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Revealed – Concerned About Nuclear Weapons Potential, John F. Kennedy Pushed for Inspection of Israel Nuclear Facilities

 

 



John F. Kennedy was a member of Congress when he first met Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in 1951.  In this photograph taken at Ben-Gurion’s home, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr., then a member of Congress from New York, sat between them. (Image from Geopolitiek in Perspectief)

 

Kennedy, Dimona and the Nuclear Proliferation Problem: 1961-1962

by Avner Cohen and William Burr

 

Washington, D.C., April 21, 2016 – President John F. Kennedy worried that Israel’s nuclear program was a potentially serious proliferation risk and insisted that Israel permit periodic inspections to mitigate the danger, according to declassified documents published today by the National Security Archive, Nuclear Proliferation International History Project, and the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.  Kennedy pressured the government of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to prevent a military nuclear program, particularly after stage-managed tours of the Dimona facility for U.S. government scientists in 1961 and 1962 raised suspicions within U.S. intelligence that Israel might be concealing its underlying nuclear aims.  Kennedy’s long-run objective, documents show, was to broaden and institutionalize inspections of Dimona by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

On 30 May 1961, Kennedy met Ben-Gurion in Manhattan to discuss the bilateral relationship and Middle East issues. However, a central (and indeed the first) issue in their meeting was the Israeli nuclear program, about which President Kennedy was most concerned.   According to a draft record of their discussion, which has never been cited, and is published here for the first time, Ben-Gurion spoke “rapidly and in a low voice” and “some words were missed.”  He emphasized the peaceful, economic development-oriented nature of the Israeli nuclear project. Nevertheless the note taker, Assistant Secretary of State Philips Talbot, believed that he heard Ben-Gurion mention a “pilot” plant to process plutonium for “atomic power” and also say that “there is no intention to develop weapons capacity now.” Ben-Gurion tacitly acknowledged that the Dimona reactor had a military potential, or so Talbot believed he had heard.  The final U.S. version of the memcon retained the sentence about plutonium but did not include the language about a “pilot” plant and  “weapons capacity.”

The differences between the two versions suggest the difficulty of preparing accurate records of meetings. But whatever Ben-Gurion actually said, President Kennedy was never wholly satisfied with the insistence that Dimona was strictly a peaceful project. Neither were U.S. intelligence professionals. A recently declassified National Intelligence Estimate on Israel prepared several months after the meeting, and published here for the first time, concluded that “Israel may have decided to undertake a nuclear weapons program. At a minimum, we believe it has decided to develop its nuclear facilities in such a way as to put it into a position to develop nuclear weapons promptly should it decide to do so.” This is the only NIE where the discussion of Dimona has been declassified in its entirety.

Declassified documents reveal that more than any other American president, John F. Kennedy was personally engaged with the problem of Israel’s nuclear program; he may also have been more concerned about it than any of his successors. Of all U.S. leaders in the nuclear age, Kennedy was the nonproliferation president. Nuclear proliferation was his “private nightmare,” as Glenn Seaborg, his Atomic Energy Commission chairman, once noted. Kennedy came to office with the conviction that the spread of nuclear weapons would make the world a much more dangerous place; he saw proliferation as the path to a global nuclear war. This concern shaped his outlook on the Cold War even before the 1960 presidential campaign – by then he had already opposed the resumption of nuclear testing largely due to proliferation concerns – and his experience in office, especially the Cuban Missile Crisis, solidified it further.

This Electronic Briefing Book (EBB) is the first of two publications which address the subject of JFK, his administration, and the Israeli nuclear program. It includes about thirty documents produced by the State Department, the Atomic Energy Commission, and intelligence agencies, some of which highlight the president’s strong personal interest and direct role in moving nonproliferation policy forward during the administration’s first two years. Some of the documents have been only recently declassified, while others were located in archival collections; most are published here for the first time. The compilation begins with President Kennedy’s meeting with departing ambassador to Israel Odgen Reid on January 31, 1961, days after Kennedy took office, and concludes with the State Department’s internal review in late 1962 of the of the second U.S. visit in Dimona.

The documents published today also include:

  • The Atomic Energy Commission’s recently declassified report on the first official U.S. visit to the Dimona complex, in May 1961. The Ben-Gurion-Kennedy meeting was possible only after that visit produced a positive report on the peaceful, nonmilitary purposes of the reactor. According to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), Dimona “was conceived as a means for gaining experience in construction of a nuclear facility which would prepare them for nuclear power in the long run.”
  • A letter from the State Department to the AEC asking it to place prominent Israeli nuclear scientist Dr. Israel Dostrovsky of the Weizman Institute, who was a visiting researcher at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, under “discreet surveillance” as a “precautionary step” to safeguard U.S. nuclear know-how. The document notes Dostrovsky’s reputation as one of the individuals “primarily responsible for guiding Israel’s atomic energy program.” In 1966 Dostrovsky was appointed by Prime Minister Levi Eshkol as director-general of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission, which he reorganized and gave new impetus.
  • Recently declassified records of U.S.-U.K. meetings during 1962 to discuss the possibilities of putting pressure on Israel to accept inspections of Dimona by the International Atomic Energy Agency. While State Department officials did not believe that pressure would work, they agreed that “IAEA controls should be our objective.” In the meantime, “interim ad hoc inspections” were necessary to satisfy ourselves and the world-at-large as to Israel’s intentions.”
  • An assessment of the second AEC visit to the Dimona site in September 1962. After weeks of diplomatic pressure by the Kennedy administration for a second visit, two AEC scientists who had inspected the U.S.-supplied Soreq reactor were “spontaneously” invited for a [tk: Bill, 40 or 45 minutes? All other references are to 40.] 45-minute tour to Dimona, while on their way back from an excursion to the Dead Sea. They had no time to see the complete installation, but they left the site with the impression that Dimona was a research reactor, not a production reactor. CIA and State Department officials were skeptical about the circumstances, unable to determine whether the spontaneous invitation was a treat or a trick.

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President-elect John F. Kennedy and Secretary of State-designate Dean Rusk Meet with President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secretary of State Christian Herter, 19 January 1961. At this meeting Herter warned Kennedy about the Israeli nuclear problem (Photograph AR6279-D, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library)

More than any other country, it was Israel which most impressed upon President Kennedy the complexity of nuclear proliferation. Israel was the first case with which he had to struggle as president. Only weeks before his inauguration, the outgoing Eisenhower administration quietly discovered and confirmed the secret reactor at Dimona. In mid-December the news leaked out while the Eisenhower administration was pondering a Special National Intelligence Estimate, which asserted that, on the basis of the available evidence “plutonium production for weapons is at least one major purpose of this effort.” According to the estimate, if it was widely believed that Israel was acquiring a nuclear weapons capability it would cause “consternation” in the Arab world, with blame going to the U.S. and France for facilitating the project. The United Arab Republic (Egypt/Syria) would “feel the most threatened,” might approach the Soviets for more “countervailing military aid and political backing,” and the Arab world in general might be prompted to take “concrete actions” against Western interests in the region. Moreover, Israel’s “initiative might remove some of the inhibitions to development of nuclear weapons in other Free World countries.”

