THE SAMSON OPTION: ISRAEL'S NUCLEAR ARSENAL AND AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY
Chapter 12: The Ambassador
Walworth Barbour, the American ambassador to Israel, was a compelling presence to the Israelis-a tall, shy hugely overweight diplomat with a gluttonous appetite and acute emphysema. He constantly sprayed his throat with a vaporizer, wore yellowing white suits with brown-and-white shoes, and walked with a shambling gait, an outsized Sydney Greenstreet. Barbour spoke no Hebrew and by the end of his stay in Israel still had little to do with the people of the country, rarely attending educational, cultural, or social events. And yet he was beloved by Israel's leadership, and had been since his appointment in 1961 by John F. Kennedy; he remained on the job for the next twelve years. Only three American ambassadors ever served longer in one post.  A life long bachelor, Barbour retired quietly in 1973, along with his spinster sister, to the family home in Gloucester, Massachusetts, taking with him an extensive knowledge of Israel's nuclear capability.
Barbour's long assignment as ambassador was not a testament to his intelligence and competence, which were exceptional, but to his understanding of when and when not to accept every Israeli assertion at face value and his willingness to operate the American embassy as a subsidiary, if necessary of the Israeli foreign ministry. The ambassador often reminded his questioning subordinates that he was not a servant of the Department of State or its secretary, but a President's man with a personal mandate in an important embassy-a functionary who would stand aside when ordered to do so, and permit the White House and the Israeli ambassador to Washington to run the real policy behind his back.
A graduate of Exeter and Harvard, Barbour was unfailingly courteous and correct to his subordinates, and in his first six years as ambassador, when some of the most accurate reporting on Dimona was forwarded to Washington, rarely interfered with the job of those working in his embassy. But the field reports had no impact; they simply disappeared into the bureaucratic maze. Barbour did nothing to keep them alive, and after the 1967 Six-Day War ordered his staff-over the objection of one key aide-to stop reporting On nuclear weapons in Israel. Barbour's assignment at that moment was to insulate Lyndon Johnson and his men from those facts that would compel action, and he did his President's bidding. He was the best, and the worst, of American diplomacy.
Barbour's important role in the history of U.S.-Israeli relations- and his knowledge of Israel's nuclear capability-was hidden by his insistence on a low profile. He was a virtual nonperson to the American correspondents assigned to Israel; he rarely met with them, unlike most ambassadors, and he never spoke on the record. His name occurs only six times in the New York Times Index for the years 1961 to 1966, a period of political turmoil in which the United States, after intense diplomatic activity, emerged as Israel's chief arms supplier. His reclusiveness was legendary in his embassy, a five-story building located near the beach at Tel Aviv. Barbour's daily pattern was inviolate, and interrupted only by international crises or the visits of the traveling secretary of state and senior White House advisers: he was chauffeured to the embassy's basement garage around nine in the morning, rode an elevator to his top-floor office, stayed there until noon, rode the elevator down to the garage, and returned home. There were afternoon rounds of golf, weather permitting, dips in his pool, and an occasional evening of bridge. When Barbour did entertain-he did so less frequently over the years- his guests often included prominent visiting Jews, such as Abe Feinberg and Victor Rothschild of London.  Such events, Barbour once explained to William N. Dale, who arrived in 1964 as deputy chief of mission, were his way of fulfilling a direct assignment from Lyndon Johnson: "I'm here under orders from Johnson, who told me, 'I don't care a thing about what happens to Israel, but your job is to keep the Jews off my back.' Everything I do is designed to keep Jews off the President's back," Barbour added. "To keep them happy." He told another newcomer to the embassy, upon being asked why he did not respond to messages from the State Department, "I go back to Washington every year to see the President and I get my orders directly from him-not from those pipsqueaks [at State]." Barbour also was phobic about using a newly installed State Department telephone scrambler system, designed to protect conversations from being intercepted. "If they can talk to you over a secure telephone line," he told an aide, "then you have to do what they want." He repeatedly urged Bill Dale to send embassy reports by mail, especially if the intelligence was adverse to Israeli interests, because "Israel has friends all over the State Department" and would intercept the information.
