One secret CIA file may have the answer.
- By Matthew M. AidMatthew M. Aid is the author of Intel Wars: The Secret History of the Fight Against Terror and The Secret Sentry, a history of the National Security Agency.
Syria’s reported use of chemical weapons is threatening to turn the civil war there into a wider conflict. But the Bashar al-Assad government may not be the only one in the region with a nerve gas stockpile. A newly discovered CIA document indicates that Israel likely built up a chemical arsenal of its own.
It is almost universally believed in intelligence circles here in Washington that Israel possesses a stockpile of several hundred fission nuclear weapons, and perhaps even some high-yield thermonuclear weapons. Analysts believe the Israeli government built the nuclear stockpile in the 1960s and 1970s as a hedge against the remote possibility that the armies of its Arab neighbors could someday overwhelm the Israeli military. But nuclear weapons are not the only weapon of mass destruction that Israel has constructed.
Reports have circulated in arms control circles for almost 20 years that Israel secretly manufactured a stockpile of chemical and biological weapons to complement its nuclear arsenal. Much of the attention has been focused on the research and development work being conducted at the Israeli government’s secretive Israel Institute for Biological Research at Ness Ziona, located 20 kilometers south of Tel Aviv.
But little, if any, hard evidence has ever been published to indicate that Israel possesses a stockpile of chemical or biological weapons. This secret 1983 CIA intelligence estimate may be the strongest indication yet.
According to the document, American spy satellites uncovered in 1982 "a probable CW [chemical weapon] nerve agent production facility and a storage facility… at the Dimona Sensitive Storage Area in the Negev Desert. Other CW production is believed to exist within a well-developed Israeli chemical industry."
"While we cannot confirm whether the Israelis possess lethal chemical agents," the document adds, "several indicators lead us to believe that they have available to them at least persistent and nonpersistent nerve agents, a mustard agent, and several riot-control agents, marched with suitable delivery systems."
Whether Israel still maintains this alleged stockpile is unknown. In 1992, the Israeli government signed but never ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans such arms. (The Israeli embassy in Washington did not respond to requests to comment on this article.) The CIA estimate, a copy of which was sent to the White House, also shows that the U.S. intelligence community had suspicions about this stockpile for decades, and that the U.S. government kept mum about Israel’s suspected possession of chemical weapons just as long.
These facts were recently discovered by a researcher — a friend of mine who wishes to remain anonymous — at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California. He had found, stapled to an innocuous unclassified report, a single page that someone in the White House had apparently removed from his or her copy of a secret September 15, 1983 CIA Special National Intelligence Estimate entitled Implications of Soviet Use of Chemical and Toxin Weapons for US Security Interests.
Ordinarily this 30-year-old intelligence estimate would have attracted only passing interest from researchers because much of the report, which dealt primarily with unproven allegations of Soviet use of chemical and biological weapons in Afghanistan and Southeast Asia, had been largely declassified in 2009 and can now be found in the CREST database of declassified CIA documents at the College Park, Maryland research facility of the National Archives. But while the CIA was willing to declassify those portions of the report that deal with the U.S.S.R. and some of its client states — including Syria — it was far less willing to release any information about the chemical weapons activities of countries outside the Soviet Bloc. The censors at the CIA deleted from the version of the document that was released to the National Archives almost all information related to the Middle East, including long-declassified material about Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons program in Iraq.
But what makes the single page found at the Reagan Library so explosive is that it contains the complete and unredacted portion of the intelligence estimate that details what the CIA thought it knew back in 1983 about Israel’s work on chemical weapons, which the CIA’s censors had carefully excised from the version released to the National Archives in 2009.