On January 19, 1961, on the eve of his inauguration, President-elect Kennedy visited the White House – for the last time as a guest – along with his senior team. After 45 minutes of one-on-one conversation with President Eisenhower, the two men walked to the Cabinet Room to join their departing and incoming secretaries of state, defense and treasury to discuss the transition. One of Kennedy’s first questions was about the countries which were most determined to seek the bomb. “Israel and India,” Secretary of State Christian Herter fired back, and added that the newly discovered Dimona reactor, being constructed with aid from France, could be capable of generating 90 kilogram of weapons-grade plutonium by 1963. Herter urged the new president to press hard on inspection in the case of Israel before it introduced nuclear weapons into the Middle East.[1]

With his concern about stability in the Middle East and the broader nuclear proliferation threat, Kennedy took Herter’s advice seriously. Within days he met with departing Ambassador Reid for discussions of Dimona and other regional matters. To help him prepare for the meeting, new Secretary of State Dean Rusk provided an updated report about Israel’s nuclear activities and a detailed chronology of the discovery of Dimona. For the rest of Kennedy’s time in office, Dimona would remain an issue of special and personal concern to him and to his close advisers.

The most important event covered in this collection was the “nuclear summit” held at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City on May 30, 1961, between Kennedy and Ben-Gurion. We refer to it as a nuclear summit because Dimona was at the heart of that meeting. The encounter was made possible thanks to a reassuring report about the first American visit to Dimona, which had taken place ten days earlier.

Kennedy had tirelessly pressured Ben-Gurion to allow the visit since taking office, insisting that meeting the request – made initially by the Eisenhower administration after the discovery of Dimona – was a condition for normalizing U.S.-Israeli relations. In a sense, Kennedy turned the question into a de facto ultimatum to Israel. For weeks Ben-Gurion dragged his feet, possibly even manufacturing or at least magnifying a domestic political dispute (what was known in Israel as the Lavon Affair) into a government resignation, primarily as a ploy to stall or delay that Dimona visit.

By April 1961, after a new government had been organized, Israeli Ambassador Avram Harman finally told the administration that Israel had agreed to an American tour of Dimona. On May 20, two AEC scientists, U. M. Staebler and J. W. Croach Jr., visited the nuclear facility on a carefully crafted tour. The visit began with a briefing by a Dimona senior management team, headed by Director-General Manes Pratt, who presented a technological rationale for, and historical narrative of, the project: the Dimona nuclear research center, the Americans were told, was “conceived as a means for gaining experience in construction of a nuclear facility which would prepare them [Israel] for nuclear power in the long run.” In essence, according to Pratt, this was a peaceful project. As the American team’s summary report, which was highlighted in a memorandum to National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, made very clear, the AEC team believed that the Israelis had told them the truth: the scientists were “satisfied that nothing was concealed from them and that the reactor is of the scope and peaceful character previously described to the United States by representatives of the Government of Israel.”

The AEC’s team’s official report (document 8A) is now available for the first time. Previously only draft notes written by the team’s leader had been accessible to researchers. The differences between the two versions are minor except for a noteworthy paragraph in the final report, under the headline “General comment.” That paragraph is important because it reveals that the Israeli hosts told the AEC team that the reactor’s power was likely to double in the future. “It is quite possible that after operating experience has been obtained the power level of the reactor can be increased by a factor of the order of two by certain modifications in design and relaxation of some operating conditions.” The AEC team could have seen that acknowledgement as a red flag, a worrisome indication that the reactor was capable of producing much more plutonium than was then acknowledged. But the team’s one-sentence response was benign: “Design conservatism of this order is understandable for a project of this type,” On the basis of such a positive report, the Waldorf Astoria meeting was able to go ahead.

The Kennedy-Ben-Gurion Meeting


Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs G. Lewis Jones, an Eisenhower administration hold-over, was on the receiving end of President Kennedy’s telephone calls asking for updates on the requests for a visit by U.S. scientists to Israel’s Dimona complex. (National Archives, Still Pictures Branch, 59-S0, box 20)

This collection includes both American and Israeli transcripts of the Waldorf Astoria meeting. One of the transcripts is a previously unknown draft of the Kennedy-Ben-Gurion memcon, which has interesting differences with the final version. The U.S. official memorandum of conversation, declassified and published in the 1990s, was prepared by Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs Phillips Talbot (and approved – possibly corrected – by White House Deputy Special Counsel Myer “Mike” Feldman). The Israeli minutes, prepared by Ambassador Avraham Harman, were also declassified in the 1990s and historians have made extensive use of them.[2]

Ben-Gurion provided Kennedy with a rationale and narrative of the Dimona project that was very similar to what the Israeli hosts provided to the AEC team visiting Dimona (albeit in non-technical and more political terms): the Dimona project was peaceful in nature; it was about energy and development. However, unlike during the Dimona visit, Ben-Gurion’s narrative and rationale left a little wiggle room for a future reversal. The prime minister did that by qualifying his peaceful pledge and leaving room for a future change of heart. The Israeli transcript makes Ben-Gurion’s caveat pronounced: “for the time being, the only purposes are for peace. … But we will see what will happen in the Middle East. It does not depend on us” (italics added). The American transcript, by way of rephrasing Ben-Gurion, reveals a similar caveat as well: “Our main – and for the time being – only purpose is this [cheap energy, etc.],” the Prime Minister said, adding that “we do not know what will happen in the future” … Furthermore, commenting on the political and strategic implications of atomic power and weaponry, the Prime Minister said he does believe that “in ten or fifteen years the Egyptian presumably could achieve it themselves” (italics added).

In his draft minutes, Assistant Secretary Talbot notes (in parentheses) that during that part of the conversation, Ben-Gurion spoke “rapidly and in a low voice” so that “some words were missed.” Nevertheless, Talbot thought that he had heard Ben-Gurion making reference to a “pilot plant for plutonium separation which is needed for atomic power,” but that might happen “three or four years later” and that “there is no intention to develop weapons capacity now.” Talbot’s draft was declassified long ago but has been buried in obscurity; it needs to be taken into account by scholars. Notably, the Israeli transcript is even more straightforward in citing Ben-Gurion on the pilot plant issue: “after three or four years we shall have a pilot plant for separation which is needed anyway for a power reactor.”

