprecedented step." "Weiner is not honest about context, he is dismissive of motivations, his expectations for intelligence are almost cartoonish, and his book too often is factually unreliable." (See pp. 123, 124.)

"‘Play to the edge' was Hayden's guiding principle when he ran the National Security Agency, and it remained so when he ran the CIA, " the back cover of Hayden's memoirs continues. "In his view, many shortsighted and uninformed people are quick to criticize and his book will give them much to chew on but little easy comfort." "Is is unapologetic insider's look from the perspective of the people who faced awesome responsibilities head-on, in the moment – which is to say, in the wake of 9/11, a major war, and sweeping technological change."

Chapter Fourteen, "No core. No War," is about Assad's plan to build an atomic bomb. "We had a lot of friends among the intelligence services of the Middle East," Hayden writes. "In April 2007, the tough, tireless head of one of them came into my office at Langley. The man was without pretense, all business – but with a tough-love kind of human touch. That day he was bringing big news. He carried with him photos of a nearly complete nuclear reactor in the eastern Syrian desert near a town called al-Kibar." (See p. 255.)

Hayden does not reveal what intelligence service he was referring to, but I suspect he meant the Israeli secret service. At that time the Americans did have their own satellite images of the facility, "but its false walls and roofs made it difficult to identify." They simply did not know what it was.

"Our evidence had given us a kind of strategic warning that something was up," Hayden writes. "But now we had nearly a hundred hand held photos of the site while it was still under construction. You could see the false walls being erected over a shape eerily similar to North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear reactor. To the side, under a tent, you could see reactor components. An interior shot showed rebar and concrete being used to create a floor into which uranium rods could be inserted. That was high-quality tactical warning. Espionage protocol discouraged us from asking our friend how his service had acquired the images." (See p. 256.)

"Dick Cheney was right on Syria's nuclear program"

President Bush was immediately briefed on what the CIA had just learned, but he wasn't very surprised. Hayden: "Since my colleague had been part of a delegation to the White House the day before to talk to the vice president and Steve Hadley (National Security Advisor, V.), this wasn't going to be a total surprise. As we were getting setlled in the Oval, I leaned toward Vice President Cheney, who had long been convinced of a Syrian nuclear program, and confessed, ‘You were right, Mr. Vice President.' I laid down the photos and our own background." (See pp. 256, 257.)

The president, however, did not want another military intervention in a Muslim country. Things were not going too well in Iraq and Afghanistan and there also was the previous "intelligence debacle on the Iraqi nuclear program." Therefore,President Bush demanded that the CIA would present more facts on this remote suspect facility in the eastern Syrian desert.

"We cranked up national technical collection and dug into the archives to see if there were any clues there," Hayden writes "The record of individuals affiliated with Korea's nuclear program visiting Syria was pretty extensive. There was also sporadic evidence of mysterious shipments between the two countries. The new information gave meaning and importance to scattered data points we had on a North Korean and Syrian nuclear relationship that went back to at least 2001. In early June (2007, V.) we could see imagery that the Syrians were gouging out a cooling-water intake along the banks of the river and were digging two trenches up the wadi for pipes to bring cold water to the facility and discharge hot water back to the river." (See p. 257.)

The CIA consulted an outside expert who reported that it had to be a nuclear reactor. "Good intelligence was also going to be critical to deciding on a policy way ahead," Hayden points out. "The reactor at al-Kibar had to go, but not in a way that generated another Middle East conflict. The analytic staff at the agency knew the challenge and had developed a nice shorthand summary of the president's policy objectives: No core. No war." (See p. 258.)

Hayden gave another briefing to the president in June 2007. Also present were Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, National Security Advisor Steven Hadley and the Director of National Intelligence.

"It's a nuclear reactor," Hayden told them. "High confidence. Can't be anything else. Take it to the bank." "The Syrians and (North) Koreans have been cooperating on nuclear development for a long time. Lots of travel, back and forth. We know the people. High confidence."

"The North Koreans built this. Of course, they did. It's a copy of Yongbyon, and the Koreans are the only ones who have built this kind of reactor since the British gave up on the design in the 1960s. But we haven't had eyes on. We haven't seen Koreans there except one group in one of the hand held photos. So we're giving this to you with medium confidence."

"This is part of the Syrian weapon program. Of course it is. There are no other uses for it and a weapons program is the only thing that would justify such a high-stakes gamble."

