May 10, 2010

Syrian Nuclear Reactor and Military Attachés

Some comments on a recent article in the Washington Post.

Jeff Stein, who writes on intelligence matters in a column titled
Spy Talk, made some comments about the Syrian covert nuclear reactor that was destroyed by the Israelis in September 2007. His article describes the CIA's desire for ground photography of the facility after the Israeli raid, and the role of the French military attaché in Damascus in obtaining that photography. Read The French spy, the CIA, and the Syrian reactor.

Rick and his Russian counterpart in Damascus - 1994

I have some minor issues with the article, and want to address them. First, by way of disclosure, Jeff Stein and I are friends and colleagues. Jeff wrote a book in 2000 about Iraq's nuclear weapons program called Saddam's Bombmaker. In that book, Jeff basically "outed" my operations in northern Iraq in the mid-1990's while assigned to CIA's Iraq Operations Group. The book details my role in the covert extraction of Khidhir Hamza's family from Baghdad to northern Iraq and on the United States.

Here are excerpts of that section. Some of it is factually incorrect, at CIA request. For example, there was no helicopter, we were on the ground, and we weren't late. Doctor Hamza was not aware of all the other things that were going on in the area when we brought the family out. That was not our real mission - we happened to be in northern Iraq and were given the extractions as an additional mission.

Dr. Hamza: The helicopter landed on a hilltop in Salahiddin, one of a regular shuttle in and out of the Kurdish north. Out popped Rick Francona, a dark-haired, boyish-looking air force intelligence officer assigned to the CIA. Francona, fluent in Arabic, had spent many years in the Middle East, including an assignment as interpreter for General Norman Schwarzkopf at the cease-fire talks with the Iraqis at the end of Desert Storm. Now, he and other CIA agents were assigned to bring my family in.

And they were late.

Souham and the boys had been stranded in the swamp on the border for more than an hour, hiding on the floors of the Land Cruiser as best as they could. The sun was rising over the hills and they were easy pickings for an Iraqi patrol. Another hour passed. Finally, a squad of armed Kurdish rebels showed up on the distant shore, riding a tractor.

In what seemed like endless slow motion, they waded across the muck toward them, coming to the Toyota's rescue. Eventually a thick rope was hitched to the Land Cruiser and the rebels pulled it forward.

"Welcome to America!" the Kurds laughed when they had them on shore.

But the Americans weren't there. After some animated discussion among the Kurds, the family was piled back into the Toyota and driven an hour north to a safe house operated by one of the rebel groups. They were put inside. The door was locked. Another night of cold, hungry, anxious waiting began.

In recent months the CIA had been struggling to unite the fractious Kurds and plotting with Saddam's top military officers to topple the regime from the inside. Neither effort was showing much promise. The Kurds had too long shown a proclivity to plot against each other in secret league with Saddam. Now the Kurds began arguing over what to do with Souham and the boys, who were not, after all, their responsibility. Night fell.

Finally, the door swung open. In walked Francona and his sidekick, a tall blond CIA man, as if they were dropping in for a beer. Firas jumped up in glee.

"Who are you guys?" he asked.

The CIA man smiled. "We're not from around here," he cracked.

Their troubles were over, we thought. We were wrong. The road trip through Turkey and the flight to Germany were happy, even joyous. Francona and his CIA team couldn't have made it smoother. My family couldn't have felt more secure or welcome.

Back to the recent article. According to what Jeff has been told, the CIA wanted ground level photography of the bombed out reactor at al-Kibar - the article calls it al-Tibnah, which is the closest village - it is truly in the middle of nowhere, as any of the attachés in Damascus can tell you.

As Jeff relates, the story is that the French attaché "jumped in his car" and drove to the site. First of all, al-Kibar/al-Tibnah is about 225 miles northeast of Damascus, not 30 miles south. The facility to the south is the declared research reactor at Dayr al-Hajr is out by the airport. The drive to the covert facility takes about seven hours over mediocre roads - I've driven it.

Second, as an attaché in Syria, you are restricted to travel within 30 kilometers (18 miles) of Damascus, unless you file a travel request. If you file a travel request, you are guaranteed to be followed by a white Peugeot with two Syrian military intelligence goons "for your security." Since the French attaché says he was followed and being that far from Damascus, I assume he filed a travel request. If you are going to visit a sensitive location, the last thing you do is file a travel request. You do what you have to do....

Then there is the "dissing" of attachés by supposed other intelligence "professionals" - claiming that the "French photos were nothing more than an unexpected extra...the overhead [satellite] was far better. Much ado about nothing. Military attachés everywhere love to do ground-level photography, pretending like they’re James Bonds or something."

I served for year as an attaché in several countries, most of them not friendly. If what we do is not significant - at personal risk; we have lost fine officers in this line of duty - then we would not have them assigned to virtually every American embassy around the world.