Days after the meeting, Talbot sat with Feldman at the White House to “check fine points” about “side lines of interest.” There was the key issue of plutonium, about which Ben-Gurion mumbled quickly in a low voice. Ben-Gurion was understood to say something to the effect that the issue of plutonium would not arise until the installation was complete in 1964 or so, and only then could Israel decide what to do about processing it. But this appeared to be incompatible with what the prime minister had said to Ambassador Reid in Tel Aviv in January 1961, namely that the spent fuel would return to the country which provided the uranium in the first place (France). But Israeli affairs desk officer, William R. Crawford, who looked further into the record, suggested that what Ben-Gurion had said was more equivocal and evasive. Upon close examination, Ben-Gurion might have meant to hint in passing that Israel was preserving its freedom of action to produce plutonium for its own purposes. Kennedy may not have picked up on this point, but he, like Talbot, may not have been sure exactly what Ben-Gurion had said.

Intelligence Estimate

The most intriguing – and novel – document in this collection is National Intelligence Estimate 35-61 (document #11a), under the headline “Outlook on Israel,” which was declassified only in February 2015. This NIE left no doubt that the AEC scientists’ impressions from their visit to Dimona had no impact on the way which the intelligence community made its own determination on Dimona’s overall purpose. While the visit clearly helped to ease the political and diplomatic tensions between the United States and Israel over Dimona, and removed, at least temporarily, the nuclear issue as a problem from the bilateral agenda, it did not change the opinion of U.S. intelligence professionals. In their view, while acknowledging the Israeli official narrative of Dimona as peaceful, it was truly about weapons capability. The Dimona complex provided Israel with the experience and resources “to develop a plutonium production capability.” NIE 35-61 reminded its readers that France had supplied “plans, material, equipment and technical assistance to the Israelis.”

Significantly, the intelligence community estimated in 1961 that Israel would be in a position to “produce sufficient weapons grade plutonium for one or two crude weapons a year by 1965-66, provided separation facilities with a capacity larger than that of the pilot plant now under construction are available.” In retrospect, in all these respects, NIE 35-61 was accurate in its assessments and predictions, although no one on the U.S. side knew for sure when Israel would possess the requisite reprocessing facilities. The language about “separation facilities” raises important questions. If Israel was to produce nuclear weapons it would require technology to reprocess spent fuel into plutonium. Whether and when U.S. intelligence knew that Israel had begun work on a secret, dedicated separation plant – larger than a pilot plant – at the Dimona complex has yet to be disclosed. But if the CIA knew about such plans, it may have meant that key information was concealed from AEC scientists who visited Dimona (or perhaps they were instructed to locate such facilities).[3]

Probably lacking secret knowledge of internal Israeli government thinking, the authors of NIE 35-61 may not have fully understood the depth of Israel’s nuclear resolve, or at least, the modus operandi by which Israel proceeded with its nuclear project. They could not be fully clear – both conceptually and factually – on the nature of the Israeli nuclear commitment, i.e., whether Dimona was a dedicated weapons program from the very start, or, alternatively, whether it was set up as infrastructure leading to a weapons capability upon a later decision. At a minimum, however, the authors of NIE 35-61 believed “that the Israelis intend at least to put themselves in the position of being able to produce nuclear weapons fairly soon after a decision to do so.”

Notwithstanding the lack of clarity, the NIE’s findings were incompatible with what Ben-Gurion told Kennedy about the overall purpose of the Dimona project as well as with what he said about Dimona’s plutonium production capacity. Similarly, the NIE was inconsistent with the AEC report whose writers accepted the Israeli narrative and rationale. The bottom line was that as early as 1961 the CIA already knew – or at least suspected – that the Israeli official account of the Dimona project – either by the prime minister or by Israeli scientists – was a cover story and deceptive by nature.

The Second Visit

The AEC visit and the Ben-Gurion Kennedy meeting helped clear the air a bit, but the wary view embodied in the NIE shaped U.S. perceptions of the Dimona project. The Kennedy administration held to its conviction that it was necessary to monitor Dimona, not only to resolve American concerns about nuclear proliferation but also to calm regional anxieties about an Israeli nuclear threat. In this context, the United States did not want to continue to be the only country that guaranteed the peaceful nature of Dimona to the Arab countries. Hence, during the months after the meetings, State Department officials tried to follow up President Kennedy’s interest in having scientists from “neutral” nations, such as Sweden, visit the Dimona plant. The British also favored such ideas but they sought U.S. pressure to induce the Israelis to accept inspection visits by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The Kennedy administration believed that IAEA inspections of Dimona were a valid long-term goal but recognized that a second visit by U.S. scientists was necessary if a visit by neutrals could not be arranged.

The talks with the Swedes did not pan out; by June 1962, the Kennedy administration decided to “undertake the responsibility once more.” On 26 September 1962, after “repeated requests over several months,” a second American visit to Dimona finally took place. Until recently little was known about that visit except that Ambassador Walworth Barbour referred to it as “unduly restricted to no more than forty five minutes.”[4] Also, the late professor Yuval Ne’eman, at the time serving as the scientific director of the Soreq nuclear research center and the official host of the American AEC visitors, was cited in Israel and the Bomb to the effect that the visit was a deliberate “trick” (the word “trick” was used but was not cited in the book) he devised and executed to ease American pressure for a second formal visit in Dimona.[5]


Phillips Talbot, who succeeded Jones as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, and as a note-taker at the Kennedy/Ben-Gurion meeting had to make sense of the Prime Minister’s rapid and “low” voice. (National Archives, Still Picture Branch, 59-SO, box 41)

This collection includes archival material that sheds light on the second visit. The key document is a memo, written on 27 December 1962, by deputy director of the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs Rodger Davies to Assistant Secretary Talbot on the September visit. It was hiding in plain sight in a microfilm supplement to the State Department historical series, Foreign Relations of the United States. The memo narrated the improvised circumstances of the visit which fit well with the way Ne’eman told the story in the late 1990s. As the two AEC scientists who had arrived to inspect the small reactor at Soreq – Thomas Haycock and Ulysses Staebler – were being driven back from their Dead Sea tour, Ne’eman noted that they were passing by the Dimona reactor and that he could spontaneously “arrange a call with the director.” Notably, Staebler was among the two AEC scientists who had visited Dimona in May 1961, so he must have met director Pratt. It turned out that the director was not there, but the chief engineers gave them a 40-minute tour of the reactor.

The 27 December document reveals that the circumstances of that tour made the AEC visitors feel a little awkward, “not certain whether they were guests of their scientist-host or on an inspection.” They did not see the complete installation, nor did they enter all the buildings they saw, but they believed that what they saw confirmed that Dimona was a research reactor, not a production reactor; and that, from their point of view, made the visit worthwhile and “satisfactory.” The memo also notes that the AEC scientists were presented with the option to come back to the site to complete the visit the next morning, but because that would have forced a four-day layover they declined the offer.