"But Mr. President, I can't find the other parts of a weapons program. No reprocessing facility. No weaponization effort that we can see. So I can only give this to you in low confidence."

Bush decided that he would not strike the facility, but Cheney did not agree.

Cheney (and the Israelis) wanted to bomb Assad's nuclear facility which was still under construction.

Hayden: "We stayed there quite a while discussing the point. Only the vice president offered a dissenting view. He believed that we needed to send a strong message not only to Syria and North Korea, but also to Iran. An American strike would do just that and would be relatively easy to accomplish, since al-Kibar was isolated and distant from any civilian centers." (see pp. 262, 263.)

"In the end, the president decided our approach would be to go public about the reactor as part of an overall package to unsettle Assad and make a series of demands on him. We preserved the option of force, but in the presidents's mind the real issue was Assad and overall Syrian policy. not just the reactor." (See p. 263.)

That assessment was wrong. Much later, Bush's successor Barak Obama would make similar mistakes regarding Syria. When that war criminal Bashir al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own population, Obama decided that he would not intervene militarily.

The Israelis were not willing to wait for "a long term diplomatic gambit"(Hayden) or IAEA-inspectors. They decided to bomb Assad's reactor before it would be operational. They saw what happened with North Korea and Pakistan when the attitude of wait-and-see" proved to be fatal as well. They also knewt hat Iran was building a nuclear bomb of its own – again with North Korean assistance. Moreover, there was an important precedent. On June 7, 1981, the Israelis bombed a nuclear reactor that Iraq's dictator Saddam Hussein was building ("Operation Opera").

Hayden, too, realized that "the clock was ticking" in the eastern Syrian desert near that town of al-Kibar: "The facility was externally complete, the cooling system was being readied, and we had no idea when uranium would be introduced. A strike after activation was problematic; if that happened, the attacker would be blamed for every thyroid problem in the Middle East for the next half century."

"On the night of September 6 the reactor at al-Kibar was destroyed. Later, when quizzed about any American role, Steve Hadley accuratedly noted: ‘No green light was asked for. No green light was given.'"

(See pp. 264, 265.)

Hayden does not mention that the airstike had been carried out by the Israelis. The Israelis never publicly admitted that it was them who did it. And what about the Syrian reaction? The Syrians must have been shocked and surprised but for some reason they did not protest at all, which proves that the Israelis were absolutely right.

"Iran remains a permanent nuclear weapons threshold state"

Hayden is very critical about former US President Obama's deal with Iran. Its noble purpose was to curb Iran's nuclear weapons program. "And that is why any nuclear program in the hands of this regime that allows centrifuges to continue to spin constitues a standing danger," Hayden correctly observes. "The current deal negotiated between Secretary Kerry and Iranian foreign minister Zarif allows such a program. It preserves Iranian facilities, Iranian centrifuges, and Iranian nuclear research. Even if the deal is honored, it legitimizes Iran as an industrial–strength nuclear power and as a permanent nuclear weapons threshold state." The near-imprenetable facility at Fordow, big enough for a weapons program, but too small for creating fissile material for a civilian energy effort, remains even if uranium is not being enriched there. The agreement after eight years removes restrictions on Iran's ballistic missile program, which, absent weapons of mass destruction, has little utility. There will also not be an accounting of Tehran's past nuclear activities, including its warhead weaponization progam. Turns out that ‘access' to suspect facilities does not mean invasive physical entry into them by inspectors, and that there is no chance that there will be a thorough debriefing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the Robert Oppenheimer of the Iranian weapons program. (See pp. 307, 308.)

Hayden's highy successful Stellarwind program

Hayden admits that the NSA did not foresee the 9/11 attacks. He does not write, however, that the CIA was already focussing on Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network and "Islamic charities" who financed terrorist operations as early as July 1995. The Egyptians were warning the Americans and the British that Western Europe had become a safe haven for dangerous terrorists from the Middle East and North Africa. Many of these terrorists were posing as asylum seekers. They often had successfully applied for asylum in England, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Spain and Belgium. (One of them was Abu Qatada, believed to have been the leader of al-Qaeda in Europe, two others were Yassir al-Sirri and Adil Abd al-Majid.) There were also returning jihadists (so-called "returnees") from Afghanistan who were involved in terrorist networks.The Dutch Domestic Security Service BVD also began to pay attention to this phenomenon of the "Afghan Arabs." (A number of them were from North Africa, though.) The problem of "blowback" began to manifest itself.