Most junior members of the embassy staff had no contact with the ambassador and could go for months or longer without even seeing him; Barbour's weekly staff meetings were only for senior subordinates. One personal aide recalled being asked by Barbour in 1967, six years after he became ambassador, whether it was possible to cash a check in the embassy. "He had never been on the second floor," the aide added, where the cashier's office was located. Still, many subordinates viewed him with awe. "He was the finest man I've ever known in the government," said John L. Hadden, who served as CIA station chief in Tel Aviv in the mid-196os. "He was a real professional. He was Boston Back Bay and friendship was not in the books with him. Respect is a better word. He didn't bother with friends." Barbour's closest associates were not his fellow Americans, but senior officials of the Israeli government, including Golda Meir, who became prime minister in 1969, and Major General Aharon Yariv, director of military intelligence from 1964 to 1972.
Of course, no senior Israeli official would talk to an outsider about nuclear weapons, and Barbour, in the end, shared that taboo.
Yet it was Barbour's men who reported before the June 1967 war that Israel had completed its basic weapons design and was capable of manufacturing warheads for deployment on missiles. Israel also may have had a crudely manufactured bomb or two ready to go, but-as the embassy could not know-no decision had been made by Prime Minister Eshkol to begin mass production.
Spying on Dimona was not the responsibility of the Central Intelligence Agency, as in most foreign countries, but left to the U.S. Army, Air Force, and Navy attaches assigned to the embassy; the Agency's espionage functions included the monitoring of Soviet activities and the providing of special cameras, film, and free bottles of wine to any officer who wanted to picnic on the weekend with his family in the Negev. The 1963 restrictions on the CIA's operations inside Israel, American officials acknowledged, were a sop aimed at avoiding any undue embarrassment for the Israeli government, whose extensive penetration of the United States government needed to be curbed. "We were helpful to the Israelis" in terms of supplying essential intelligence, explains a senior American diplomat, "but we knew that if we weren't-they'd get it anyway." The few espionage attempts organized by the CIA before 1963 had gone nowhere, in part because of the nature of Israel's close-knit society but also because of Israel's ability to monitor the activities of the Americans assigned to Israel. All of the U.S. embassy contacts with Israeli citizens and government officials were-and continue to be-- funneled through a special liaison office of the Israeli foreign ministry. It was understood that American intelligence and military officials who tried to evade the liaison system would be carefully watched. Given the difficulty of operating clandestinely inside Israel, the function of the CIA station chief was reduced to writing political assessments and staying in close touch with his counterparts in Mossad and in military intelligence, Aman. Israel, with its steady stream of Soviet and Eastern European Jewish refugees, remained tae most important country for collecting intelligence on the Soviet Union, but those operations were left to James Angleton and his men in Washington. It was sometimes hard for a newcomer, like John McCone, to keep things straight.
McCone was still eager to have his agency prove what he knew to be true: that a chemical reprocessing plant did exist underground at Dimona. Peter C. Jessup, the CIA station chief in the early 1960s, recalled being peremptorily ordered to fly to Rome early in McCone's tenure, where the director-then on a grand tour of CIA facilities in Europe-was scheduled to see the pope. The trip, in the days before jet travel, had taken many hours, but McCone had only a moment to spare. "He was in a great hurry," Jessup recalled, "and told me that President Kennedy thinks the most serious problem facing us is the proliferation of nuclear weapons." McCone wanted the questions about Israel put to rest, and urged the station chief to put "his staff" to work. At the time, the bemused Jessup added, his "staff" at the CIA station consisted of two aides.
Despite the difficulties, the men in the U.S. embassy-wanting, like most people, to do their job as well as possible-kept on trying to find out what they could about Dimona. Getting close was fun and a little dangerous--one American officer was chastised by Barbour after being caught by the Israelis with a butterfly net outside Dimona's barbed-wire fence-but occasionally added something useful to the intelligence. Colonel Carmelo V. Alba was the U.S. Army's military attache to Israel in the mid-1960s and, like the other attaches from Western embassies, spent many weekends cruising in the Negev with his long-range telescopic camera. "All I was doing was taking pictures," Alba recalled. He did so at least once a month, shipping the film off to Washington, with no reaction-until one of his photographs showed "evidence of activity at Dimona. Smoke was coming out of the dome," Alba added. "Finally, the CIA got excited."
