On September 6th Israel launched secret air strikes against Syria. Or did they? Over three weeks later none of the governments reportedly involved, Israel, the U.S. or Syria, have officially confirmed the action, much less the details. Keith Richburg, foreign editor of The Washington Post, explains how hard it is to report on a secret.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. On September 6, Israel seems to have launched an air strike at a target in northern Syria. If you crave details, join the crowd. JOURNALIST: I wonder if you could tell us what the target was, whether you supported this bombing raid and what do you think it does to change the dynamic in an already hot region? PRESIDENT GEORGE W.BUSH: I'm not gonna comment on the matter. Would you like another question? JOURNALIST: Did you support it? PRESIDENT GEORGE W.BUSH: I'm not gonna comment on the matter. BROOKE GLADSTONE: The governments of Syria and Israel were equally forthcoming, and with all the other sources on the story anonymous, it's impossible to tell actual information from politically motivated speculation.
Some say the strike hit weapons bound for Hezbolla. Others say it was a dry run for an attack on Iran, and others that it hit a nuclear site set up with the help of North Korea, with whom America has just forged an anti nuke agreement.
Washington Post foreign editor Keith Richburg has seen speculation swirl while the facts remain just out of reach. KEITH RICHBURG: It's been a greatly kept secret, because normally the Israelis are among the most talkative officials we speak with covering the world, but on this case they've been incredibly tight-lipped. There have been a lot of things coming unofficially out of opposition figures like B.B. Netanyahu, but nothing really official.
On the other hand, there's been so much sort of unofficially leaking out from John Bolton, from think tankers, from U.S. officials off the record, that we seem to be getting a good outline of precisely what this is, but we don't know if it's accurate or not. It's being reported that this was nuclear material. BROOKE GLADSTONE: It's being speculated that it's nuclear material. I guess my question is, is the post reporting source beyond those who are generally hostile to Syria, or like John Bolton, strongly oppose the deal with North Korea? I mean, in other words, are there any sources on this story that don't have a stake? KEITH RICHBURG: Well, that's the problem. None of these sources are what you'd call sort of a) official sources, and b) unbiased sources. And so until we get anything official, either from the U.S. administration or from the Israelis, we simply don't know.
And, I might add, even the Syrians [LAUGHS] are being regrettably tight lipped. Even their response or their criticism to this obvious violation of their air space and bombing of their territory was incredibly muted. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, The Wall Street Journal's news pages have stayed pretty much away from this story, and even The New York Times has been very circumspect about the speculated scenarios. But if you read Glenn Kessler's stories, among all the speculations, The Post's pieces always put the nuclear one right at the top. KEITH RICHBURG: Well, that's because Glenn's got pretty good sources at the State Department telling him that this is indeed what the Israelis are saying they bombed.
Now, I think he's been cautious to call it "suspected" nuclear components or nuclear material because the Israelis are saying they had intelligence saying that this was there, and so they bombed it. The Americans are telling our reporters that yes, this is what the Israelis said, without actually verifying it themselves. BROOKE GLADSTONE: When The Washington Post report says that information is said to come primarily from Israel, including dramatic satellite imagery, and you have somebody like John Pike of globalsecurity.org who, if nothing else, knows his satellite imagery, says that there wouldn't be anything dramatic at this stage in a nuclear program, you have to wonder. Do you worry that you may be ahead of this story? KEITH RICHBURG: I'm always cautious on any story involving unnamed sources, and that's what you've got here. I think we have to be a little bit cautious here. You know, he said there wouldn't be dramatic — we described it as dramatic. Well, that depends on what your definition of dramatic is.
We can only say what people are saying to us, and certainly I think people have to read anything with a note of caution. We know how accurate those same unnamed officials have been in the past.
So obviously, we're trying a really tough balancing act here to try to reveal as much information as we know, or at least what people are saying, without ourselves saying, we, The Washington Post, have verified this. BROOKE GLADSTONE: I'm a great admirer of Glenn Kessler's work. In this case, though, despite the qualifications, I can't help but feel that The Washington Post has already made up its mind about this story. It just can't tell us how it knows. KEITH RICHBURG: You'll have to talk to Glenn Kessler on that. You know, a lot of people out there just want to replay what happened before the lead up to the Iraq War, so they're suspicious of anything that's based on intelligence sources that might have a motive, and that's understandably so.
But as I said, you know, when you've got a veteran reporter who's reporting something based on sources, you know, you have to go with what your reporters are saying. There are editors here, and these things do get questioned and vetted back here in the news room. We can't go too much into our own process back here, but we're dealing with this murky world of intelligence. You're always going to be getting things from officials on either side. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Keith, thank you very much. KEITH RICHBURG: Okay, no problem. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Keith Richburg is the foreign editor of The Washington Post.