The New York Times, among many other mainstream media outlets, was quick to report this story (the latest “development” is below):
American concerns about ties between Syria and North Korea have long focused on a partnership involving missiles and missile technology. Even many hawks within the Bush administration have expressed doubts that the Syrians have the money or technical depth to build a serious nuclear program like the one in Iran.
But the Sept. 6 Israeli airstrike inside Syria has reignited debate over whether the Syrians are trying to overcome past obstacles by starting their own small nuclear program, or by trying to buy nuclear components from an outside supplier. It is a particularly difficult question for American spy agencies, which are still smarting from the huge prewar misjudgments made about the status of Iraq’s weapons programs.
American officials are now sorting through what they say are Israel’s private claims that what their jets struck was tied to nuclear weapons development, not merely to missile production. So far, American officials have been extremely cautious about endorsing the Israeli conclusion.
But what if the whole tale is an elaborate set-up by the Bush administration and other like-minded governments? Joseph Cirincione, senior fellow and director for nuclear policy at the Center for American Progress and author of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons – in other words, an expert, as opposed to nameless American officials and clueless journalists – commented last week on the Foreign Policy blog:
This story is nonsense. The Washington Post story should have been headlined “White House Officials Try to Push North Korea-Syria Connection.” This is a political story, not a threat story. The mainstream media seems to have learned nothing from the run-up to war in Iraq. It is a sad commentary on how selective leaks from administration officials who have repeatedly misled the press are still treated as if they were absolute truth.
Once again, 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 preexisting political agenda. If this sounds like the run-up to the war in Iraq, it should. This time it appears aimed at derailing the U.S.-North Korean agreement that administration hardliners think is appeasement. Some Israelis want to thwart any dialogue between the U.S. and Syria.
Few reporters appear to have done even basic investigation of the miniscule Syrian nuclear program (though this seems to be filtering into some stories running Friday). There is a reason that Syria is not included in most proliferation studies, including mine: It doesn’t amount to much. Begun almost 40 years ago, the Syrian program is a rudimentary research program built around a tiny 30-kilowatt research reactor that produces isotopes and neutrons. It is nowhere near a program for nuclear weapons or nuclear fuel. Over a dozen countries have aided the program including Belgium, Germany, Russia, China, and the United States (where several Syrian scientists trained) as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). If North Korea gave them anything short of nuclear weapons it is of little consequence. Syria does not have the financial, technical or industrial base to develop a serious nuclear program anytime in the foreseeable future.
Nor is there anything new about Syria being on the U.S. “watch list”; it has been for years. Unfortunately, this misleading story will now enter the lexicon of the far right. For months we will hear pundits citing the “Syrian-Iranian-Korean nuclear axis” and complaining that attempts to negotiate an end to North Korea’s program are bound fail in the face of such duplicity, etc., etc.
The real story is how quickly the New York Times and the Washington Post snapped up the bait and ran exactly the story the officials wanted, thereby feeding a mini-media frenzy. It appears that nothing, not even a disastrous and unnecessary war, can break this Pavlovian response to an “intelligence scoop.”
But never let the facts get in the way of convincing the world that Syria is producing nuclear weapons, is closely aligned with Iran and is therefore a threat to the Jewish state.
UPDATE: More debunking here.