How the US missed Israel's nuclear program
As you might recall, last month, the Obama administration made public for the first time that Israel is a nuclear power. Yes, we've all known that for 40-50 years (or thought we did), but the Obama administration made it official. They did so by releasing some - but not all - of the US documents relating to what may have been one of the greatest intelligence failures in US history: the failure to realize that Israel was becoming a nuclear power until it was too late to stop it.
Those documents have now been reviewed and a fascinating summary of them appears here. Here are a few short paragraphs from a very long and fascinating story.
So how did Washington finally discover Dimona, and why was the attitude one of great concern? The story that we reconstruct here, which is based upon newly unearthed, hitherto obscure primary sources, is still incomplete and fragmentary. Much of the record is still classified at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, not only in State Department files but also in the records of the Atomic Energy Commission. Indeed, over 100 documents from 1960-61 still remain classified at NARA until a pending declassification request sets them free. Yet, based on the available declassified record, it is possible to tell a fascinating story, much of which is novel.
The first report that Israel was secretly building a large nuclear reactor with French assistance came to the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv through an American source. In late July 1960, David Anderson, an employee of American Machine and Foundry Atomics—the company that installed the Atoms for Peace reactor at Nachal Soreq—informed U.S. Embassy officials that he had heard that French personnel were constructing “a 60 megawatt atomic power reactor” in the Beersheba area. His source was an Israeli oil company director who told Anderson that the French nationals were working on a project described to him as “gas cooled power reactor capable of producing approximately 60 megawatts of electrical power.” Anderson’s understanding was that the project had been underway for “about two years,” with the completion date two years off. This report is the first and earliest available U.S. document that makes explicit reference to the Dimona project as it was actually underway.
When the U.S intelligence community got wind of the embassy report, it took time to digest it; U.S. officials realized that more information was needed, given that they had no independent sources to corroborate the report. The CIA formulated a list of questions about French-Israeli collaboration, including the organizations involved in the project, reactor specifications and plans for spent fuel, e.g., whether the Israelis were building a chemical separation plant. Only in October 1960 did the State Department send the CIA questions as an “Instruction” to the U.S. embassy in Israel, with the embassy in Paris and the U.S. mission to the IAEA also receiving copies. The request for information did not get high priority; it had a “Routine collection priority.”
In early January 1960, Ambassador Reid brought these questions up in another meeting with Ben-Gurion. The telegram itself remains classified, but a summary is available. The essence of the matter, according to Ben-Gurion, was that: (1) Israel “has no plans for producing nuclear weapons”; (2) Israel had no plutonium, but “as far as we know” returning the plutonium produced by the reactor was a “condition” imposed by the country (France) that sold the uranium; and (3) it would not accept IAEA inspection, especially if Russians were involved, or international safeguards “until all reactors are treated as equals.” The implication was that Israel would not accept international safeguards and inspections until they applied to every reactor around the world. Ben-Gurion, however, did allow for the possibility of visits by representatives of “friendly power,” an offer that the incoming Kennedy administration would pursue. How State Department officials interpreted these statements remains unknown, but they probably saw the answer about nuclear weapons as evasive.
More answers would come from the French, who asserted that plutonium produced in the reactor would be returned to France, that France and Israel had agreed that the reactor was for “exclusively peaceful use” and that French inspectors would be visiting the reactor. Yet what mechanisms were in place to assure that the French took the plutonium and to assure that Israel kept its pledges remained unclear.
Sometime in late January 1961, days after John F. Kennedy was sworn in, the U.S. Joint Atomic Energy Intelligence Committee prepared a “post-mortem” study on the SNIE on Dimona. This document is one of the most intriguing documents in the collection. Its aim was to explain why the U.S. intelligence community had failed to detect in real time the Israeli nuclear project, and, indeed, how late it was in making that determination. It provides an account of what was known, and when, about the Israeli nuclear program, concluding that Washington might have seen through Israeli “secrecy or deception” and better understood Israeli intentions at least a year earlier if the “atomic energy intelligence community had properly interpreted” the available information. In essence, the overall conclusion was that the root cause of the delay was not so much the absence of information as that some important reports and items of information had been lost in the shuffle and the dots not properly connected.
As the classification of this document is only “secret,” and the document is relatively brief and deliberately vague about the intelligence means and sources employed in the final determination (e.g., it does not refer explicitly to the U-2 flights), it is quite possible that the intelligence community had more sensitive information that it excluded from this version of the post-mortem or that a more thorough report on the subject existed with higher classification.
Ultimately, the challenge of Dimona was too big for Eisenhower to resolve; it had to fall in the lap of his newly elected successor. Ben-Gurion would tell Kennedy the very same cover story and make sure that U.S. visitors to Dimona learned very little. Israel continued to refuse IAEA safeguards on Dimona. And Washington would discover that France had little power to ensure that Israeli kept its promises.
Read the whole thing.