According to Rodger Davies, the highly unconventional nature of the visit stirred suspicion within the relevant intelligence offices in Washington. During one interagency meeting to discuss the visit’s intelligence value, the CIA’s “Director of Intelligence,” probably a reference to Deputy Director of Intelligence Ray Cline, was quoted as saying that “the immediate objectives of the visit may have been satisfied, [but] certain basic intelligence requirements were not.” It was also observed that “there were certain inconsistencies between the first and second inspection reports insofar as the usages attributed to some equipment were concerned.” The fact that the inspectors were invited to visit again the next day seemed to indicate that “there was no deliberate ’hanky-panky’ involved on the part of the [ Israelis,” but the fact that such a return visit would have caused a major delay in the team’s departure flight made the Israeli offer impractical and perhaps disingenuous.

Whatever the doubts about the intelligence value, the State Department deployed the visits’ conclusions to assure interested countries that Dimona was peaceful. A few weeks afterwards, just as the Cuban Missile Crisis was unfolding, the State Department began to quietly inform selected governments about its positive results. U.S. diplomats told Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, during a briefing on the Cuban situation, that the recent visit confirmed Israeli statements about the reactor. The British and Canadians were also told similar things about the “recent brief visit” to Dimona, without explaining what had made it so short. By the end of October, the Department had sent a fuller statement to various embassies.

Davies’ memorandum cites a formal report, dated October 12, 1962, prepared by the AEC team about their visit. But the report was not attached to the memorandum found in State Department files. Unfortunately, except for the 1961 visit report, the Department of Energy has been unable to locate the 1962 report or other such reports from the following years.

 

 

THE DOCUMENTS

 

Documents 1A-B:  Briefing President Kennedy

Document 1A: Secretary of State Rusk to President Kennedy, “Your Appointment with Ogden R. Reid, Recently Ambassador to Israel,” 30 January 1961, with memorandum and chronology attached, Secret, Excised copy  

Document 1B: Memorandum of Conversation, “Ambassador Reid’s Review of His Conversation with President Kennedy,” 31 January 1961, Secret

Source: National Archives College Park, Record Group 59, records of the Department of State (hereinafter RG 59), Bureau of Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, Office of Near Eastern Affairs (NESA/NEA). Records of the Director, 1960-1963, box 5, Tel Aviv – 1961

On 31 January 1961, only days after his inauguration, President Kennedy met with Ogden Reid, who had just resigned as U.S. ambassador to Israel, for a comprehensive briefing on U.S.-Israel relations, including the problem of the Dimona nuclear reactor (an issue in which the new president had a “special interest”).  To help prepare the president for the meeting, Secretary of State Dean Rusk signed off on a briefing paper, which contained also a detailed chronology of the discovery of the Dimona reactor, and which reviewed the problems raised by the secret atomic project as well as U.S. interest in sending scientists there to determine whether there was a proliferation risk.

In their 45-minute meeting, Ambassador Reid told President Kennedy that he believed the U.S “can accept at face value Ben-Gurion’s assurance that the reactor is to be devoted to peaceful purposes” and that a visit to Dimona by a qualified American scientist could be arranged, “if it is done on a secret basis.”

 

Document 2A-E: Pressing for a Visit

Document 2A: Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs to Secretary of State, “President’s Suggestion re Israeli Reactor,” 2 February 1961, Secret

Document 2B: Memorandum of Conversation, “Israeli Reactor,” 3 February 1961, Confidential

Document 2C: Memorandum, Secretary of State Rusk for the President, “Israeli Reactor,” 8 February 1961, Secret

Document 2D:   Memorandum of Conversation, “Inspection of Israel’s New Atomic Reactor,” 13 February 1961, Secret

Document 2E:   Memorandum of Conversation, “Israel’s Security and Other Problems,” 16 February 1961, Secret

Sources: A: RG 59, Bureau of Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs. Office of the Country Director for Israel and Arab-Israeli Affairs, Records Relating to Israel, 1964-1966 (hereinafter, Israel 1964-1966), box 8, Israel Atomic Energy Program 1961;  B: RG 59, Central Decimal Files, 1960-1963 (hereinafter DF), 884A.1901/2-361; C: John F. Kennedy Library, Papers of John F. Kennedy. President’s Office Files, box 119, Israel Security, 1961-1963; D: RG 59, DF, 884A.1901/3-1361; D: RG 59, DF, 884A.1901/2-1361; E:  RG 59, DF, 784A.5612/2-1661 (also available in Foreign Relations of the United States)

Concerned about a recent visit to Cairo by Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Semenov and the possibility that the Soviets might exploit Egyptian concerns over Dimona, President Kennedy pressed State to arrange an inspection visit at Dimona by a U.S. scientist.  Assistant Secretary of State G. Lewis Jones soon met with Israeli Ambassador Harman, who explained that the Israeli government was preoccupied with an ongoing domestic political crisis.  Prime Minister Ben-Gurion announced his resignation and his intention to take a four-week vacation while still being head of a “caretaker government.” Moreover, Ambassador Harman could not understand why Washington had not simply accepted Ben-Gurion’s assurances about Dimona.  Jones responded that suspicions remained and that as a “close friend,” Israel needed to help allay them.

After informing Kennedy about the Harman-Jones conversation, Secretary of State Rusk had his own meeting with Harman, where he also raised the desirability of a visit, noting that Israeli “candor” was important to the state of the U.S.-Israeli relationship.  During that conversation as well as another with national security adviser McGeorge Bundy, Harman disparaged Dimona’s importance, arguing that its existence had leaked out “unnecessarily.”  But Bundy emphasized “legitimate” Arab concern about the Israeli nuclear project.   It is interesting to note that in internal American documents the reference is always to an “inspection,” but when the issue was discussed with Israeli diplomats, U.S. officials avoided raising their hackles by always referring to a “visit.”

 

Documents 3A-F: Raising Pressure for an Invitation

Document 3A: U.S. Mission to the United Nations (New York) telegram number 2242 to Department of State, “Eyes Only” from Reid to Secretary, 20 February 1961, Secret

Document 3B: Memorandum of Conversation, “U.S.-Israeli Relations – The Dimona Reactor,” 26 February 1961, Confidential

Document 3C: Memorandum by Secretary Rusk to President Kennedy, “Israeli Reactor,” 3 March 1961, with memo from Jones to Rusk attached, Confidential

Document 3D: Memorandum of Conversation, “Dimona Reactor,”13 March 1961, Secret

Document 3E: Memorandum of Conversation, “Dimona Reactor,” 28 March 1961, Secret

Document 3F: Memorandum from Secretary Rusk to President Kennedy, “Dimona Reactor in Israel,” 30 March 1961, with “History of United States Interest in Israel’s Atomic Energy Activities,” attached, Secret

Sources: A: RG 59, DF, 784A.5611/2-2061. B: RG 59, NESA/NEA, Records of the Director, 1960-1963, box 5, Tel Aviv – 1961; C: John F. Kennedy Library, Papers of John F. Kennedy. President’s Office Files, box 119, Israel Security, 1961-1963; D: RG 59, DF, 884A.1901/3-1361; E and F: RG 59, DF, 611.84A45/3-3061.

