New York Times Says U.S. rebuffed Israel on Strike Against Iran

The New York Times is reporting that President Bush “deflected” a request by Israel last year for specialized bunker-busting bombs Israel wanted for an attack on Iran’s main nuclear complex. Bush also flatly refused to grant Israel’s request to fly over Iraq to reach Iran’s major nuclear complex at Natanz, where the country’s only known uranium enrichment plant is located, according to the same report.

Bush supposedly told the Israelis he had authorized new covert action intended to sabotage Iran’s suspected effort to develop nuclear weapons. The U.S. also agreed to step up intelligence-sharing with Israel.

The Times doesn’t say whether the Israelis took any comfort from Bush’s “covert” campaign to sabotage Iran’s nuclear efforts. In their place, I don’t think I would. It’s always seemed to me that, absent very dramatic regime change in Iran, the choices are a nuclear Iran or an attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Sabotage seems like a long shot, even absent a New York TImes story that this is what we’re trying to do.

Is the Times report accurate? Who knows? But if Israel really did seek U.S. help in connection with an attack on Iran, I have little difficulty believing that the Bush administration turned Israel down.

JOHN adds: The Times article is fascinating reading. It is based on research that reporter David Sanger has been doing for over a year; his book The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power, will be published on Tuesday.

The Times says that its account “emerged in interviews over the past 15 months with current and former American officials, outside experts, international nuclear inspectors and European and Israeli officials,” all of whom, of course, are anonymous. Every one of these individuals has an agenda, as do both the Times and Sanger. It is hard even to guess what portions of the Times story might be true.

On their face, the Times article, and presumably Sanger’s book, represent another outrageous breach of security. The paper purports to reveal top secret American initiatives against Iran:

The covert American program, started in early 2008, includes renewed American efforts to penetrate Iran’s nuclear supply chain abroad, along with new efforts, some of them experimental, to undermine electrical systems, computer systems and other networks on which Iran relies. …

Several years ago, foreign intelligence services tinkered with individual power units that Iran bought in Turkey to drive its centrifuges, the floor-to-ceiling silvery tubes that spin at the speed of sound, enriching uranium for use in power stations or, with additional enrichment, nuclear weapons.

A number of centrifuges blew up, prompting public declarations of sabotage by Iranian officials. An engineer in Switzerland, who worked with the Pakistani nuclear black-marketeer Abdul Qadeer Khan, had been “turned” by American intelligence officials and helped them slip faulty technology into parts bought by the Iranians.

What Mr. Bush authorized, and informed a narrow group of Congressional leaders about, was a far broader effort, aimed at the entire industrial infrastructure that supports the Iranian nuclear program. Some of the efforts focused on ways to destabilize the centrifuges.

If this information was published without the government’s authority, the Times’ reporter and editors should be criminally prosecuted. It seems more likely, however, that the administration approved publication in order to sow doubt and confusion among Iranian leaders.

The article includes interesting comments on the notoriously politicized National Intelligence Estimate that claimed Iran had abandoned its nuclear program:

Israel’s effort to obtain the weapons, refueling capacity and permission to fly over Iraq for an attack on Iran grew out of its disbelief and anger at an American intelligence assessment completed in late 2007 that concluded that Iran had effectively suspended its development of nuclear weapons four years earlier.

That conclusion also stunned Mr. Bush’s national security team — and Mr. Bush himself, who was deeply suspicious of the conclusion, according to officials who discussed it with him.

The assessment, a National Intelligence Estimate, was based on a trove of Iranian reports obtained by penetrating Iran’s computer networks.

Is that true, or does the administration want Iran to believe, falsely, that its computer systems have been compromised?

The “key judgments” of the National Intelligence Estimate, which were publicly released, emphasized the suspension of the weapons work.

The public version made only glancing reference to evidence described at great length in the 140-page classified version of the assessment: the suspicion that Iran had 10 or 15 other nuclear-related facilities, never opened to international inspectors, where enrichment activity, weapons work or the manufacturing of centrifuges might be taking place.

The Israelis responded angrily and rebutted the American report, providing American intelligence officials and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with evidence that they said indicated that the Iranians were still working on a weapon.

…[T]he Israelis were not the only ones highly critical of the United States report. Secretary Gates, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said the report had presented the evidence poorly, underemphasizing the importance of Iran’s enrichment activity and overemphasizing the suspension of a weapons-design effort that could easily be turned back on.

In an interview, Mr. Gates said that in his whole career he had never seen “an N.I.E. that had such an impact on U.S. diplomacy,” because “people figured, well, the military option is now off the table.”

Prime Minister Olmert came to the same conclusion.

The Times doesn’t print classified information without a political purpose. In the past, it has collaborated with Democrats in the federal bureaucracy to try to undermine the Bush administration. With only days to go before Bush leaves office, that is no longer the paper’s concern. What, then, are Sanger and the Times up to?

My guess is they are, as usual, running interference for Barack Obama. The Times doesn’t want Obama to be blamed for what happens next in connection with Iran:

Those covert operations, and the question of whether Israel will settle for something less than a conventional attack on Iran, pose immediate and wrenching decisions for Mr. Obama. …

Since his election on Nov. 4, Mr. Obama has been extensively briefed on the American actions in Iran, though his transition aides have refused to comment on the issue.

The Times is careful to assure us that Obama’s aides aren’t the leakers.

Early in his presidency, Mr. Obama must decide whether the covert actions begun by Mr. Bush are worth the risks of disrupting what he has pledged will be a more active diplomatic effort to engage with Iran.

Either course could carry risks for Mr. Obama. An inherited intelligence or military mission that went wrong could backfire, as happened to President Kennedy with the Bay of Pigs operation in Cuba. But a decision to pull back on operations aimed at Iran could leave Mr. Obama vulnerable to charges that he is allowing Iran to speed ahead toward a nuclear capacity, one that could change the contours of power in the Middle East.

I suppose we should enjoy what is likely to be the Times’ last major leak for some time, even assuming the paper stays in business through 2009. With a Democratic President in place, neither Democratic bureaucrats nor the Times will have any desire to undermine the administration by leaking and publishing classified information.

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