After 9/11 the American intelligence community belatedly began to focus more closely on a combined effort to combat terrorism. One of the more successful secret programs that Hayden's NSA developed after the 9/11 attacks was "Stellarwind," taking note of al-Qaeda related phone numbers and phone calls, also by suspected al-Qaeda terrorists in the United States who made phone calls to other countries or received them from abroad.

Hayden: "These reports covered terrorist planning, finances, logistics, training, travel and contacts with people in the United States." "We also gathered large volumes of meta data. In the first six months of the program we built up a bank of billions of domestic call events in addition to an even larger number of foreign ones. We used contact chaining from known or suspect ‘dirty numbers' to see if there were connections that suggested terrorist ties to the United States. These generated tippers that we would forward to CIA and FBI for further analysis (or action)." (See p. 75.)

"The FBI had a policy to investigate every number sent. That approach really increased their work load. Still, this all worked out pretty much as we had anticipated. We traced threatening calls, showed suspicious contacts, uncovered illicit financing networks, detected suspect travel, discovered ties to aviation schools, linked transportation employees to associates of terrorists, drew connections to the illicit purchase of arms, tied US persons to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (al-Qaeda's mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, V.), and discovered a suspect terrorist on the no-fly list who was already in the United States." (See p. 76.)

Hayden even claims that if Stellarwind would have been introduced before 9/11, the 9/11 terrorists would have been detected before they were able to strike in the United States. In other words, that major al-Qaeda attack would have been prevented.

Hayden was able to brief the president in the Oval Office about "real connections between overseas terrorists and people in the United States. We intercepted the content of communications as suspected terrorist- related calls exited or entered the United States. All this pointed to plotting in places like the northeastern and midwestern United States. Was any of it decisive? I think so.""It is clear that Stellarwind covered a quadrant where we had no other tools. What could be wrong with that?" (See p. 83.)

Hayden clashed with Jim Comey

But in 2004, Hayden clashed with Jim Comey who had become deputy attorney general in December 2003. Comey and some others objected to "collection that swepts up some US person data." Hayden: "That is permissable – but only within limits – and now Justice thought that our current art and science weren't discriminating enough. Too much accidental collection of US person stuff. We obviously disagreed." (See p. 84.)

Comey was a close friend of FBI Director Bob Mueller who backed him. (See p. 85.)

Hayden describes a briefing he gave Comey at the White House on March 9, 2004. Present were also John McLaughlin (Deputy Director CIA), Bob Mueller, and some others. "Comey was a tough audience," Hayden writes. "He thought that this was the most aggressive assertion of presidential power in history (really?) and dismissed John Yoo's legal opinion out of hand. He angered my analysts by seeming to reject their claims and crediting traditional FBI approaches for what we believed were Stellarwind successes. We made no progress. It was a tense session, so Comey surprised me when he seemed to go out of his way to shake my hand as we adjourned." (See p. 85.)

The next day, on March 10, there was another meeting at the White House, but now in the presence of vice president Cheney and eight senior congressional leaders. Hayden: "The vice president had us offer up the detailed Stellarwind checklist we used. I could also have added, as anecdotal evidence, that we couldn't target all terrorists under this program (only those connected to 9/11) and any expansion of targets required that the president specifically amend his direction to us. This had been carefully focussed." (See p. 86.)

Comey would become FBI Director in 2013. He also clashed with Donald Trump, the current US president. Trump even dismissed him as FBI Director. This does not mean that I am a fan of Trump. I am not. Trump is too erratic and he tweets too much. I also believe that renewable energy is much better for the environment. Moreover, renewable energy makes Europe and Israel less dependent on oil or gas from the Middle East and Russia. I made a one-hour EO-TV documentary on the so-called "Club of Rome" and the oil crisis already back in 1974. This was half a year after OPEC countries proclaimed an oil embargo because of US support to Israel during the Yom Kippur War.

Hayden clashed with New York Times reporter James Risen

Hayden also clashed with New York Times reporter James Risen who wanted to write a critical article on the Stellarwind program. This article was partly based on leaks, possibly from members of Congress. Hayden believes that the NYT reporter tried to blackmail him by demanding that he had to go public about the program. "Going public…willingly and otherwise…" Hayden: "Risen then doubled down on his carrots and his sticks. He said that I had done a great public service presenting NSA to the world and trying to clear up misconceptions. So it would behoove me to sit down and talk, since he had been following intelligence for a long time and this was the most serious story he had ever had. It wasn't quite, ‘You're going down,' but I think something like that was being messaged." (See p. 94.)