It took many more weeks of back-and-forth American-Israeli exchanges after departing Ambassador Reid told President Kennedy that an American inspection could be arranged.  While visiting the United States for fund raising purposes, Ben-Gurion’s chief of staff (and future mayor of Jerusalem) Theodore “Teddy” Kollek met with Ogden Reid in New York and with Assistant Secretary Jones in Washington.  He told Reid that Ben-Gurion would accept a visit to Dimona once a new government had been formed in six to eight weeks.  Kollek told Jones that a visit “during March” was possible and personally agreed that it would allay suspicions if Dimona was under the control of the Weizmann Institute instead of the Defense Ministry.

The news about a possible March visit went to President Kennedy, but on 13 March Ambassador Harman had nothing to report, claiming that the Israeli government was still preoccupied with domestic politics. At month’s end, Kennedy intervened, apparently calling Jones directly for information about the status of the U.S. request.  Following up, Jones called in Ambassador Harman for an update, noting Kennedy’s keen interest in the matter and the importance of Israel removing any “shadow of doubt” about the purpose of Dimona.  Harman had no news but believed that nothing would be resolved until Passover ended on 10 April.  A chronology that Rusk attached to his memo to Kennedy indicated that the State Department had been asking about the visit at “approximately weekly intervals.”

 

Documents 4A-B: The Invitation

Document 4A: Memorandum of Conversation, “U.S. Visit to Dimona Reactor Site,” 10 April 1961, Secret

Document 4B: Memorandum by Assistant Secretary Jones to Secretary of State Rusk, “Your Appointment with Israeli Ambassador Harman,” 11 April 1961, Secret

Source: A: RG 59, DF, 884A.1901/4-1061 (also published in Foreign Relations of the United States); B: DF, 033.84A11/4-1161

By early April, Ben-Gurion realized he no longer could postpone the American visit to Dimona. His  diary revealed that he was persuaded by White House special counsel Myer “Mike” Feldman, and Kennedy political ally Abraham Feinberg, who was involved in  fund raising for Dimona, that a meeting between him and Kennedy, in return for an American visit at Dimona, could save the nuclear project. On 10 April, Ambassador Harman finally told Jones and Philip Farley, the special assistant to the secretary of state for atomic energy and outer space matters, that Israel was formally inviting a U.S. scientist to visit the Dimona complex during the week of 15 May, but that the visit should be secret.  Jones and Farley agreed that the visit should not be publicized but worried that secrecy could be “counter-productive.”  As Jones explained to Rusk the next day, “It seems to us to defeat the objective of establishing that the reactor is a normal civilian atomic project if extreme measures of secrecy are taken in connection with the visit.” Jones also informed Rusk that the Atomic Energy Commission had selected two of its scientists to make the visit:  Ulysses Staebler, assistant director of reactor development and chief of the Civilian Power Reactors Branch, and Jesse Croach Jr., a heavy water reactor expert with Dupont, the AEC’s principal contractor for heavy water reactor work.

Jones wrote a briefing paper to help Rusk prepare to speak with Harman about the Dimona invitation, but the only record of their meeting that has surfaced publicly is the part of the conversation concerning Ben-Gurion’s request for a meeting with President Kennedy, possibly as early as the week of April 23. Rusk responded that he would pass on the request to the president but expressed his doubts as the president’s schedule was already full until the first week of June.

 

Documents 5A-F: Arrangements for the Visit

Document 5A: Memorandum of Conversation, “U.S. Visit to Dimona,” 17 April 1961, Secret

Document 5B: State Department Telegram 798 to U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv, 28 April 1961, Secret

Document 5C: Memorandum of Conversation, “Visit to Israeli Reactor,” 1 May 1961, Secret

Document 5D: Memorandum by Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Philips Talbot to Secretary of State, “Ben–Gurion Visit and Israel’s Reactor,” 1 May 1961, Secret

Document 5E: Memorandum by Secretary of State Rusk to President Kennedy, “Visit to Israeli Reactor,” 5 May 1961, Secret

Document 5F:  Robert C. Strong to Armin H. Meyer, “Suggested Points to be Made to U.S. Scientists, Dr. Staebler and Dr. Croach, at the Meeting at 2:30 p.m., May 15,” 15 May 1961 Secret

Sources: A: Source: RG 59, Records of the Special Assistant to the Secretary of State for Atomic Energy and Outer Space, Records Relating to Atomic Energy Matters, 1948-1962 (hereinafter SAE), box 501, Z1.50 Country File Israel f. Reactor 1961, Part 2 of 2; B: RG 59, DF, 884A.1901/4-2861; C: RG 59, SAE, box 501, Z1.50 Country File Israel f. Reactor 1961, Part 2 of 2; D: RG 59, DF, 884A.1901/5-161; E: RG 59, DF, 884A.1901/5-561; F: RG 59, Israel 1964-1966, box 8, Israel Atomic Energy Program 1961

Israel kept pushing the necessity for secrecy, but Washington insisted that a “quiet visit” was enough to keep Croach and Staebler out of the spotlight.  Moreover, the Kennedy administration wanted to be able to inform allies, such as the British, about the visit’s findings. While the Israelis wanted Washington to agree to push the visit back until after the Ben-Gurion-Kennedy meeting, the State Department, under instructions from the White House, refused to change the schedule: the administration wanted the visit to occur before Kennedy met with Ben-Gurion, so that the findings could be fully assessed. The State Department was determined to meet that goal, as was evident from the preparations for a meeting with the inspectors.

 

Document 6: A Private Debate

Memorandum of Conversation, “Israeli Atomic Energy Program,” 16 May 1961, Secret

Source: RG 59, SAE, box 501, Z1.50 Country File Israel f. Reactor 1961, Part 2 of 2 

The second-ranking diplomat at the Israeli Embassy, Mordechai Gazit, raised questions to Phillip Farley about the real purposes of the U.S. visit to Dimona.  Justifying the secrecy as protection for suppliers against the Arab boycott of Israel, Gazit argued that it would be years before the reactor could have any military potential  and, in any event, Israel needed whatever “means it could find” to defend itself.  Taking in Gazit’s implicit admission, Farley noted that Washington was concerned about the impact that an Israeli nuclear project aimed at weapons could have on the region and that an Israeli nuclear weapons program would be disastrous for world stability.   “I could not see how Israel could long expect to have nuclear weapons without its enemies also getting them in some way.  Once there, were nuclear weapons on both sides, I thought Israel would be in a desperate state.” Its territory was simply too small for it to survive even a small exchange.” Farley’s argument reflects the fundamental Israeli nuclear dilemma to this day.

