Syria’s Missing Reactor

The New York Times reports about the possible aftermath of the Israeli air strike on Syria last month, which supposedly destroyed a reactor under construction. They point to the speedy dismantling of the site – a site, not confirmed publicly by anyone as the site of the airstrike, whatever its target may have been – as proof that Syria is “guilty” and has “something to hide”.

In doing so, they’re making a grave but simple error.

In the reading I’ve been doing lately about information and intelligence analysis, there are described a number of analytic pitfalls that can befall the unwary. One of these is referred to as “projection”, and it’s the incautious inference of meaning or reason in observed action. In short, it’s jumping to conclusions about why someone has done something. In the present instance, the information is that a large structure that used to be there isn’t there anymore, having disappeared sometime between early August and late October. That’s all you can tell from the photos, and pretty much all we, the public, know.

Assuming the structure in question was the target of an Israeli airstrike – or, at least, the airstrike in question – there are a number of possible reasons for its removal within a six-week period. Limiting the opportunity for damage assessment is one possibility; removing the visible reminders of a foreign power’s military incursion is another. How and when the structure was removed would be far more telling, but that information isn’t public. For example, if the debris was removed at night, in the days immediately after the attack, you could make certain inferences from that. On the other hand, if they did nothing for three weeks, then began dismantling the structure during weekday daylight hours only, that, too might tell you something.

Syria says it was a mostly-empty military warehouse that was hit; then again, they would, wouldn’t they? Israel says it was a nuclear reactor under construction. They could well be right; in their corner of the world, their intelligence services are some of the best in the business. In either event, if the outer shell of the building – whatever was, or was intended to be, inside it notwithstanding – was a simple steel-framed metal structure (like many modern warehouses, aircraft hangers, and similar buildings), it’s dismantling and removal could be achieved in a week or two, not a year or more, as the Times suggests. Especially if you weren’t concerned about being neat – say, because it had just been torn apart by a half-dozen 2,000-pound bombs – removing a 150-foot square building is a fairly fast and trivial exercise.

As far as whether the site is, or was, a nuclear reactor, or was even the target of the Israeli attack, there is far too little available information. Show the world images of the site at the beginning of construction, whenever that was – and a year before, to help judge whether the “pumping station” is in any way related. Show photos taken within a week of the date of the airstrike, so people can judge what damage, if any, was done. Provide a theory as to what the “auxiliary building” is, and why it apparently wasn’t targeted in the attack. Show, if possible, an oblique view of what looks like a newly-dug tunnel entrance to the southeast of the site of the large structure in the latest photo, and a theory as to what it is. Only then can the public and the media come to relatively informed conclusions about when, what, and why.

Our government, or the Israeli government, almost certainly have sufficient information to evaluate the site, the results of the attack, and Syria’s reactions. It’s entirely possible the unnamed intelligence officials quotes by the Times know the details – but being possible, or even probable, doesn’t make it true. Without substantiative information to support it, however, applying motives to Damascus – or assigning any sort of guilt – is really just a textbook example of “projecting” and jumping to conclusions.

Published in: General, Security | on October 25th, 2007| 3 Comments »

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3 Comments

  1. On 10/26/2007 at 9:28 pm smintheus Said:

    You’re right on almost every point here. It’s a tale of two photos. Nearly all the rest of the narrative is heavily fictionalized.

    I’d add that the absence of any further photos is itself evidence of something. They surely exist, but they haven’t been leaked. Odd that the Bush administration, especially Cheney, who has been so eager for journalists to spread the nuclear reactor story, hasn’t released any photos that would actually demonstrate it…for example, of the exposed rubble after the bombing. There’s a good guess in there that other photos would show that the nuclear story is a load of hooey.

    On the other hand, I don’t think it’s true that Israel has claimed the site was a nuclear reactor. That story came to us via the NY Times, in whose ear the White House started whispering. Meanwhile, Israel has remained mum and Syria has denied it was a nuclear site.

  2. On 10/26/2007 at 11:34 pm Nemo Said:

    You might well be correct that Israel hasn’t confirmed – nor denied, for that matter – either the status of the site, or even their involvement in the attack, which may not be necessarily relevant, though.

    In fact, while I was more interested in the dubious analysis and jumping-to of conclusions in regards to the imagery, the details surrounding the entire event are quite muddled. As far as I can tell, on 7 September Syria began everything by announcing – and denouncing – an Israeli incursion – but denied any targets were damaged. A week later, unnamed Department of Defense officials claim that a target was, indeed, hit by the Israelis, and that Israel was photographing possible targets, including nuclear sites, but Syria at that time seemed to evade the question of whether a target was hit with some really weaselly language. Now, a month later, some American “officials” are saying it was a nuclear reactor that was hit back in September, and Syria has now changed their story, saying it was a mostly-empty military warehouse that was attacked. We might never know the truth…

    Trying to point to the absence of further photos of the site in question as proof of anything is analytically suspect; Much like the New York Times, you’d then be making inferences from an absence of evidence – literally. The lack of hard evidence to support the administration’s claims is certainly worth noting, and itself suspicious, but you really can’t use a lack of information to prove any fact, despite what some shoddy news outlets might occasionally try. 🙂

    I will say, though, that if the airstrike happened on the 6th or 7th of September, five or six days later – the 12th, when the New York Times first reported a target as having been hit – is, by all accounts, just enough time for whatever SIGINT and IMINT data may exist to have been studied by the U.S. and a preliminary analysis made and almost immediately leaked. Why it would take another month – almost exactly, 12 September to 14 October – to leak the purported identity of the target, I don’t know. Maybe it’s as simple as a NYT reporter having once-a-month meetings with an intelligence-community leaker…

  3. On 10/29/2007 at 11:12 am smintheus Said:

    Actually, you can sometimes make valid deductions from the absence of evidence–where for example you would expect there to be evidence. The-dog-that-didn’t-bark is a famous (fictional) example of making a correct deduction from the absence of evidence. It’s an analytical trick used all the time by historians and others (it’s called “negative evidence”).

    It’s often the case of the presence of some evidence together with the absence of other evidence, as here. The failure of anybody to produce it is potentially significant–all the more when (as it appears) Cheney and his gang are doing their level best to get journalists to talk up the nuclear reactor allegation.

    This kind of negative evidence may not constitute “proof”, but then what does in this murky area? Like many others, I concluded in 2002 on the basis of negative evidence that the Bush administration had no real knowledge of the things they were claiming then about Iraqi weapons programs. That was the right conclusion to draw because the negative evidence was extremely strong.

    In this case, the negative evidence is much less strong. But with Bush and Cheney, there is a long and consistent pattern of claims that leave in their trail some glaring gaps in evidence that you’d have expected to find. A little hard to believe that the absence of evidence in this instance is just coincidental.