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Posted at 7:00 PM ET, 04/29/2010

The French spy, the CIA, and the Syrian reactor

By Jeff Stein

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.

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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.”

By Jeff Stein  | 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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This is classic for the intel bureaucracy whose size, cautiousness and inertia often tie people up in knots. It takes one self-starting field officer to take a simple initiative to get the scoop while his bosses sit and hold meetings and take a group-think approach and make decisions by committee, ensuring that no individual officer be allowed to shine. As for this case, vive la France!

Posted by: Angkor1 | April 30, 2010 11:15 AM | Report abuse

[CIA spokesman George Little said] "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.”

Curiously enough, that's the third time this week we hear that:
Leon Panetta gets the CIA back on its feet
By David Ignatius
Sunday, April 25, 2010

"Syria's secret nuclear reactor was found in 2007 after analysts studied suspicious fragments of intercepted conversations and warned the operations division to look for the smoking gun."
Security Brief: ‘The Agency man' a natural for CIA's #2

“[Michael Morell has] been a strong proponent of integrating analysis and operations, something that has led to major intelligence successes such as the discovery of Iran’s undeclared uranium enrichment facility and Syria’s covert nuclear reactor,” says CIA spokesman George Little.

What's odd about this is that it's absolutely clear from statements by then-DCIA Hayden and the lead State Department official on the reactor problem that the US did not know that the Syrians were building a reactor until the Israelis provided photographic evidence in the early spring of 2007. Apparently hints from communications intelligence had come in that something was up and satellite photography had spotted the reactor building -- but none of that conclusively pointed to a reactor project. If the Israelis hadn't had a slightly miraculous break in getting the photos, the reactor would have gone critical and begun producing plutonium by 2008 at the latest.

So I wonder why the CIA, at this late date, is trying to spin something that came close to being an Iraq-level intelligence catastrophe as a major intelligence success.

Posted by: TexLex | April 30, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse

Does this public article not burn the use of French military attaches in the future?

Posted by: john_bruckner | May 1, 2010 12:00 PM | Report abuse

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