Middle East History - It Happened in October: With Vanunu Revelations, World Learned Israel Had Nuclear Weapons

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Middle East History--It Happened in October: With Vanunu Revelations, World Learned Israel Had Nuclear Weapons

It was seven years ago, on Oct. 5, 1986, when the Sunday Times of London reported that Israel was a nuclear superpower. The tiny country had in its possession "at least 100 and as many as 200 nuclear weapons," making it a nuclear power rivaling Britain, China and France. The story said Israel had been producing the weapons at Dimona in the Negev Desert for 20 years.(1)

The Sunday Times article was based on the testimony of a disaffected Israeli nuclear technician, Mordechai Vanunu, 31. He had worked at Dimona for 10 years before he became disillusioned by Israel's nuclear policy and, after living in Australia, went to England to tell his story. Although it had long been speculated that Israel had a nuclear arsenal, Vanunu revealed details of Israel's nuclear program never before made public. He provided the Sunday Times with a cross-section drawing of the entire Dimona underground nuclear complex and photographs Vanunu said he had secretly taken of the control room. Vanunu said bombs were assembled in an underground complex called Machon 2 that extended six stories beneath the ground under a two-story building.

Vanunu's details were so convincing that nuclear experts pronounced themselves satisfied as to his accuracy. Frank Barnaby, former director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and physicist at Britain's Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, said Vanunu's evidence convinced him that Israel had both fission and fusion weapons.(2)

Vanunu was later lured from Britain to Rome by an American blonde Mossad agent named "Cindy" and kidnapped back to Israel aboard a ship in the fall of 1986.(3) On Nov. 9, 1986, Israel admitted Vanunu was a prisoner in Israel. But it has refused ever since to say how he had been brought there.(4) On March 24, 1988, after a seven-month trial closed to the public, he was found guilty of espionage and treason and sentenced to 18 years in prison.(5)

A later book, Triple Cross: Israel, the Atomic Bomb and the Man Who Spilled the Secrets by Louis Toscano, claimed Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir proposed assassinating Vanunu but was turned down by Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Instead, Peres saw disclosure of the nuclear information as delivering a forceful deterrent to the Arabs without Israel having to publicly admit possession of such weapons. The book claimed Peres ordered Vanunu's kidnapping.

Vanunu today remains in a cramped cell in solitary confinement, where he has been kept since his apprehension seven years ago. His family fears Israeli authorities may be trying to drive him insane so that when his sentence expires he can be transferred directly to an asylum and his comments could be discounted as those of a lunatic. There are indications Israel has employed this inhumane technique in the past to discredit other Israeli dissidents.(6)

Israel has done everything it could to hide its nuclear program.

While the general public may have found Vanunu's revelations sensational, they were not news to the CIA or American leaders. As early as 1968, the Central Intelligence Agency concluded that Israel possessed nuclear weapons. According to records of a 1976 classified briefing given by Carl Duckett, the CIA's deputy director for science and technology from 1967 to 1976, the agency informed President Johnson of this in early 1968. Johnson's response was to order the CIA not to inform any other members of the administration, including Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk.(7)

In 1978, another CIA document on Israel's nuclear program became public. This one was a Sept. 14, 1974 five-page report that said: "We believe that Israel already has produced nuclear weapons." It said its conclusion was "based on Israeli acquisition of large quantities of uranium, partly by clandestine means." Other evidence cited by the CIA for its belief that Israel was producing nuclear weapons included "the ambiguous nature of Israeli efforts in the field of uranium enrichment, and Israel's large investment in a costly missile system designed to accommodate nuclear warheads. …