How Israel Hid Its Secret Nuclear Weapons Program – Avner Cohen and William Burr/POLITICO Magazine

by NewsStand

For decades, the world has known that the massive Israeli facility near Dimona, in the Negev Desert, was the key to its secret nuclear project. Yet, for decades, the world—and Israel—knew that Israel had once misleadingly referred to it as a “textile factory.” Until now, though, we’ve never known how that myth began—and how quickly the United States saw through it. The answers, as it turns out, is part of a fascinating tale that played out in the closing weeks of the Eisenhower administration—a story that begins with the father of Secretary of State John Kerry and a familiar charge that the U.S. intelligence community failed to “connect the dots.”

In its final months, even as the Kennedy-Nixon presidential race captivated the country, the Eisenhower administration faced a serious of crises involving Cuba and Laos. Yet, as the fall of 1960 progressed, Eisenhower encountered a significant and unexpected problem of a new kind—U.S. diplomats learned and U.S. intelligence soon confirmed that Israel was building, with French aid, a secret nuclear reactor in the Negev Desert. Soon concluding that the Israelis were likely seeking an eventual nuclear weapons capability, the administration saw a threat to strategic stability in the Middle East and a nuclear proliferation threat. Adding fuel to the fire was the perception that Israel was deceitful, or had not “come clean,” as CIA director Allen Dulles put it. Once the Americans started asking questions about Dimona, the site of Israel’s nuclear complex, the Israelis gave evasive and implausible cover stories.

A little anecdote about an occurrence sometime in September 1960 sheds light on the development of U.S. perceptions that Israel was being less than honest about Dimona. Sometime that month Addy Cohen, then the young director of the Foreign Aid Office at the Israeli Finance Ministry, hosted the U.S. Ambassador to Israel Ogden Reid and some of his senior staff for a tour of the Dead Sea Works—a large Israeli potash plant in Sdom, on the Dead Sea coast of Israel. The Israeli Air Force provided a Sikorsky S-58 helicopter to fly the American group from Tel Aviv to Sdom. As they returning on the helicopter, near the new town of Dimona, Reid pointed to a huge industrial site under heavy construction and asked what it was.

Ambassador Reid’s question may not have been that innocent. A few months earlier, the US embassy at Tel Aviv had already heard rumors—which it reported back to Washington—about a secret nuclear complex under construction in the Negev. This was a good opportunity to ask questions to an Israeli official who might know. As it happened, Addy Cohen, a close aide to Finance Minister Levi Eshkol, was indeed the right person. He knew about the secret project because Dimona “was discussed in one of the Treasury Ministry executive meetings under Eshkol.” Cohen also knew that he could not share what he knew with his American friends.

“I was not prepared to Ambassador Reid’s question [about the Dimona site],” recalls Addy Cohen who is now 87 years of age and lives in Israel, so “I adlibbed by referring to Trostler, the Jerusalemite architect [a relative of his wife], who actually designed a textile plant there [at Dimona].”

“Why, that’s a textile plant,” responded Cohen to the question. Cohen’s answer was not completely false, but it was surely evasive. Looking back, Cohen told us this month, “It may have transpired that I was the first one who referred to the project as a ‘textile plant’ but I can assure you that it was not planned.”

Over the years the “textile factory” story has been cited often as the Israeli official early cover story and acquired legendary status, but exactly when the story came about has been a mystery. Nobody knew how the “textile factory” cover came about. Cohen’s new statement, paired with recently unearthed U.S. government documents, clarify for the first time this historical puzzle and shed new light on how Washington missed warning signs about Dimona, how it belatedly discovered the reactor and, later, how it reacted to the finding. It’s a particularly fascinating story set against the backdrop of the modern-day international negotiations over Iran’s budding nuclear ambition and the secrets its program holds.

The Eisenhower administration’s “discovery” of Dimona was belated indeed, more than five years after Israel had made a secret national commitment to create a nuclear program aiming at providing an option to produce nuclear weapons; more than three years after Israel had signed a secret comprehensive nuclear bargain with France; and two years or more after Israel had begun the vast excavation and construction work at the Dimona site. It was clearly a major blunder of American intelligence. In comparative terms, it was probably as severe as the failures to anticipate the Indian nuclear tests of 1974 and 1998.

