A blockbuster New York Times piece reveals that early in 2008, Israel asked the Bush administration for deep penetrating bunker-buster bombs, aerial refueling tankers and permission to overfly Iraq in order to strike Iran’s Natanz nuclear complex. The administration rejected the requests, Sanger writes, quoting a “top” Bush aide who told him, “we said ’hell no’ to the overflights.”
American political and military officials worried that an Israeli strike package overflying Iraq would create a political uproar in that country that could lead to the expulsion of U.S. troops. U.S. officials were “really spooked” by Israel’s June 2008 aerial exercises over the Mediterranean that were considered a “dry run” for a Natanz attack. Joint Chiefs chair Adm. Mike Mullen traveled to Israel in July to ask their intentions. Sanger writes that Mullen’s Israeli counterpart claimed an Israeli air strike could set the Iranian program back by two or three years, claims the U.S. considered optimistic.
Israel’s request for U.S. bombs and tankers came in response to the now famous NIE released in late 2007 that said Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons efforts. Until that report was publicly released, Israel had believed Bush would not leave office without ordering a U.S. strike on Iran. Believing a U.S. attack was now off the table Israel began preparations of its own. Sanger writes that Israel concluded that without U.S. help, “they were not yet capable of hitting the site effectively enough to strike a decisive blow against the Iranian program.”
David Sanger’s piece, reported over 15 months, is sure to set off a firestorm of criticism aimed at The New York Times as it reveals perhaps sensitive details of covert American efforts to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program, as well as a (no longer) covert campaign begun in early 2008 to “penetrate Iran’s nuclear supply chain abroad” and "destabilize" the country's operational uranium enrichment centrifuges. Sanger was obviously provided highly classified intelligence by his sources, and he names a, before now anyway, “little-known” Iranian professor, Mohsen Fakrizadeh, who was identified in intelligence reports as being “deeply involved” in nuclear weaponization efforts.
The problem with a piece like this coming out now, versus years from now, is that it could tie the incoming Obama administration's hands as to what options are open to it in trying to curtail Iran's nuclear weapons program. Sanger knows full well that's the case as he writes: "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... 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."
That last bit reads more like an editorial than pure reporting and analysis. The motives of one's sources must always be kept in mind, like those that began talking to Sanger, 15 months ago, after the famous NIE was released.