Seymour Hersh has a follow up story in the New Yorker this week about the Israeli bombing of Syria last year. As reported in geospatial blogs such as Ogle Earth there is a geoweb angle to this story in that Google Earth imagery provider DigitalGlobe appears to have been tasked with collecting imagery from the bomb site prior to the Israeli bombing.
Seymour–a respected military and security analyst–casts doubt on the popular media story that this facility was nuclear. This popular explanation was also seemingly favored by Ogle Earth, drawing on the opinions of David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security, which Seymour describes as a “highly respected nonprofit research agency.” But it looks wrong, says Hersh.
According to interviews conducted by Hersh in Israel and Damascus however the site was probably not nuclear (it could have been a chemical munitions factory). Beyond this, it is not clear what it was (the fact that Koreans may have been helping build it might be leading to Syrian reluctance to talk about it). Albright has also backed off his claim that it was definitively a nuclear facility:
Albright, when I spoke to him in December, was far more circumspect than he had been in October. “We never said ‘we know’ it was a reactor, based on the image,” Albright said. “We wanted to make sure that the image was consistent with a reactor, and, from my point of view, it was. But that doesn’t confirm it’s a reactor.”
Hersh also writes:
Much of what one would expect to see around a secret nuclear site was lacking at the target, a former State Department intelligence expert who now deals with proliferation issues for the Congress said. “There is no security around the building,” he said. “No barracks for the Army or the workers. No associated complex.” Jeffrey Lewis, who heads the non-proliferation program at the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington, told me that, even if the width and the length of the building were similar to the Korean site, its height was simply not sufficient to contain a Yongbyon-size reactor and also have enough room to extract the control rods, an essential step in the operation of the reactor; nor was there evidence in the published imagery of major underground construction. “All you could see was a box,” Lewis said. “You couldn’t see enough to know how big it will be or what it will do. It’s just a box.”
A former senior U.S. intelligence official, who has access to current intelligence, said, “We don’t have any proof of a reactor—no signals intelligence, no human intelligence, no satellite intelligence.”
As for the geospatial angle, the notable aspect of this event is how commercial, non-military imagery of the sort that is used in Google Earth is being used for military attacks, at least by Israel. One reason might be that this was a solely Israeli mission, done without help from Washington:
There is evidence to support this view. The satellite operated by DigitalGlobe, the Colorado firm that supplied Albright’s images, is for hire; anyone can order the satellite to photograph specific coördinates, a process that can cost anywhere from several hundred to hundreds of thousands of dollars. The company displays the results of these requests on its Web page, but not the identity of the customer. On five occasions between August 5th and August 27th of last year—before the Israeli bombing—DigitalGlobe was paid to take a tight image of the targeted building in Syria.
Clearly, whoever ordered the images likely had some involvement in plans for the attack. DigitalGlobe does about sixty per cent of its business with the U.S. government, but those contracts are for unclassified work, such as mapping. The government’s own military and intelligence satellite system, with an unmatched ability to achieve what analysts call “highly granular images,” could have supplied superior versions of the target sites. Israel has at least two military satellite systems, but, according to Allen Thomson, a former C.I.A. analyst, DigitalGlobe’s satellite has advantages for reconnaissance, making Israel a logical customer. (“Customer anonymity is crucial to us,” Chuck Herring, a spokesman for DigitalGlobe, said. “I don’t know who placed the order and couldn’t disclose it if I did.”)
Another possibility, according to Hersh, is that the site was part of a Russian-supplied radar defence system similar to those in Iran, and that by overflying Syrian airspace it would be triggered and “expose [it] to…exploitation” as a kind of dry-run for bombing Iran. It could also have been carried out to show military strength by Israel, given that the US NIE report (which was delayed by the US government for a year at the behest of Dick Cheney) had negative findings of an Iranian nuclear weapon. These findings were known in the intelligence community.
Israel may have had Iran in mind as much as Syria, according to a source quoted by Hersh.
Update: Ogle Earth notes that ISIS’ David Albright, quoted by Hersh in the New Yorker, has provided a clarification and partial objection to Hersh’s characterization of their analysis. ISIS says their quote was taken out of context, and that they have consistently maintained the site had nuclear purposes.
Hersh, who we at ISIS greatly respect, is correct to raise the issue of whether Israeli and U.S. intelligence are right about the purpose of the site. We are committed to developing that information publicly. Moreover, the bombing of the site raises troubling questions that require public answers. Hersh has added interesting and important information to this critical debate. He clearly believes that the site did not house a reactor, and he is entitled to his opinion. But much of his argument hinges on Albright’s statement that was taken out of context. His other evidence is from people who do not have direct knowledge of the case, or are limited to analyzing satellite imagery of the site, which we know cannot on its own answer the question of whether or not the site is a reactor.
This seems fair enough, but ISIS does not say what “direct knowledge” they have of the case, and it seems that they too analyzed satellite data of the site.