Dimona had gone critical, and the embassy continued its watch. John Hadden, who began his tour as CIA station chief in 1963, sent Alba one weekend to Beersheba to do a census of French names on the mailboxes of the city's apartment complexes.  A constant goal was to try to determine who was doing what at Dimona. Barbour did not interfere with the hunt; William Dale, as the second-highest-ranking American diplomat, was given wide latitude in the day-to-day management of the embassy, and he encouraged his staff to find out what it could. The embassy's scientific attache was a physicist named Robert T. Webber, who shared Dale's interest in Dimona. Webber, who had earned a doctorate in physics at Yale University, worked closely with John Hadden-in clear violation of a State Department decree forbidding scientific attaches to engage in intelligence work.  Webber also relied on the intelligence gathered by Mel Alba and encouraged the Army colonel to collaborate with his British and Canadian counterparts in collecting more.
It was a hunt, and the men in the embassy got a break sometime in 1966 from an unlikely source-an American Jew living in Israel. Dale and the rest of the embassy staff stayed on good terms-as American diplomats do all over the world-with the many American citizens who chose to live abroad. Americans in Israel were routinely invited to embassy parties and picnics, as well as to screenings of American movies. Dale and his wife had become especially friendly with Dr. Max Ben, a Princeton-trained pharmacologist who was helping the Israelis set up a pharmacology institute under United Nations auspices. "One morning," Dale recalled, "Max came into the embassy and said, 'I have a story to tell you. I've been down to Dimona and I was shown the nuclear facilities. I'm convinced that Israel is making nuclear warheads.' " Ben, contacted later, vividly recalled his trip to Dimona. He had become a close friend and confidant of Ernst Bergmann's while in Israel, and it was that friendship, he claimed, that led to the invitation to take a firsthand look at the reactor. Though he had studied physics at Princeton, Ben found the visit to be "exciting" but confusing: "A lot of it I didn't understand." What troubled him, however, was not any concern about proliferation, but his belief that the United States was not helping Israel in its serious pursuit of the bomb: "I thought we ought to do something about it-to give them an assist." He talked to Dale and then agreed to discuss what he knew on a more sophisticated level with Bob Webber. Dale arranged the meeting. Ben explained years later that his purpose in taking up the issue with Dale and Webber had not been to inform on Israel's nuclear progress, as Dale obviously assumed, but to try to pass word of the accomplishments at Dimona to Washington. "My goal," he recalled, "was to see how the U.S. could help Israel. I tried to walk a line."
Dale felt he had enough to report. He brought Webber and others into the embassy's most secure room-a lead-sealed facility known as the "bubble"-and the group drafted a highly classified dispatch to Washington summarizing their intelligence. Its essential message, Dale recalled, was: "Israel is getting ready to start putting warheads into missiles so they can be quickly assembled into weapons for delivery by plane." The paper had to be approved by the ambassador, who was approached with trepidation. "Barbour harrumphed," Dale recalled, "and said, 'Well, I suppose it's time. Go ahead, they deserve it. Let it go.'" Dale forwarded it with a sense of accomplishment. It was, Dale thought, the embassy's most definitive report by far on Dimona.
"So what happened?" asked Dale. "Not a damn thing. No body responded." Webber eventually was replaced as science attache by someone much less interested in Dimona, and Colonel Alba was reassigned as an aide to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Adding to the frustration, Dale said, was the fact that more revealing information about Israeli intentions was provided early the next year by another American Jew. The embassy was entertaining a group of American government officials who were en route from India after attending a regional meeting of American economic and commercial attaches. There was a party set up in Tel Aviv with Israeli trade officials. On the next day, Eugene M. Braderman, then a deputy assistant secretary of state for commercial affairs, approached Dale, "looking ashen. He said, 'One of the Israelis at the party told me that my primary duty, as an American Jew, was to help the United States government accept Israeli nuclear weapons.' Braderman was very agitated," Dale added. "He said to me: 'I'm an American first, not a Jew first.' He told me to do whatever was right with the information."  By that point, Dale understood that Braderman's story had nowhere to go. "I didn't do anything with it," he said. "I knew it'd not do any good."