In October 2004 Hayden had a long conversation with NYT reporter Phil Taubman whom he respected and trusted more than Risen. Hayden: "I emphasized that when we listened to a phone call, we already had probable cause that one or both ends of the call were al-Qaeda related." "There were targeted US-terrorist-related numbers in the Stellarwind system, to be sure, but by far most of them weren't." (See pp. 96, 97.) For some reason, the NYT decided to postpone the article, but the editors of the paper wanted to go ahead. President Bush was now also quite worried.

At the end of November the New York Times was invited to a meeting at the White House. Hayden: "The government cast was the president, Chief of Staff Andy Card, Harriet Miers (White House Counsel, V.) and me. The Times contingent comprised Taubman, Keller, and Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher." "The president said that if another attack was successful, he expected the Time's leadership to be up on the Hill, right hands in the air along with the leadership of the intelligence community, explaining to Congress howthey permitted it to happen." Hayden also gave a presentation on the program.(See p. 101.)

Nevertheless, the NYT went ahead with its original plan and published Risen's article on December 16, 2005. His co-author was Eric Lichtblau. Bush commented: "To fight the war on terror, I'm using authority vested in me by Congress… (and) I am also using constitutional authority vested in me as commander in chief." He condemned "the unauthorized disclosure of this information and then said that he had ‘reauthorized this program more than thirty times…and I intend to do so for as long as our nation faces a continuous threat from al-Qaeda and related groups.'" (See p. 103.) One month later, early January 2006, Risen published his book "State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration."

Hayden gave a public presentation at the National Press Club in late January 2006. He said: "I don't think domestic spying makes it. One end of any call targeted under the program is always outside the United States….I've taken literally hundreds of domestic flights. I have never boarded a domestic flight in the United States of America and landed in Waziristan. In the same way….if NSA had intercepted al-Qaeda ops chief Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Karachi talking to Mohammed Atta in Laurel, Maryland, in say, July of 2001 – if NSA had done that, and the results had been made public, I'm convinced that the crawler on all the 7 by 24 news networks would not have been ‘NSA domestic spying.'"

"That was the only example that I used that day, but there were more available. Accusations are always simple. Truth is often complicated. And as the quotation etched into the wall of the CIA lobby suggests, it is truth – not simplicity – that will make you free."

"Then at the press club I said something I believed to be true then and I continue to believe to be true now. ‘Had this program been in effect prior to 9/11, it is my professional judgment that we would have detected some of the 9/11 al-Qaeda operatives in the United States, and we would have identified them as such.'" (See p. 110.)

Nobody contests that NSA and CIA have made mistakes. On the other hand,there were at least five cases where "US intelligence" passed on essential information on highly dangerous Islamist terrorists to their counterparts in Belgium and Germany. Four of these cases were not too long ago. The most recent terror attack in London shows that Western intelligence agencies must work even closer together than they are already doing.

Emerson Vermaat, MA (law) is an investigative reporter in the Netherlands specialized in crime and terrorism. He also published articles on the "East German Secret Service: Structure and Operational Focus" (Conflict Quarterly, Canada) and "The Polish Secret Police and the Popieluszko Case" (Journal of Church and State, USA).

website: http://www.emersonvermaat.com


Michael V. Hayden, Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror (New York: Penguin Books, 2016), p. 429 ("Near-complete nuclear reactor.")

Emerson Vermaat, "In Naam van Allah": Islamitisch Fundamentalisme en Terrorisme (Utrecht, the Netherlands: De Banier Publishers, February 1997). This is first time that Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri were mentioned in a European book.

Emerson Vermaat, "De Haat Mag Niet Overslaan Naar Onze Straten": De Terreurdreiging door Islamitische Staat (Soesterberg: Aspekt Publishers, the Netherlands, June 2015). A study on ISIS. (Also on earlier Egyptian warnings about terrorists who posed as asylum seekers, notably in Britain.)

Emerson Vermaat, Misbruik van Asielprocedures door Islamitische Extremisten en Terroristen, published in: Jan Herman Brinks and Perry Pierik (Eds.), De Europese Spagaat (Soesterberg: Aspekt Publishers, March 2017).

This chapter on "How Islamic Extremists and Terrorists Abuse Asylum Procedures" is partly a summary of confidential intelligence findings.

New York Times, December 16, 2005, Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts,


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