What was a breakdown of U.S. intelligence was a tremendous counterintelligence success for Israel, providing precious time for the highly vulnerable Dimona project. Had the United States discovered Dimona two years earlier—even a year earlier—the young and fragile undertaking might not have survived the weight of U.S. and world pressure generally.

This article, recounting the Dimona discovery and its implications, is based on a special collection of declassified documents published on Wednesday by the National Security Archive, the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project, and the Center for Nonproliferation Studies of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

The Israeli Decision and Lapses in U.S. Intelligence 

The Americans were truly surprised by the audacity of the Israeli nuclear project. Soon after Prime Minister Ben-Gurion came to power in 1955 he launched a secret initiative to determine whether, and how, Israel could build a nuclear infrastructure to support a national program aiming at producing nuclear explosives. A senior defense official named Shimon Peres took charge of the project. Within three years, he did the almost impossible—transforming the idea of a national nuclear program from a vague vision into a real technological achievement. Unlike the chair of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC), Professor David Ernst Bergmann, who preached self-reliance, Peres’s overall philosophy was that Israel must not and could not reinvent the wheel—it had to focus on finding a foreign supplier who could provide the most comprehensive nuclear package possible suited for a weapons-oriented program.

By 1958 Peres had drawn up the project’s master plan: France would be the primary foreign supplier of the reactor and related technology, Norway would provide the heavy water and possibly be the backup plan, and the United States, through a small peaceful package, gathered under Eisenhower’s “Atoms of Peace” program, would serve as the camouflage for the whole project—mostly as a way to conceal the Dimona project from the United States itself. The camouflage was the U.S. “Atoms for Peace”-financed 1 MW light water “swimming pool” reactor at Nachal Soreq.

This brings us to secrecy, because Dimona is the story of a huge secret. Secrecy was essential to shield and insulate the highly vulnerable, newly-born project from hostile outsiders. At the very core, of course, it was an Israeli secret—the largest, most awesome and longest-held secret that Israel has ever generated. But it was more than just an Israeli secret; Israel’s partners France and Norway also wanted secrecy.

In a sense, the secrecy surrounding Dimona was aimed primarily at the United States. Of all the powers, Washington posed the greatest threat. Since the time of the Baruch Plan in 1946 the United States was on the record as an opponent of the spread of nuclear weapons. Moreover, Washington helped create the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1957, the very same year the French-Israeli deal was signed and since then it had promoted the establishment of an international safeguards system. Should the Dimona secret have been compromised, the United States would have likely exercised pressure on France and Israel either to terminate the project altogether or at least to submit it to international safeguards.

Yet the United States had inklings that Israel was up to something. In 1958, a U.S. diplomat in Tel Aviv learned from a conversation with Bergman that the Israelis had a reactor project underway. But no one followed this up. The next year, in mid-1959, Richard Kerry (father of the future Secretary of State John Kerry), a political officer at the U.S. embassy in Oslo, learned that Norway was selling to Israel 20 tons of heavy water, a key ingredient for the Dimona reactor.. As the United Kingdom had an excess stock of Norwegian-supplied heavy water, the British secretly shipped it directly to Israel. This permitted the Norwegian company NORATOM to make the product available without needing political clearance from top levels of the Norwegian government. Kerry’s report back to Washington went to the mid-levels of the Atomic Energy Commission and the State Department. Although the Israelis pledged peaceful use for the heavy water, but there is no record that the report circulated at high levels, let alone that it raised questions by Secretary of State Christian Herter about what the Israelis would be doing with heavy water and a new reactor.

Why these 1958 and 1959 reports were buried in obscurity at the time remains a mystery. It remains an open question whether some people in the U.S. intelligence community or the State Department were sympathetic to the Israelis and deliberately concealed or bypassed certain information. According to Dino Brugioni, an analyst who served at the CIA Photographic Intelligence Center, the U-2 program was generating photographs of the Dimona construction site, plainly indicating a nuclear project. That intelligence, Brugioni told one of us years ago, was presented to President Eisenhower by Brugioni’s boss, Arthur C. Lundahl. Yet, when Eisenhower learned about those findings his attitude was apparently one of indifference.