There were other issues, of course, for the embassy. Israel decided in early June 1967 to preempt the increasing Arab buildup in the Sinai and go to war. A year of steady tension had culminated two weeks before in an Egyptian blockade of the Israeli port city of Elat. An increasingly confident Nasser had sent his troops to occupy Sharm el Sheikh on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, blocking the access of Israeli shipping to the Strait of Tiran, which leads from the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba and then to Elat.
Israel considered the Egyptian move to be an act of war, but -under pressure from the Johnson administration not to attack- the Eshkol government wavered. The prime minister, confronted by a public that wanted to initiate war with the Arabs, was viciously criticized for his indecisiveness and lack of military experience. To maintain political control -- intelligence reports reached the White House of military coup plotting -- Eshkol was forced in late May to turn to his political enemies, including Moshe Dayan and Menachem Begin, and form a government of national unity. For Begin, now a minister without portfolio, the appointment meant that he was serving in the Israeli government for the first time in his political career. Dayan's nomination as defense minister had to be much more difficult for Eshkol; it amounted, in essence, to an acknowledgment that he was unable to lead the nation in wartime. Dayan, with his romantic image, was as admired among the population as the hesitating Eshkol was not. Dayan came to the defense portfolio with enormous political strength, raising the possibility that the hard-line pro-nuclear Rafi Party of David Ben-Gurion would once again be dominant in Israeli military affairs.
The army, led by Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin, was ready. Israel struck first on June 5 and achieved Its stunning victory in six days, humiliating the Soviet-supplied Arabs and seizing Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, Jordan's West Bank, and Syria's Golan Heights, and, most stirring of all, fulfilling a two-thousand-year-old dream by bringing the Old City of Jerusalem under Jewish control. But Israel suddenly found itself in control of one million more Palestinians.
Wally Barbour spent much of the war in the Israeli war room, and he shared the jubilation throughout the nation-and in much of America--over the stunning Israeli victory. There was no pretense of objectivity in his reporting to Washington; his views and those of the Israeli leadership were identical. For example, Barbour urged that Washington downplay the Israeli Air Force's rocket and strafing attack on the USS Liberty, a naval intelligence ship, on the third day of the war. The Liberty, flying the American flag, had been monitoring Middle East communications traffic in international waters off the coast of Israel and had been identified as an American ship before the attack, which resulted in a death toll of thirty- four with 171 men wounded. The incident triggered resentment throughout the United States government. Barbour, however, was anything but angered. A declassified cable on file in the LBJ Library shows that hours after the incident he reported that Israel did not intend to admit to the incident and added: "Urge strongly that we too avoid publicity. [Liberty's] proximity to scene could feed Arab suspicions of U.S.-Israel collusion.... Israelis obviously shocked by error and tender sincere apologies." 
At war's end, Bill Dale was summoned by Barbour and told of a change in policy regarding the collection of intelligence about Dimona. Dale was to inform the embassy's military attaches, Barbour said, that they were no longer to report on Dimona and no longer to undercut the Israelis by conducting operations with their British or Canadian counterparts. "Israel is going to be our main ally," Barbour told Dale, "and we can't dilute it by working with others." There was a second message, Dale recalled: "Barbour said, 'Arab oil is not as important as Israel is to us. Therefore, I'm going to side with Israel in all of my reporting.' And maybe he was right," added Dale. "From that time on, it was a different Wally Barbour." 