The estimate shows that in 1983 the CIA had hard evidence that Israel possessed a chemical weapons stockpile of indeterminate size, including, according to the report, "persistent and non-persistent nerve agents." The persistent nerve agent referred to in the document is not known, but the non-persistent nerve agent in question was almost certainly sarin. That is believed to be the Assad regime’s chemical weapon of choice — and the agent used on the morning of August 21, 2013 to strike rebel-controlled or contested neighborhoods in the eastern suburbs of Damascus. The Obama administration says that attack killed over 1,400 innocent civilians, mostly women and children. On Sunday, the Israeli defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon, blasted Assad for "crudely us[ing] chemical weapons against his own citizens."
The CIA report is vague as to why Israel decided to secretly build its own stockpile of chemical weapons given that Israel was widely suspected at the time of having a small but potentially lethal stockpile of nuclear weapons. Israeli historian Avner Cohen, in his 1988 book Israel and the Bomb, wrote that Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion secretly ordered that a stockpile of chemical weapons be built at about the time of the 1956 war between Israel and Egypt. The CIA, on the other hand, believed that Israel did not begin work on chemical weapons until either the late 1960s or the early 1970s.
According to the 1983 intelligence estimate, "Israel, finding itself surrounded by frontline Arab states with budding CW [chemical weapons] capabilities, became increasingly conscious of its vulnerability to chemical attack. Its sensitivities were galvanized by the capture of large quantities of Soviet CW-related equipment during both the 1967 Arab-Israeli and the 1973 Yom Kippur wars. As a result, Israel undertook a program of chemical warfare preparations in both offensive and protective areas."
Israeli concerns about Egypt and other Arab states possessing chemical weapons were legitimate. Documents discovered at the National Archives confirm that the Egyptian military had possessed a large stockpile of mustard gas since the early 1960s and had demonstrated that it was not afraid to use these weapons. A declassified May 23, 1967 intelligence assessment found at the National Archives reveals that Egyptian forces first began using mustard gas bombs against Saudi-backed royalist rebel forces in what was then known as North Yemen as early as 1963. According to a January 15, 1968 CIA report, U.S. intelligence learned in early 1967 that Egyptian Soviet-made Tu-16 bombers had dropped bombs filled with nerve agents on rebel positions in Yemen, marking the first time that nerve agents had ever been used in combat. And according to a May 20, 1967 top secret White House memorandum found at the National Archives, the Israelis sent Washington an intelligence report stating that Israeli intelligence had observed "canisters of [poison] gas" with Egyptian troops stationed along the Israeli border in the Sinai Peninsula.
The 1983 CIA estimate reveals that U.S. intelligence first became aware of Israeli chemical weapons-testing activities in the early 1970s, when intelligence sources reported the existence of chemical weapons test grids, which are specially instrumented testing grounds used to measure the range and effectiveness of different chemical agents, particularly nerve agents, in simulated situations and in varying climatic conditions. It is almost certain that these testing grids were located in the arid and sparsely populated Negev Desert, in southern Israel.
But the CIA assessment suggests that the Israelis accelerated their research and development work on chemical weapons following the end of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. According to the report, U.S. intelligence detected "possible tests" of Israeli chemical weapons in January 1976, which, again, almost certainly took place somewhere in the Negev Desert. A former U.S. Air Force intelligence officer whom I interviewed recalled that at about this time, the National Security Agency captured communications showing that Israeli air force fighter-bombers operating from Hatzerim Air Base outside the city of Beersheba in southern Israel had been detected conducting simulated low-level chemical weapons delivery missions at a bombing range in the Negev Desert.
The U.S. intelligence community was paying an extraordinary amount of attention to Israel in the 1970s, according to a retired CIA analyst I spoke with who studied the region at the time. The possible January 1976 Israeli chemical weapons test occurred a little more than two years after the end of the 1973 war, an event that had shocked the Israeli political and military establishment because it demonstrated for the first time that the Arab armies were now capable of going toe-to-toe on the battlefield with the Israeli military.
To complicate things further, in January 1976 the long-simmering civil war in Lebanon was beginning to heat up. And the CIA was increasingly concerned about the growing volume of evidence, much of it coming from human intelligence sources inside Israel, indicating that the Israeli nuclear weapons stockpile was growing both in size and raw megatonnage. At the same time that all this was happening, the Israeli "chemical weapons" test mentioned in CIA document occurred. It increased the already-heightened level of concern within the U.S. intelligence community about what the Israelis were up to.
