The French spy, the CIA, and the Syrian reactor
September, 2007: CIA officials peered at the “overhead” -- satellite photos.
The pictures were crystal clear: A clandestine Syrian nuclear facility, bombed by Israeli jets, lay in ruins on the edge of the desert, 90 miles south of Damascus.
Most important, the photos showed that the core of the reactor, built with secret North Korean help, had been totally destroyed.
But at CIA headquarters, Deputy Director Stephen R. Kappes was chafing -- at what he didn’t have, according to two former intelligence officials, recounting the tale only on condition of anonymity because the incident remains sensitive.
Recently returned from a self-imposed, two-year exile, the career spy wanted somebody to eyeball that wreckage -- get in close, point a camera at it, maybe even take a radiation reading.
Days had passed, however, and the CIA, with an estimated budget of $10 billion in 2009, had not been able to get a spy out there.
It wasn’t that close-in photos would be crucial: It was a point of pride. This is what first-class intelligence services do. They dispatch spies to watch and hear things that their fabulous technology might have missed.
And Kappes, who had quit the agency in 2004 rather than take instruction from the staff of Bush’s CIA Director Porter Goss, wanted to show what the spies under his direction could do. Alas, somebody else was about to beat him to it.
How galling it must have been for the CIA: It was the French.
According to the former officials, the French military attaché in Damascus simply took it upon himself to drive out to the reactor on his own and take pictures.
One of the former officials said that the attaché, whose name could not be learned, drove out to the desert site, near the village of At Tibnah, trailing a virtual caravan of Syrian “minders,” domestic security agents assigned to follow him around.
When he pulled up to the reactor site, according to this source, the attaché jerked his thumb over his shoulder and told the bewildered guards, “They’re with me.”
Apparently that bought him enough time to snap some pictures.
But the second former official said “there was no sign of security personnel being present” at the site.
The attaché “drove there and took the photos from his vehicle,” said the former official. “A few had the steering wheel and dashboard prominently featured.
“He was never out of the vehicle, and he never got into the wreckage itself. But he was damn close, and it was a really ballsy move,” the source added.
A little while later, the French presented the photos to the CIA.
“It was a major embarrassment for [Kappes], who kept pushing them to come up with a plan on an almost daily basis,” the first former intelligence official maintains.
“I think the big issue was that CIA couldn't come up with a way of obtaining the photos. Near East Division management, as well as the Damascus station, was paralyzed, could not come up with a plan, and here the French just drive up and do it.”
CIA spokesman George Little called “this account … off the mark.”
“But what is for certain,” Little added, “is that Deputy Director Kappes always encourages bold action and smart risk. The discovery of the Syrian covert nuclear reactor was a textbook intelligence success—one achieved after a careful review of information from multiple sources over a period of time.”
Likewise, the second former official pooh-poohed the idea that Kappes was embarrassed or upset.
“I don't recall him being pissed that we didn't have anyone there,” the former official said. "Syria for us is a tough place, and he understands that.”
“The French photos were nothing more than an unexpected extra, which confirmed the bomb damage we had seen,” the former official said. “We were just struck by how close the attaché got, and the lack of any apparent security. “
“The overhead was far better,” the former official added. “It showed us the reactor was out of action, and also helped later when the Syrians began hiding what was left, bulldozing and covering it with sand.”
Much ado about nothing, a third intelligence operations veteran snorted.
Military attachés everywhere, he said, “love to do ground-level photography, pretending like they’re James Bonds or something.
“It’s the kind of stunt those services like to perform.”
| April 29, 2010; 7:00 PM ET
Categories: Intelligence, Military | Tags: CIA Director Porter Goss, Central Intelligence Agency, Espionage, Israel, Stephen Kappes
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