The Discovery 

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, not only in State Department files but also the records of the Atomic Energy Commission. Indeed over one hundred documents from 1960-1961 still remain classified in 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 US embassy in Tel Aviv through an American source. In late July 1960 David Anderson, an employee of American Machine and Foundry (AMF) Atomics—the company which 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 under way 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 under way.

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.”

If the U.S. embassy in Israel sent back a formal response, it is still unknown. But U.S. military attaches in Israel started collecting information and taking photographs as surreptitiously as they could. One attempt to ferret out information is known. In November 1958 John Rouleau, the AEC’s representative in Paris, tried unsuccessfully, meeting with complete denial from an unnamed official of the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA). That official “stated flatly that the French CEA was not collaborating with the Israelis in the construction of a nuclear power reactor.” In retrospect, it is impossible to say whether the CEA interlocutor really knew nothing about Dimona—the deal was highly compartmentalized and secret within the CEA—or whether he made a deliberate effort to mislead the United States. Strictly speaking, of course, his statement was not a lie since the Dimona reactor was not a power reactor.The French denial did little to knock Washington off the scent, as the U.S. government was beginning to use its own sources, including British intelligence. In late November 1960Secretary of State Herter, who was greatly concerned about nuclear proliferation, brought up the matter directly with British Ambassador Harold Caccia: Washington had unconfirmed reports that a “plutonium-producing reactor may be being built in Israel with French aid.” Furthermore, France may be giving the Israelis the “know how” to build “crude atomic bombs.”

Finally, that same month in November 1960, a unique human source came forward: Flying back to Ann Arbor on his way back from Israel, Professor Henry Gomberg, from the faculty of the University of Michigan’s nuclear engineering department, briefly stopped in Paris and met with Roleau. As a guest of the Israeli AEC—a consultant on nuclear education matters—Gomberg had picked up some “urgent and secret” pieces of information (and suspicions) about a large classified Israeli nuclear program that he wanted to share with U.S. government officials. Several days later, on December 1st, Gomberg came to Washington for a full joint debriefing of AEC and State Department officials. The CIA also debriefed him. Gomberg had reasons to be convinced that Dimona closely resembled France’s Marcoule reactor, which was part of France’s weapons program. Certainly, he believed, the Israelis were creating a much larger and more thorough nuclear training program than was needed by their own declared activities. One of his sources provided unexpected information: some Israeli technicians expected to be working with gram-size quantities of plutonium and curie quantities of polonium. The plutonium issue clearly had nuclear weapons implications.

Gomberg’s information probably reinforced the thinking of intelligence community officials who already had underway a Special National Intelligence Estimate (SNIE) on Dimona, titled “Implications of the Acquisition by Israel of a Nuclear Weapons Capability.” On December 8th, CIA Director Allen Dulles signed off on the SNIE, which concluded that “on the basis of all available evidence” plutonium production for nuclear weapons “is at least one major purpose of this effort.” The “surrounding” secrecy and Dimona’s remote location was strong evidence of the military purposes. Moreover, Israel would be able to “produce some weapons grade plutonium in 1963-64 and possibly as early as 1962.” Such a development could cause “consternation” in the Arab world, which would put blame both on Paris and Washington for Dimona; moreover, it could simultaneously reduce “inhibitions” worldwide against nuclear proliferation and create international pressures to reverse the spread of nuclear weapons. That same day, Dulles briefed President Eisenhower and the National Security Council on the estimate and passed around the photographs of the Dimona site.

The SNIE was only the first cut; more needed to be known about Dimona and some old information would soon be rediscovered, such as the 1959 reports from Richard Kerry about the heavy water from Norway. Herter had an opportunity in mid-December to find out more when he was in Paris for a NATO meeting. There he saw his French counterpart, Foreign Minister Maurice Couve de Murville, who acknowledged the secret French-Israeli deal to build a “replica of [the] Marcoule plant.” Under the agreement, Couve de Murville added, France would supply Israel the raw materials and receive any plutonium produced by the plant. The Israelis would not make any public statement without first consulting the French government. In reply to Herter’s question about how the plant was financed, Couve stated that he “assumed the money came from” you. Herter understood Couve’s comment to mean that the project was financed by the “diversion of US government or private [American] aid.”

