An expert's point of view on a current event.

Fight Club: Israel Nuke Edition

The first rule of Israel's nuclear arsenal is that there is no Israeli nuclear arsenal.

By , director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
David Silverman/Getty Images News
David Silverman/Getty Images News

Pssst. Come closer. I'm going to let you in on one of the U.S. government's most closely guarded secrets.

Make sure you are sitting down, because what I am going to tell you will blow your mind. This is so close-hold that if a U.S. government official were to so much breathe a word about this, she should would lose her job. Ready?

Israel has the bomb.

Pssst. Come closer. I’m going to let you in on one of the U.S. government’s most closely guarded secrets.

Make sure you are sitting down, because what I am going to tell you will blow your mind. This is so close-hold that if a U.S. government official were to so much breathe a word about this, she should would lose her job. Ready?

Israel has the bomb.

You think that’s funny? I don’t see anyone else laughing. Former Los Alamos employee Jim Doyle certainly doesn’t have a smile on his face. In a February-March 2013 article for the journal Survival, Doyle — a political scientist employed by Los Alamos National Laboratory — listed a series of nuclear deterrence failures — instances where states without nuclear weapons nevertheless attacked states that had the bomb. In that list, Doyle included Egypt’s 1973 invasion of the Sinai.

Although the article was cleared through classification review, some people had other ideas. Apparently, someone on Capitol Hill asked about the reference to Israel and the counterintelligence trolls decided that, yep, the article should have been classified. (The most shocking thing about this story might that be Hill staffers read journal articles.) The fact that the United States intelligence community believes that Israel possesses nuclear weapons is formally classified

Despite having submitted the article for review, Doyle was held responsible — he was suspended, had his clearances revoked, and lost his job at Los Alamos. So, let me tell you: Even though everyone knows Israel has the bomb, if you have a clearance and want to keep it, stick to discussing Israel’s stockpile of strategic kumquats.

Since the late 1960s, the United States has treated the fact of Israel’s nuclear weapons as an important state secret. This is absurd, and it doesn’t do anyone any favors, least of all our friends in Israel. It’s time to declassify the fact of Israel’s bomb even if Jerusalem doesn’t admit it.

Now, one has to read between the lines to determine that Doyle was fired for stating that Israel possessed nuclear weapons. Doyle is fighting back, but can’t acknowledge the article, which is now classified. And by "now classified" I mean in a purely administrative sense. You can download it from Survival if you feel like pushing all the buttons in the elevator isn’t edgy enough. But the one publicly available document about Doyle’s case makes it clear that the dispute concerns what bit of classification guidance is most relevant — DOE Classification Bulletin WPN-136 on Foreign Nuclear Capabilities or GEN-16 "No Comment" Policy on Classified Information in the Public Domain

Foreign Nuclear Capabilities. Everyone, including Survival‘s editor, Dana Allin, suspects that the single passing reference to Israel is the problem. Steven Aftergood, the Federation of American Scientists’s secrecy guru, told my colleague Avner Cohen, "I’m certain that that’s what it is." The dispute boils down, as best I can infer, to whether officials with access to classified information can refer to "press reports" about Israel’s nuclear status — which, in case you haven’t figured it out, I think is stupid.

If you want all the details on Doyle’s plight, Doug Birch at the Center for Public Integrity has owned this story from day one, serving as the most consistent chronicler of Doyle’s travails in the Land of Uz. (You don’t know Uz? Heathen.) The Santa Fe New Mexican, Albuquerque Journal and Los Angeles Times have also had excellent coverage. 

The situation with Israel is strange. U.S. officials can mention the existence of any other nuclear weapons program — even those of our friends. I might churlishly add that they’ve also been free to mention one or two that didn’t even exist. (Cough, Iraq, cough.) But Israel is different.

This policy dates to the Nixon administration, which was divided over whether to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty, how much to pressure allies into joining the treaty, and what to do about Israel’s bomb in the basement. The Nixon administration, including the good Dr. Kissinger, characteristically opted for secrecy. (Wait, a totally secretive administration that held democratic accountability in contempt? What could possibly go wrong? Okay, other than the secret bombing of Cambodia. Okay, other than that and the coup in Chile. Okay, other than those two and the genocide in East Timor. Okay, and the Watergate break-in. But seriously, what else could go wrong?)

The evolution of the policy by which Israel would look the other way is well documented in two tranches of declassified documents curated by the National Security Archive called Israel Crosses the Threshold and Israel Crosses the Threshold II. (Am I the only one hoping Sofia Coppola will star as Golda Meir in Israel Crosses the Threshold III?) Of course, one can only makes sense of these documents, and the debate they chronicle, if you understand what threshold Israel was crossing but …. SHHHHHHH!

In fact, the United States intelligence community, by the mid-1970s, had concluded that Israel possessed nuclear weapons. There is even a declassified 1974 National Intelligence Estimate that states: "We believe that Israel already has produced nuclear weapons." How that slipped through, I have no idea. But there it is, in black and white. The New York Times even reported the contents — in 1978.

