Desert Mystery: Intelligence Assessments of Israel’s Nuclear Program

The CIA missed Dimona, but their peers fared worse

Israel’s nuclear program is unique: foreign intelligence agencies extensively evaluated its progress during the Cold War, yet we understand only the outlines of its overall history. As part of its “opacity” policy, Israel refuses to admit to developing weapons at its nuclear facility near the desert town of Dimona, whose name came to stand for the entire nuclear program.

My dissertation research compares how Cold War-era intelligence agencies evaluated the nuclear programs of other countries. With the benefit of hindsight, we can compare these historical evaluations to one another and to the contemporary consensus on Israel’s nuclear program.

The United States was especially eager to understand Israel’s nuclear capabilities and intentions, but struggled to do so. Two years ago, historians Avner Cohen and Bill Burr released several documents chronicling the inglorious frustration among friends:

The Eisenhower administration’s „discovery“ during the last months of 1960 that Israel was secretly building a large nuclear complex at Dimona was a belated one indeed. It occurred 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 its 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…

What amounted to an intelligence breakdown by the United States was a tremendous counterintelligence success for Israel. The U.S. bungle enabled Israel to buy precious time for the highly vulnerable Dimona project. One could argue that had the United States discovered Dimona two years earlier, perhaps even a year earlier, that the young and fragile undertaking might not have survived. Early political pressure from the United States on the two foreign suppliers, France and Norway, might have terminated it at the very start.

Other intelligence agencies, like the West German Federal Intelligence Service (BND), did not fare better. In 1974, all the BND could tell the German Chancellor was that the Israelis would have had enough plutonium after 1970 to make four or five bombs. The BND remained in the dark despite multiple inquiries, only updating its estimate of plutonium stocks to being equivalent to 15 bombs in 1981. As late as 1985, an intelligence briefing for the trade minister noted press reporting about Israeli possession of operational nuclear weapons, but that the BND had yet to find proof.

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The complete article can be found on the website of the Wilson Center.

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