NEWS & EDITOR’S COMMENT: The longer this goes on, the less we know

An Israeli strike on Syria kindles debate in the U.S

It has long been known that North Korean scientists have aided Damascus in developing sophisticated ballistic missile technology, and there appears to be little debate that North Koreans frequently visited a site in the Syrian desert that Israeli jets attacked Sept. 6. Where officials disagree is whether the accumulated evidence points to a Syrian nuclear program that poses a significant threat to the Middle East.

Mr. Cheney and his allies have expressed unease at the decision last week by President Bush and Ms. Rice to proceed with an agreement to supply North Korea with economic aid in return for the North’s disabling its nuclear reactor. Those officials argued that the Israeli intelligence demonstrates that North Korea cannot be trusted. They also argue that the United States should be prepared to scuttle the agreement unless North Korea admits to its dealing with the Syrians.

During a breakfast meeting on Oct. 2 at the White House, Ms. Rice and her chief North Korea negotiator, Christopher R. Hill, made the case to President Bush that the United States faced a choice: to continue with the nuclear pact with North Korea as a way to bring the secretive country back into the diplomatic fold and give it the incentive to stop proliferating nuclear material; or to return to the administration’s previous strategy of isolation, which detractors say left North Korea to its own devices and led it to test a nuclear device last October.

Mr. Cheney and Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, also attended the meeting, administration officials said.

The Israeli strike occurred at a particularly delicate time for American diplomatic efforts. In addition to the North Korean nuclear negotiations, the White House is also trying to engineer a regional Middle East peace conference that would work toward a comprehensive peace accord between Arabs and Israelis.

The current and former American officials said Israel presented the United States with intelligence over the summer about what it described as nuclear activity in Syria. Officials have said Israel told the White House shortly in advance of the September raid that it was prepared to carry it out, but it is not clear whether the White House took a position then about whether the attack was justified. [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — Never has a story been told at such length while revealing so little.

Ever since this story broke, among the neocons, the engine that has kept it running is this bizarre proposition: the unprecedented Israeli veil of secrecy concerning the nature of its target is what “proves” that the target was so significant. But on the contrary, what the secrecy has done is create on open field for speculation ranging from this being a “dry run” in preparation for an attack on Iran (though since that would have undermined the element of surprise, a bit of Iran-directed saber rattling is more plausible); a demonstration of Israel’s ability to disable Syria’s air defenses (though it’s hard to understand why, if they could do this, Israel would want to publicize the fact and thereby give their adversaries a heads-up); and of course, an attack on a “nuclear facility.” And whereas last month it was being reported that Israeli commandos had gathered “samples” at the site providing forensic evidence of the connection to North Korea (North Korean mud off a North Korean boot?), we’re now told that “officials disagree … whether the accumulated evidence points to a Syrian nuclear program that poses a significant threat to the Middle East.” Strip away New York Times waffle, and that can be read as, there is no clear evidence that there is anything qualified to be called a Syrian nuclear program.

When it comes to the known facts, at this point we don’t actually know for a fact that Israel did anything more than penetrate Syrian air space. One of the few journalists who has actually attempted to report this story by visiting the location of the “strike” was told by locals that they heard sonic booms but no explosions.

How many more weeks do we have to wait before the neocon rumor mill runs out of steam and we can conclude what could have been assumed well before now: the reason the veil of secrecy has been held down so tight is because there’s nothing behind it!

As for my own theory about what happened, it is this: Israel’s new defense minister and would-be future prime minister, Ehud Barak, wanted to demonstrate that he’s a man of action who can restore Israel’s military pride after last year’s disastrous performance in Lebanon. The “strike” was a fake act of war in which the IAF gambled that Syria would not rise to the bait. The absolute secrecy was intended to hide this risky charade. Instead it provided an open season for neocon rumormongering about North Korea, Iran, the State Department and any other conceivable target of opportunity.

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