Any doubt the rest of us might have had was laid to rest by Mordechai Vanunu, an employee at Israel’s Dimona nuclear facility. One day, Vanunu brought his camera to work. He then gave the pictures to the Sunday Times of London, which splashed them across the front page in 1986. Here is a picture of a model of an Israeli nuclear weapon component (and more).

The Israelis were so delighted by Vanunu’s disclosure that they honey-trapped him in London, according to the reporter at the Sunday Times who published Vanunu’s images, using a young woman to persuade the poor guy to fly to Rome for a tryst. Once in Italy, the Israelis bundled up Vanunu and dragged him to prison in Israel. Fun fact: the alleged honey pot is now a realtor in Florida, though by the looks of it her honey pot days are long past. Still, she might be able to get you a good deal on a lightly used safe house. (By the way, I totally recommend Peter Hounam’s The Woman from Mossad: The Story of Mordechai Vanunu and the Israeli Nuclear Program. I do not, however, recommend taking photos of sensitive Israeli nuclear facilities or, if you should choose to, thinking you’ve suddenly become much more attractive to the opposite sex.)

But back to the Doyle and the matter at hand. One obvious downside to our absurd policy of refusing to acknowledge Israel’s bomb is that it ends up being enforced in an arbitrary and capricious manner. When Bob Gates, during his 2006 confirmation hearing to be secretary of Defense, referred to Iran being surrounded by nuclear-armed neighbors including "the Israelis to the West," nothing happened — even though he had served as director of central intelligence and maintained his clearances. I’ve certainly heard plenty of current and former officials, in private conversation, state the obvious. It’s hard not to mention. Hell, even Ehud Olmert, when he was Israeli prime minister, slipped up once. As a result, the classification is little more than a handy excuse to prosecute someone we don’t like for some other reason — such as writing annoying articles about disarmament while working for a nuclear weapons lab or something.

There is one simple solution to this problem. Change WPN-136 Foreign Nuclear Capabilities to declassify the "fact" that the United States intelligence community has believed that Israel has possessed nuclear weapons since the 1970s. That’s it. We don’t have to declassify the details of the stockpile. And we don’t have to hold a press conference. (WPN-136 is classified anyway, so there will be no roll-out.) But U.S. officials should be free to acknowledge the obvious without fear of losing their clearances and their jobs. That’s all.

Declassifying the fact of Israel’s nuclear status would not require changing our policies toward Israel or the bomb. The limitations on U.S. peaceful nuclear cooperation with Israel, for example, arise from the fact that is has not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, not its actual possession of nuclear weapons. Consider India. The United States openly acknowledges India’s nuclear weapons status outside the NPT, but still negotiated a peaceful nuclear cooperation agreement with New Delhi and won a waiver for India in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Washington has proposed closer ties between the Nuclear Suppliers Group and Israel. That effort would not be affected by U.S. public acknowledgement that it believes Israel has a stockpile of nuclear weapons.

For its part, Israel will almost certainly maintain its policy of amimut. Cohen, in his book The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb, has written eloquently that Israel’s opacity harms Israeli democracy, arguing that disclosure is needed to open up a domestic debate about the topic. I am not so sure that’s a great idea — especially not with Egypt in its current condition. But either way, our policy does not require that Jerusalem change how it talks about the bomb.

In fact, U.S. secrecy arguably harms Israeli interests. The Iranians are fond of pointing to Israel’s nuclear weapons to justify the nuclear weapons they deny building — and that I believe diplomacy can prevent. I will admit a somewhat unconventional view: I think there is no relationship at all between Israel and Iran’s nuclear programs — beyond the propaganda value that Tehran gets from complaining about double standards..

Iran’s interest in the bomb started with Iraq’s aggression in the 1980s. Iranians who want the bomb aren’t going to nuke Israel. They are more interested in enabling the aggression by proxy of the sort Iran has long supported in Lebanon. The countries most frightened by an Iranian bomb are the Saudis, Emiratis, and other Gulf States who fear Iranian efforts to destabilize and overthrow them. If Israel gave up its nuclear weapons tomorrow, I don’t believe that Iranian calculations would change one iota.

Moreover, it is impossible to imagine a situation in which Israel would threaten to use nuclear weapons against Iran, unless Tehran planned to do something insane like shipping a nuclear weapon to Hezbollah. Iran uses Israel to change the subject from the countries most likely to be bullied by a nuclear-armed Iran — a tactic that works very well, because, of course, there is a double standard, one that is reinforced every time we bend over backwards to avoid saying the obvious.

I would love for U.S. officials to strongly push back against Iran’s efforts to blame its nuclear ambitions on Israel. But U.S. officials look like idiots when they’re forced to push back against Tehran’s accusations while feigning ignorance. They have to be able to speak directly about a reality that everyone else knows.

Israel has the bomb.

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

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