 

Document 7: President Kennedy’s Concerns

Memorandum, by L.D. Battle, Executive Secretary, to McGeorge Bundy, Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, “American Scientists’ Visit to Israel’s Dimona Reactor,” 18 May 1961, Secret

Source: RG 59, DF, 884A.1901/5-1861

President Kennedy told the new U.S. ambassador to Israel, Walworth Barbour, that he was concerned about Israel’s insistence on a secret visit as well as the “absence of a ‘neutral’ scientist” in the visit to Dimona.  Addressing Kennedy’s concerns, the State Department took the position that it was better to put up with Ben-Gurion’s “sensitivities” about secrecy than “have no visit” at all. Nevertheless, the Department advised the White House that “complete and continued secrecy as to the results of the visit would [not] be possible.”  The results of the visit would be conveyed to appropriate U.S. agencies “in due course” and would be shared perhaps with some “friendly” governments. Moreover, the U.S. believed that once the Israelis became used to visits to Dimona it might be possible to persuade them to accept visits by scientists from other countries or a publicized inspection by the IAEA.

 

Documents 8A-B: The Visit to Dimona

Document 8A: Memorandum from Executive Secretary L. D. Battle to McGeorge Bundy, “U.S. Scientists Visit to Israel’s Nuclear Reactor,” 26 May 1961, Secret

Document 8B: Atomic Energy Commission AEC 928/1, “Visit to Israel by U.M. Staebler and J.W. Croach, Jr.,” 7 June 1961, Confidential

Sources: A: RG 59, SAE, box 501, Z1.50 Country File Israel f. Reactor 1961, Part 2 of 2; B: declassification release by DOE

During their visit to Israel (May 17-May 22), AEC scientists Croach and Staebler visited the Weizman Institute, the Technion, the USAEC-funded swimming pool experimental reactor at Soreq, and finally the Dimona complex then under construction. It was in that first visit that Israel provided its “cover” story for the Dimona project, a narrative of “plausible deniability” that would be observed during all future visits.[6] When Croach and Staebler met with State Department officials on their return, they said that they were “satisfied” that the reactor was “of the scope and peaceful character” claimed by Israeli officials.   That could only be a tentative judgment because Dimona was still an unfinished project. Although Croach and Staebler found no evidence that the Israelis had nuclear weapons production in mind, they acknowledged that “the reactor eventually will produce small quantities of plutonium suitable for weapons.”  Their official report to the AEC was far more circumspect, not mentioning the weapons potential or a capability to produce plutonium.  Nevertheless, as noted earlier, they mentioned the Israeli statement about the possibility that the reactor’s power could be doubled in the future, which would increase the potential to produce plutonium.

 

Documents 9A-D: Kennedy’s Meeting with Ben–Gurion

Document 9A: Briefing Book, “Israel Prime Minister Ben-Gurion’s Visit to the United States,” n.d. [circa May 29, 1961], Secret, excerpts 

Document 9B: Memorandum of Conversation, “President Kennedy, Prime Minister Ben-Gurion, Ambassador Avraham Harman of Israel, Myer Feldman of the White House Staff, and Philips Talbot, Assistant Secretary, Near East  and South Asian Affairs, at the Waldorf Astoria, New York, 4:45 p.m. to 6:15 p.m.,” 30 May 1961, Secret, Draft

Document 9C: Ambassador Harman’s  Record of the Meeting, with attachment on the “Atomic Reactor” (and transcript), sent with cover letter by  Mordechai Gazit to Israeli Foreign Ministry, 7 June 1961

Document 9D: Memorandum by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East and South Asian Affairs Armin H. Meyer of White House discussion on Ben-Gurion/Kennedy Meeting, n.d. [circa 9 June 1961], Secret

Sources: A: RG 59, SAE, box 501, Z1.50 Country File Israel f. Reactor 1961, Part 2 of 2; B: RG 59, Bureau of Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, Office of Near Eastern Affairs, Records of the Director, 1960-1963, box 5, Tel Aviv – 1961; C: Israeli State Archives, file 130.02/3294/7; D: RG 59, Israel 1964-1966, box 8, Israel Atomic Energy Program 1961

On his way to the Vienna summit with Nikita Khrushchev, Kennedy stopped in Manhattan to meet with Ben-Gurion.[7]   For both leaders, the Dimona question was a top priority; just as Kennedy wanted Israel to “remove any doubts” that other countries had about its purposes, so Ben-Gurion wanted to resolve this outstanding problem and to let the project be finished quietly.  Ben-Gurion stood by his earlier statements that the “main” purpose of the reactor was peaceful – namely, internal economic development.  Given Kennedy’s interest in regional stability and aversion to nuclear proliferation, he wanted to be able to let Israel’s Arab neighbors know about the positive results of the recent Dimona visit by American scientists.

The official U.S. memorandum of conversation is published in the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States (the file copy at the National Archives is classified even though the FRUS volume has been published), and an Israeli English-language version is also available.   As noted earlier, a draft of the official memcon has surfaced which has some interesting differences with the final versions: for example, Ben-Gurion’s tacit acknowledgement of a nuclear weapons potential and a statement suggesting freedom of action about eventual reprocessing.  The Israeli minutes of the conversation manifest Ben-Gurion’s ambiguities and evasiveness even more strongly, for example, his assertion that “for the time being, the only purposes of [the Dimona reactor] are for peace.”  Moreover, he said, “we will see what happens in the Middle East.”

