ONE OF THE least noticed and most peculiar campaign promises made by Barack Obama is his pledge, if elected president, to "secure all loose nuclear materials in the world within four years." Without doubt that is a laudable goal, but one is left wondering how exactly he expects to accomplish it in four years, or even, for that matter, in 40.
One of many obstacles is that our intelligence agencies seldom know where loose nuclear materials are, especially when they are hidden on the territory of hostile states. An even bigger problem is that when we they do locate them, there always will be some expert or another telling us that, despite all the evidence, they are not really there. Obama, of all people, should know this.
He has one such expert advising his campaign.
On Sept. 6, 2007, Israeli jets destroyed a large box-shaped structure built in Syria at Al Kibar, not far from the Euphrates River. Although Israel maintained a discreet silence about the raid, and Syria confined itself to denouncing Israel for violating its airspace, suspicion immediately began to mount that the target was a nuclear reactor. In the weeks that followed, satellite photos and other data buttressing that suspicion rapidly began to emerge.
But not everyone was convinced. Among the skeptics was Joseph Cirincione, formerly a staff member for Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) on the House Armed Services Committee and more recently a denizen of the Washington think-tank world, who has been an informal advisor on nuclear affairs for Obama and has written a series of memos for the campaign.
Interviewed by Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker after the Israeli raid, Cirincione was emphatic: "Syria does not have the technical, industrial or financial ability to support a nuclear weapons program. I've been following this issue for 15 years, and every once in awhile a suspicion arises and we investigate and there's nothing. There was and is no nuclear weapons threat from Syria."
Thanks to materials made public by the U.S. on April 24, we now know that the facility at Al Kibar was a nuclear reactor and that it had been built with North Korean assistance. Indeed, it was a close copy of the North Korean plutonium producing reactor at Yongbyon that the U.S. has been trying, via negotiations, to shut down. Cirincione has admitted that he got it wrong, explaining that the evidence "seems strong" that Syria was building a reactor and that no one can bat 1,000.
Cirincione is correct about the difficulty of attaining a perfect batting average. But still, why did he miss this particular ball?
One obvious explanation is that he fell victim to Syrian deception. As a report by the Institute for Science and International Security makes plain, Syrian engineers and architects went to "astonishing lengths" to erase the "signature" of the reactor at Al Kibar and to camouflage and/or bury "commonly expected attributes and conceal the building's true purpose." So successful was the Syrian concealment effort that even after 2005, when U.S. intelligence officials first became aware of the structure and a North Korean presence at it, they labeled it an "enigma facility."
Yet secrecy and camouflage are par for the course. No country with a covert nuclear program has failed to use such means to keep its effort hidden from the world. And no nuclear nonproliferation expert worth his boron would be unaware of this. What else must have been at work here?
Experts, like generals, have a tendency to fight the last war. In this instance, the last war was the Iraq war, in which the U.S. invaded in no small part to dismantle a nuclear weapons program that turned out not to exist. A good many nuclear specialists within and outside the intelligence world appear to have become so fearful of repeating that sorry experience that they are afraid even to acknowledge things that do exist. Last year's National Intelligence Estimate on Iran that declared, misleadingly, that Iran's nuclear weapons program ended in 2003 is a prominent case in point.
Cirincione seems to have been snared by precisely the same trap. Reports of a Syrian nuclear reactor, he wrote a week after the Israeli strike, were "nonsense," the handiwork "of a small group of officials leaking cherry-picked, unvetted 'intelligence' to key reporters in order to promote a preexisting political agenda. If this sounds like the run-up to the war in Iraq, it should."
It "is all political," he insisted to Hersh. Those peddling the story of the nonexistent reactor appear to have been aiming "at derailing the U.S.-North Korean agreement that administration hard-liners think is appeasement."
In his solicitude for the U.S.-North Korean agreement -- itself a deeply flawed document and one repeatedly violated by Pyongyang -- the solution to the riddle becomes clear. Cirincione is now the president of an outfit called the Ploughshares Fund, a foundation dedicated to funding advocates of arms control negotiations around the world. To him and his fellow members of the arms control creed, the admission that North Korea was illicitly shipping nuclear technology abroad -- and that a country such as Syria, a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, had been caught in a brazen violation of its commitments -- might be taken as an acknowledgment that the arms control regime on which they have staked their reputations and dedicated their lives has failed utterly.
But it is as irrational to suggest that weapons never exist as it would be to suggest that they always exist. As the Syrian episode demonstrates, there may not be weapons of mass destruction under every dictator's bed, but sometimes there will be, and it is not something about which we -- or, in this instance, the Israelis -- can afford to be wrong.
In short, when the Israelis obliterated the reactor at Al Kibar, the reverberations of the blast also shattered a theology. If Obama is to make any headway at all on his quixotic pledge to secure all loose nuclear materials in the world in four years, he might begin by securing some more realistic nuclear advisors.