Dale objected to the policy change, "and our relationship soured." Barbour subsequently attempted to amend a favorable fitness report he had turned in on Dale's behalf; Dale remains convinced that his disagreement over Dimona set back his career (he was named ambassador to the Central African Republic in 1973 and retired from the Foreign Service in 1975). Dale did, however, file one more embassy intelligence report on Dimona. In the fall of 1967, Henry A. Kissinger, then a Harvard University professor and a consultant on Vietnam to the Johnson administration, showed up in Tel Aviv to teach for a week at the Israeli Defense College. At the end of the course, Kissinger went to Dale's office in the embassy and announced that he needed to send an urgent, top-secret message to the White House. "He wrote it in longhand," Dale recalled, "and gave it to me to send." It was a warning about Dimona, and Dale vividly recalled its conclusion: "As a result of my course here, I am convinced Israel is making nuclear warheads." Dale also vividly recalled a Kissinger warning to him: "'I'll have your ass if this gets out.' Those were my first words from Kissinger."
After leaving Israel, Dale gave a series of perfunctory end-of-the-tour debriefings in Washington to W. Walt Rostow, Johnson's national security adviser, and other senior government officials; not surprisingly, he said, "Nobody asked me about the Israeli bomb." In his next post, with the State Department's Policy Planning Council, he again tried to raise questions about Dimona, with similar results. One of his early assignments on the council, the State Department's in- ouse think tank, was to do a paper on nonproliferation. He wanted to include a chapter on Dimona, but was refused permission to discuss that issue with members of Congress or members of the Atomic Energy Commission. When he protested, said Dale, a senior State Department official, declaring that the Israeli bomb "was the most sensitive foreign policy issue in the United States," threatened to discuss his conduct with the secretary of state. His final paper, Dale said, did not mention Dimona.
With Barbour staying on and on, the Israeli bomb disappeared after 1967 as a significant issue in the American embassy. Dimona became a nonplace and the Israeli bomb a nonbomb. Sometime that year the Israelis invited Arnold Kramish, an American expert on nuclear fuel cycles, to visit the reactor. "I made a mistake," recalled Kramish, who was then visiting Israel as a fellow at London's International Institute of Strategic Studies. "I paid a courtesy call on Barbour. He said I couldn't go-it would imply U.S. recognition of Dimona." Kramish had read about the American inspections in the New York Times and raised the obvious argument: "I'm not even an official visitor." The ambassador didn't budge, and Kramish decided not to challenge his dubious theory: "I didn't go."
Joseph O. Zurhellen, Jr., Bill Dale's replacement as deputy chief of mission, followed the ambassador's cue and was also much less interested in the subject. "Barbour was not well versed in anything technical-words such as 'reprocessing plant,' et cetera," Zurhellen explained. "Of course, he knew something screwy had gone on in Dimona. The French had ulled wool over our eyes, and so had the Israelis." But, Zurhellen added, the embassy's view was that much of the international concern about Dimona had been deliberately fostered by Israel. "A strong element of their policy is to convince others they have the bomb. It's disinformation." Anyway, he added, "the nuclear issue was not on our mind. We had a war of attrition." Zurhellen was referring to the steadily escalating air and artillery battles in the late 1960s and early 1970s between Israel and Egypt, whose army and air force had been dramatically reinforced by the Soviet Union after the Six- Day War.
After the inauguration of President Richard M. Nixon in January 1969, Barbour was even less than uninterested in Dimona-he exorcised the issue. A senior American intelligence officer recalled summoning a group of staff aides to provide Barbour, then in Washington, with a special briefing on the Israeli nuclear weapons program. "Barbour listened to it all," said the intelligence official, "and then said, 'Gentlemen, I don't believe a word of it.' " The official was astonished: he had given the same briefing in Israel to Barbour without challenge a few months before. He privately took Barbour aside. "Mr. Ambassador," he recalled saying, "you know it's true." Barbour replied: "If I acknowledge this, then I have to go to the President. And if he admitted it, he'd have to do something about it. The President didn't send me there to give him problems. He does not want to be told any bad news."
Barbour had many good reasons for not wanting to tell President Nixon bad news. His emphysema was getting worse. He was increasingly phobic about death, Zurhellen said, and kept an oxygen tent near his bed. The ambassador also continued his easygoing work habits; Zurhellen recalled only two occasions in their five years together when Barbour stayed at the embassy after his usual noon departure time.