 

Documents 10A-C: Sharing the Findings

Document 10A: State Department telegram 5701 to U.S. Embassy United Kingdom, 31 May 1961, Secret

Document 10B: Memorandum of Conversation, “The Dimona Reactor,” 16 June 1961, Secret

Document 10C: State Department Circular Telegram 2047 to U.S. Embassy Jordan [et al.], 17 June 1961, Confidential

Sources: A: RG 59, DF, 033.84A41/5-3061, B: RG 59, DF, 884A.1901/6-1661; C: Record Group 84, Records of Foreign Service Posts, U.S. Embassy Vienna, U.S. Mission to International Organizations in Vienna, International Atomic Energy Agency, Classified Records, 1955-1963, box 1, Atomic Energy Developments- Israel, 1959-1961

When Kennedy said that he would like to share the findings of the Dimona visit with other governments, Ben-Gurion did not object to that or the possibility of visits by “neutral” scientists.  The British had already asked for information on the Kennedy-Ben-Gurion meeting and one day later, their embassy was given the gist of the Dimona visit report as well as a brief description of the meeting.   The State Department made plans to brief Arab governments, but Deputy Assistant Secretary Armin Meyer asked Ambassador Harman if his government would be willing to work with U.S. representatives at the IAEA Board of Governors meeting to make an announcement of the visit to Dimona and also to undertake quiet discussions at the meeting about a possible neutral visit to Dimona. Harman, however, objected to an IAEA role in the Dimona matter until the rest of the world had accepted the idea of inspections and he wanted Washington to coordinate any visit by neutral scientists.

The State Department had already sent a message to Egyptian Foreign Minister Fawzi about the visit and soon sent a circular telegram to embassies in the region, but also to Oslo (Norway was interested because of its heavy water sales to Israel).  Through those messages the “highest levels” of those governments were to be informed that the U.S. scientists had “found no evidence” of Israeli preparations for producing nuclear weapons.

 

Documents 11A-B: Lingering Suspicions

Document 11A: National Intelligence Estimate No. 35-61, “The Outlook for Israel,” 5 October 1961, Secret

Document 11B: Letter, Howard Furnas, Office of Special Assistant to Secretary of State for Atomic Energy and Outer Space, to Dwight Ink, Atomic Energy Commission, 15 November 1961, Secret

Source: A: CIA declassification release; B: RG 59, SAE, box 501, Z1.50 Country File Israel f. Reactor 1961, Part 2 of 2

The State Department’s assurances notwithstanding, within U.S. intelligence circles doubts lingered. In a National Intelligence Estimate on Israel, declassified in 2015 at the request of the National Security Archive, the U.S. intelligence community concluded that:

Israel may have decided to undertake a nuclear weapons program. At a minimum, we believe it has decided to develop its nuclear facilities in such a way as to put it into a position to develop nuclear weapons promptly should it decide to do.

 Moreover, if the Israeli had made such a decision, by 1965-1966, the Dimona reactor would produce enough plutonium to build one or two nuclear weapons a year, although to do that they would need larger processing capabilities than the pilot plant then in the works. Other obstacles were the lack of testing facilities and the problem that a test would use up scarce fissile material supplies. Another obstacle, cited by State Department atomic energy adviser Philip Farley in a letter to an AEC official, was a lack of weapons design information.  In light of that concern, Farley advised the AEC to be “alert” to the possibility that Israeli scientists might try to acquire nuclear weapons design information “through clandestine means in the United States.”  Thus, “discreet surveillance” was necessary of Dr. Israel Dostrovsky, an eminent Israeli chemist, who had recently been given a teaching fellowship at Brookhaven National Laboratory.  An expert on isotopes and isotope separation, Dostrovsky was a key figure in Israel’s nuclear-scientific establishment, later becoming the director general of the Atomic Energy Commission (1966-1970).  That Dotrovsky had close ties to the Israeli defense establishment may have influenced the notion that he should be a target for surveillance.[8]

 

Documents 12A-B: Exploring Visits by a “Neutral” Scientist

Document 12A: Robert C. Strong to Phillips Talbot, “Your Appointment with Israel Ambassador Harman, 4:45 p.m., Tuesday, November 14,” 14 November 1961, Confidential

Document 12B:  Memorandum of Conversation, “Broadened Access to Israel’s Nuclear Reactor,” 14 November 1961, Secret

Sources: A: RG 59, SAE, box 501, Z1.50 Country File Israel f. Reactor 1961, Part 2 of 2; B: RG 59, DF, 884A.1901/11-1461

The Kennedy administration had to balance its apprehensions over Dimona with other concerns, such as the broader implications of the status of Palestinian refugees.  With respect to Dimona, the State Department kept in mind President Kennedy’s interest in visits by neutral scientists and Ben-Gurion’s approval of such.  Moreover, State Department officials believed that a neutral visit could “obviate any overtones of inspections, which is [sic] unacceptable to Israel,” and also make it possible for Washington to avoid being the sole “guarantor of Israel’s nuclear intentions” on the basis of the May 1961 visit by AEC scientists.  During a meeting with Ambassador Harman, Phillips Talbot brought up again the idea of neutral visits and mentioned that Farley had some suggestions to make.  Harman said that he would be happy to meet with Farley but that Israel would “prefer a visit by Scandinavian or Swiss scientists.”

 

Document 13: Memorandum by Robert Amory, Deputy Director of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, to Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs [McGeorge Bundy], 18 January 1962, Secret, excised copy

Source: CIA mandatory declassification review release, under appeal; original file copy at Johnson or Kennedy libraries

That the Central Intelligence Agency has kept secret important findings about the Dimona project is evident from this heavily excised report to McGeorge Bundy, which has been under appeal since 2010.  Whatever the findings were, they were enough to induce Bundy to ask his aide, Robert Komer, to “prod” the State Department to arrange “another periodic check on this by scientists.”  That, however, would take time.

Among other records, the CIA has also withheld in its entirety a scientific intelligence report, from early 1962, on the Israeli nuclear program; it is currently under appeal with the Interagency Security Classification Appeals panel.

 

 Documents 14A-D: Whether the IAEA Could Be Brought In

Document 14A: Nicolas G. Thacher to James P. Grant, “Your Appointment with Dennis Greenhill and Dennis Speares of the British Embassy,” 12 February 1962, Secret 

Document 14B: Memorandum of Conversation, “Israel’s Atomic Energy Program,” 14 February 1962, Secret

Document 14C: William C. Hamilton to Robert C. Strong, “Reply to U.K. Paper on Safeguards,” 9 April 1962, with British memorandum, “Israel’s Nuclear Reactor,” dated 7 February 1962, attached, Secret

Document 14D: Memorandum of Conversation, “Israel’s Atomic Energy Program,” 9 April 1962, with U.S. memorandum attached, Secret

Sources: A: RG 59. Israel, 1964-1966, box 8, Dimona Reactor, 1962-1967; B: RG 59, DF, 884A.1901/2-1462; C: Israel, 1964-1966, Box 8, Dimona Reactor, 1962-1967; D: RG 59, DF, 884A.1901/2-1462

Worried about the possibility of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, especially in light of Egyptian talks with West Germany about the acquisition of a reactor, the British wanted to find ways to meet Arab concerns about Dimona by bringing the site under scrutiny of the emerging IAEA safeguards/inspection system.  The British recognized that achieving this would be very difficult – the Israelis objected to IAEA inspection because they professed to be worried about the inclusion of Soviet bloc officials on the inspection teams; moreover, the French, who had supplied the reactor and fuel elements, were also unlikely to accept international inspection of the irradiated fuel.  Nevertheless, because Dimona was not yet an operating reactor (and the IAEA Safeguards Division was still being created), the British suggested preliminary, ad hoc steps, such as inspection by a “neutral” (in terms of the Arab-Israeli dispute) observer such as Canada.   They believed that because of Israel’s reluctance, U.S. “pressure” would be required.