A few days later, on December 19, press stories—based on leaks by AEC director John McCone—were appearing and Eisenhower met with top advisers for an in-depth discussion of the Israeli nuclear program. Some were convinced that it was a military project and that there was a plan for a secret reprocessing plant to produce plutonium. Top officials were deeply concerned by the role of U.S. tax-exempt funds in underwriting the secret project, a problem that potentially could have raised difficult domestic political questions.

Dilemmas for U.S. Policy

But Eisenhower’s preferred diplomatic solution to the Dimona challenge was also challenging. IAEA had been founded as an institution that would develop capabilities to safeguard nuclear reactors and prevent diversion of resources into military uses. Therefore, Eisenhower believed that Israel should “forthwith open the plants,” not only to IAEA inspections but also to visits by U.S. expert scientists. Above all, however, Eisenhower and his advisers wanted Israel to be forthcoming privately and publicly about exactly what it was doing in the Negev.

Thus, the Eisenhower administration—which only had a month left in office—was circumspect in its reaction to the discovery. A diplomatic confrontation would have been politically impossible. The newly found documents indicate that a huge gap existed between what senior U.S. officials said to each other about Dimona and what they said to the Israelis. While they recognized clear weapons intentions that posed a significant proliferation risk, when talking to the Israelis, they masked their irritation and suspicion. Opting for a cautious approach, they avoided a quarrel and confined themselves—first, to seeking answers about Dimona and Israel’s intentions, and, second, to encouraging Israel to accept visits by U.S. scientists and IAEA safeguards as ways to constrain Israeli freedom of action.

On December 22nd, Prime Minister Ben-Gurion gave a statement in the Knesset on the matter of Dimona—the only such statement ever given—pledging that the reactor was solely for peaceful purposes, a statement welcomed by the State Department. Two days later, Ambassador Ogden Reid finally had a long discussion with Ben-Gurion. The latter was plainly irritated about the questions and the press reports: “Why in [the] States is everything being told [by] everybody?” Yet his account of the Dimona project consisted of the same story that he had told the Knesset: the project was for the economic development of Israel and of the Negev in particular; electric power was a badly needed resource. Yet when Reid asked if the reactor would be producing power, Ben-Gurion said no; it was for research and training.

Truly candid, however, was the Finance Ministry’s Addy Cohen, the man who three months earlier had referred to the site as a “textile factory.” In discussions with embassy and foreign aid officials, he gave the impression that the reactor would “eventually be used for weapons purposes” as a “‘deterrent’ to Arab action against Israel.” Cohen further admitted that that the government of Israel had “been misbehaving a little,” no doubt a reference to the cover stories and perhaps also to the improper use of U.S.-supplied funds. Indeed, Cohen worried that Washington would cut aid or delay promised funds, but that did not happen, although U.S. officials did discuss such delays.

Cohen’s frankness and Ben-Gurion’s non-answers made U.S. government officials annoyed that the Israelis had been trying to pull the wool over their eyes. Assistant Secretary of State Lewis worried about what he saw as “intemperate” reactions by U.S. officials but he recognized the widespread impression that “the Israelis have inexcusably duped us.” To the State Department, Ben-Gurion’s replies about Dimona “appear evasive.” The “clearly apparent lack of candor” was “difficult to reconcile with [the] confidence which had traditionally characterized U.S.-Israel relations.” The Department continued to press for more candid answers from the Israelis about Dimona, especially whether they had a nuclear weapons program in mind.

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 French took the plutonium and to assure that Israel kept its pledges remained unclear.

Sometime in late January 1961, days after Kennedy had 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 US 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 but rather 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 has to fall in the lap of his newly elected successor. Ben-Gurion would tell John F. 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.

The dilemma the Eisenhower administration faced after the discovery of Dimona in December 1960-January 1961 would endure for the entire decade. From then on, three successive U.S. administrations—under presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon—would have to deal with it as well. President Kennedy chose the toughest path of struggle and confrontation in his effort to check the program; President Johnson realized that the U.S. had limited leverage on the issue and planted the seeds of compromise and looked the other way; finally, in a bargain with Prime Minister Golda Meir, President Nixon accepted the Israel’s de facto nuclear status as long as it stayed secret—a controversial and unacknowledged deal that remains in place effectively through the current day.

Read more:

How Israel Hid Its Secret Nuclear Weapons Program – Avner Cohen and William Burr – POLITICO Magazine.