The U.S. Discovery of Israel's Secret Nuclear Project

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tags: nuclear weapons, Israel



The U.S. government first learned of Israel's secret nuclear program at Dimona from an American corporate official talking to U.S. diplomats in Tel Aviv during mid-summer 1960, according to a declassified document published today for the first time 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.  Other documents published today detail the discovery of the secret project that some in the U.S. government believed from the very start aimed at a weapons capability; the U.S. debates over Israel's lack of candor; and U.S. government efforts to pressure the Israelis to answer key questions about the nature of the Dimona project.

This "discovery," which came as the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower was drawing to a close, caused apprehension in Washington by raising concern about regional stability and nuclear proliferation, but it also produced annoyance because Israeli officials at all levels repeatedly provided less than credible answers to U.S. questions about Dimona. Thus, in September 1960, when embassy officials asked about a new construction site when they were on a helicopter ride nearby, an adroit Israeli official, Addy Cohen, improvised a story to keep the secret: it was the site of a textile factory, he said; a story that was not wholly false because there was a textile plant near Dimona.   An interview with Addy Cohen detailing the episode appears in this posting for the first time.

Documents published in this collection shed light on a particularly notable intelligence failure: how Washington missed warning signs that the Israelis had a nuclear project underway, but also how the U.S. belatedly realized what the Israelis were doing, and how Eisenhower and his senior advisers reacted to this discovery.  Among the documents are:

* The June 1959 Israel-Norway secret agreement providing for the sale of Norwegian  heavy water to Israel (through the United Kingdom), transmitted by Oslo Embassy political officer Richard Kerry (father of  Secretary of State John Kerry).

* Reports about information from a then-covert source -- University of Michigan nuclear engineering professor Henry Gomberg -- who learned that the Israelis had a secret nuclear reactor project that involved experiments with plutonium.

* A telegram from the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv reporting on Finance Ministry official Addy Cohen's statement  that "we've been misbehaving," and one by an unidentified official close to Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion that the secrecy surrounding Dimona was unjustifiable and that it was "a stupid mistake on the part of Israel."

* Reports by U.S. Ambassador Ogden Reid on conversations with Ben-Gurion.

* A State Department message to the embassy in Tel Aviv conveying irritation that the responses of the Israeli government showed a "lack of candor."

* Messages about a role for the International Atomic Energy Agency in inspecting and safeguarding Dimona.
Many of the documents published today have been declassified for years but have not been collected and published comprehensively with the aim of shedding light on the Eisenhower administration's efforts to come to terms with the discovery of Dimona.  This material is only the tip of the iceberg: many documents from this period are still classified in State Department records and in the files of the Atomic Energy Commission, although they are currently under request by the National Security Archive.

Today's posting marks the inauguration of the National Security Archive's special Web page on Israeli Nuclear History, edited by Avner Cohen. As a project of the Archive's Nuclear Vault, it will be the homepage for the Archive's postings relating to the Israeli nuclear program.




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