The State Department concurred with the objective of the British proposal: “we fully agree on the desirability of bringing Near East nuclear development under IAEA control.”  Nevertheless, believing that Israeli and French objections were not likely to yield to “pressure,” State Department officials also favored pursuing such steps as visits by “neutral” scientists.. They believed, however, that Canada was not neutral enough because it was so closely associated with the IAEA; nor was Ottawa likely to get any more information than Washington could.  Washington had been holding talks with the Swedes, but if they did not pan out, the U.S. could arrange a second visit by its scientists.

 

Documents 15A-E: Trying to Arrange a Second Visit

Document 15A: Robert C. Strong to Phillips Talbot, “Another Visit to Israel’s Dimona Reactor,” 22 June 1962, Secret

Document 15B:  Memorandum of Conversation, “A Second Visit by U.S. Scientists to Israel’s Dimona Reactor,” 22 June 1962, Secret

Document 15C: State Department telegram 233 to U.S. Embassy Egypt, 11 July 1962, Secret

Document 15D: Memorandum of Conversation, “Proposed Visit of U.S. Scientists to the Dimona Reactor,” 14 September 1962, Secret

Document 15E: William Brubeck, Executive Secretary, to McGeorge Bundy, “Second Visit by U.S. Scientists to the Dimona Reactor,” 18 September 1962, Secret

Sources: A: RG 59, DF, 611.84A45/6-2262; B: RG 59, DF, 884A.1901/6-2262; C: RG 59, DF, 884A.1901/7-1162. D: RG 59, DF, 884A.1901/9-162; E: RG 59, DF, 884A.1901/9-1462

No documents about U.S. efforts to find a “neutral” visitor have surfaced so far, but apparently the Swedes expressed only “faint interest” in playing a role, which led Washington to decide to “undertake the responsibility once more.” As it had been over a year since the first visit, U.S. diplomats believed that if the Israelis agreed to another one it would provide an opportunity for Washington to preserve a “favorable atmosphere” in the region by making assurances about the reactor to Cairo and other Arab capitals (as long as the assurances were warranted).   On 22 June, Talbot renewed the question with Ambassador Harman but the lack of response led Talbot to bring up the matter on 14 September. By then two AEC scientists were scheduled to visit the U.S.-financed reactor at Soreq in a matter of days and it made sense for them to include a visit to Dimona.  Harman, however, said that no decision could be made until later in the month when Ben-Gurion was back from a European trip.

 

Documents 16A-B: The Second Visit

Document 16A: A: State Department telegram 451 to U.S. Embassy Egypt, 22 October 1962, Secret

Document 16B: Memorandum of Conversation, “Second U.S. Visit to Dimona Reactor,” 23 October 1962, Secret

Document 16C: Rodger P. Davies to Phillips Talbot, “Second Inspection of Israel’s Dimona Reactor,” 27 December 1962, Secret

A: RG 59, DF, 884A.1901/10-2262; B: RG 59, DF, 884A.1901/10-2362; C: U.S. Department of State, Microfiche Supplement, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963, Volumes XVII, XVIII, XX, XXI (Microfiche Number 10, Document Number 150)

Never making a formal reply to the U.S. request, the Israelis used the ploy of an improvised visit to evade the substance of a real visit.  As noted in the introduction, decades later an Israeli source confirmed to Avner Cohen that this was indeed a trick. While the two AEC scientists, Thomas Haycock and Ulysses Staebler, did not see the complete installation, they believed that they had enough time to determine that Dimona was a research reactor, not a production reactor, which, from their point of view, made the visit “satisfactory.”  U.S. intelligence did not agree because the visit left unanswered questions, such as “whether in fact the reactor might give Israel a nuclear weapons capability.”

A few weeks after the visit, just as the Cuban Missile Crisis was unfolding, the State Department began to inform selected governments about its results.  U.S. diplomats told Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, during a briefing on the Cuban situation, that the visit confirmed Israeli statements about the reactor.  The British and Canadians were also told about the “recent brief visit” to Dimona, without explaining what had made it so short.  By the end of October, the Department sent a fuller statement  to embassies in the Middle East, as well as London, Paris, Ottawa, and Oslo.

 

NOTES

[1]. Richard Reeves, President Kennedy: Profile in Power (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), pp. 29-33.

[2]. Avner Cohen, Israel and the Bomb (New York, Columbia University Press, 1998), 108-11; Warren Bass, Support Any friend, 2003, 200-02.

[3]. In conversations Avner Cohen had with the late John Hadden, the CIA station chief in Israel during 1964-68, he made it apparent that his office was fully clear about “what was Dimona doing,” including reprocessing, and was not allowed to maintain any contact with the visiting AEC scientists. See also Israel and the Bomb 187-90.

[4]. Avner Cohen, Israel and the Bomb, 112.

[5]. Yuval Ne’eman told Avner Cohen about his “trick” on the visit of 1962 in many of the conversations during the 1990s and 2000s. When Cohen published Israel and the Bomb in 1998 he cited only a condensed version of Ne’eman tale—Ne’eman still considered it sensitive in the 1990s. Now, almost ten years after his passing (2006), Cohen is comfortable citing his tale in more detail.
According to Ne’eman in an interview conducted in March 1994, as the host of the two AEC scientists who had arrived to inspect the Soreq reactor (under the terms of the “Atoms for Peace” program) he “arranged” to take them for a tour of the Dead Sea. This was a well-planned pretext to bring them to Dimona on Israeli terms. So, on their way back, by late afternoon, as they were passing near the Dimona reactor, Ne’eman “spontaneously” suggested to arrange a quick visit at Dimona to say “hello” to the director whom inspector Staebler had known from the visit a year earlier, in May 1961. Ne’eman told them this was a great opportunity since their government was pressing for such a visit. The purpose was, of course, to have a much more informal and abbreviated visit rather than the formal one the US government wanted.  In doing so, Israel would ease American pressure and convince the visitors that Dimona was a research reactor, not a production reactor.  When the United States continued to press for a visit, Ne’eman told them, “you just did it.”

[6]. For more information on the visit, see Cohen, Israel and the Bomb, 105-108.

[7]. For the Kennedy-Ben-Gurion meeting, see ibid, 108-109.

[8]. Ibid , 21.