In March 1976, two months after the Israeli test in question, a number of newspapers in the U.S. published stories which quoted CIA officials to the effect that Israel possessed a number of nuclear weapons. The leak was based on an authorized off-the-record briefing of newspaper reporters by a senior CIA official in Washington, who intimated to the reporters that Israel was also involved in other activities involving weapons of mass destruction, but refused to say anything further on the subject. The CIA official was likely referring to the agency’s belief that the Israelis may have conducted a chemical weapons test in January 1976. According to a declassified State Department cable, Israeli foreign minister Yigal Allon called in the U.S. ambassador to Israel and registered a strong protest about the story, reiterating the official Israeli government position that Israel did not possess nuclear weapons. After the protest, all further public mention of Israeli WMD activities ceased and the whole subject was quickly and quietly forgotten.
But in the years that followed the CIA and the rest of the U.S. intelligence community kept their eyes and ears focused on what the Israelis were secretly up to in the Negev Desert.
It was not until 1982, according to the CIA estimate, that U.S. intelligence got its first big break. On June 6, 1982, 20,000 Israeli troops invaded Lebanon in an effort to destroy the guerrilla forces loyal to Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat. The Israeli troops swept northwards against weak resistance from PLO and Syrian forces, capturing a large portion of the Lebanese capital of Beirut and cutting off what was left of Arafat’s forces inside the besieged city by mid-June. As of the end of the year, there were still an estimated 15,000 Israeli troops occupying all of southern Lebanon.
At some point in late 1982, as the Reagan administration strove with minimal success to get the Israeli government to withdraw its forces from Lebanon, American spy satellites discovered what the 1983 CIA intelligence described as "a probable CW nerve agent production facility and a storage facility … at the Dimona Sensitive Storage Area in the Negev Desert."
The CIA report, however, provides no further elucidation about the size or production capacity of the newly discovered Israeli nerve agent production facility near Dimona, or even where the so-called "Dimona Sensitive Storage Area" was located.
At my request, a friend of mine who retired years ago from the U.S. intelligence community began systematically scanning the available cache of commercial satellite imagery found on the Google Maps website, looking for the mysterious and elusive Israeli nerve agent production facility and weapons storage bunker complex near the city of Dimona where Israel stores its stockpile of chemical weapons.
It took a little while, but the imagery search found what I believe is the location of the Israeli nerve agent production facility and its associated chemical weapons storage area in a desolate and virtually uninhabited area of the Negev Desert just east of the village of al-Kilab, which is only 10 miles west of the outskirts of the city of Dimona. The satellite imagery shows that the heavily protected weapons storage area at al-Kilab currently consists of almost 50 buried bunkers surrounded by a double barbed-wire-topped fence and facilities for a large permanent security force. I believe this extensive bunker complex is the location of what the 1983 CIA intelligence estimate referred to as the Dimona Sensitive Storage Area.
If you drive two miles to the northeast past the weapons storage area, the satellite imagery shows that you run into another heavily guarded complex of about 40 or 50 acres. Surrounded again by a double chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, the complex appears to consist of an administrative and support area on the western side of facility. The eastern side of the base, which is surrounded by its own security fence, appears to consist of three large storage bunkers and a buried production and/or maintenance facility. Although not confirmed, the author believes that this may, in fact, be the location of the Israeli nerve agent production facility mentioned in the 1983 CIA report.
This all may be a tempest in a teacup. It is possible that at some point over the past 30 years the Israelis may have disposed of their stockpile of mustard gas and nerve agents. These weapons need constant maintenance, they require massive amounts of security, and the cost for the upkeep of this stockpile must be extraordinarily high. Still, the Israeli government has a well-known penchant for preserving any asset thought to be needed for the defense of the state of Israel, regardless of the cost or possible diplomatic ramifications.