The overweight ambassador had a huge scare early in the Nixon presidency upon being informed that he had been selected to serve in the Foreign Service's most prestigious ambassadorial post-in Moscow. The appointment, as were all such assignments, was contingent upon medical approval, but, said Zurhellen, Barbour hadn't had a State Department physical in years, and knew he'd never pass one. "We'd finessed it by having a local Israeli physician write a note every two years saying, 'You're capable of carrying out your mission.' I drafted the answer, thanking State for its confidence, but saying that 'in seven years here I have carved out a unique situation.' " Barbour was allowed to stay on the job.
In 1970, Barbour made one of his rare public appearances, sharing a podium with Prime Minister Golda Meir at the opening of an American school in Tel Aviv. The ambassador congratulated Meir for attending and said, "I wish I knew how to influence the premier to do what I ask her to do." She replied: "I will now reveal the secret to you-you must only ask me to do what I want to do."
When it came to Dimona, Barbour did what Israel wanted -- without asking. His support for Israel was profound and heartfelt; nonetheless, many of his former colleagues in the Foreign Service were confounded and distressed when on April 3, 1974, a year after retirement, he agreed to become a board member of the American branch of Bank Leumi, the Israeli state bank. There was nothing illegal in doing so, but many State Department officials consider such appointments to pose an obvious conflict of interest. Barbour, characteristically, couldn't have cared less about what his peers thought, and he remained on the board until his death.
1. The State Department's historical office lists George P. Marsh, minister to Italy from 1861 to 1882; Edwin V. Morgan, ambassador to Brazil from 1912 to 1933; and Claude G. Bowers, ambassador to Chile from 1939 to 1953.
2. His sister, Ellen, served as embassy hostess during her extended annual visits to Israel. Barbour kept photographs of Ellen and one other woman on his desk; a personal aide recalled Barbour explaining, when queried, that the other woman was someone he'd known in Cairo, where be was serving as political officer during World War II. "What happened to her?" "I asked her to marry me and she said no," Barbour replied. The young aide was astonished: "She said no and he kept her picture there twenty years later."
3. Alba got Hadden in trouble with the Israeli foreign office by inadvertently putting Hadden's American license plates on a jeep before taking one of his weekend jaunts to the Negev. All diplomatic cars in Israel were required to have special license plates, and the embassy mechanics routinely removed the American license plates from the private cars of newly arrived diplomatic personnel and placed them on the walls for decoration. Alba had asked the embassy car pool for a black jeep. It arrived with no plates, and the colonel, in a hurry, ordered the mechanic to grab a set at random from the walls and throw them 00. The plates turned out to be Hadden's. The jeep, of course, was monitored by the Israelis, leading to a stiff protest: why was the CIA station chief sneaking around in the Negev?
4. "We were very strict," recalled Herman Pollack, then the director of the State Department Bureau of International Scientific and Technological Affairs. "No intelligence work by science attaches. He was supposed to keep his hands very clean." Hadden, who retired from the Agency a few years after returning from Israel, acknowledged with a laugh that he "never paid any attention to organizational charts and titles. Life seemed to be better run if people worked together to accomplish joint goals that made sense."
5. Braderman, now retired and living in Washington, recalled the 1967 visit to Israel and said it was "possible that I'd said something like that" to Bill Dale. He added that Dale's recollection certainly reflected his general view of the issue of Jewish loyalty.
6. The Johnson Library documents also show that Clark Clifford, a key presidential adviser and later secretary of defense. complained about the government's initially tepid response at a National Security Council meeting the next day: "My concern is that we're not tough enough. Handle as if Arabs or USSR had done it." It was "inconceivable," Clifford added, according to the NSC notes, that Israel destroyed the Liberty by error, as it claimed.
7. It was a different CIA, too. A former senior intelligence officer recalled that "a big change took place" inside the Agency after the Six-Day War. "All of a sudden a lot of people were saying the Israelis were wonderful," the former official added. "Israeli intelligence became untouchable, and the professional suspicion you should have about another intelligence service--even a friendly one-disappeared." This became especially true in the Nixon administration; Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger, his national security adviser, became renowned inside the CIA for preferring Mossad's intelligence assessments on the Middle East to those supplied by the Agency.