THE SAMSON OPTION: ISRAEL'S NUCLEAR ARSENAL AND AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY
Chapter 20: An Israeli Test
Just before dawn on the stormy morning of September 22, 1979, the clouds over the South Indian Ocean suddenly broke and an American satellite was able to record two distinctive bright flashes of light within a fraction of a second-probable evidence of a nuclear explosion. The nuclear detection satellite, known as VELA, had seen similar flashes of light on forty-one previous occasions, and in each case it was subsequently determined that a nuclear explosion had taken place. Most of the sightings were over Lap Nor, where the Chinese atmospheric nuclear tests took place, or in the South Pacific, site of the French tests. There were a few intelligence officials and nonproliferation experts in the Carter administration who immediately concluded that Israel and South Africa had finally conducted a nuclear test, a test that they had tried, and failed, to accomplish two years earlier.
They were right.
Former Israeli government officials, whose information on other aspects of Dimona's activities has been corroborated, said that the warhead tested that Saturday morning was a low-yield nuclear artillery shell that had been standardized for use by the Israeli Defense Force. The Israeli sources also said the event captured by the VELA satellite was not the first but the third test of a nuclear device over the Indian Ocean. At least two Israeli Navy ships had sailed to the site in advance, and a contingent of Israeli military men and nuclear experts-along with the South African Navy-was observing the tests. "We wouldn't send ships down there for one test," one Israeli said. "It was a fuck-up," he added, referring to the capture of a test by the VELA satellite. "There was a storm and we figured it would block VELA, but there was a gap in the weather -- a window -- and VELA got blinded by the flash."
The VELA satellite, as it was programmed to do, digitally relayed its sighting to the headquarters of the Air Force Technical Applications Center (AFTAC) at Patrick Air Force Base in Cape Canaveral, Florida; it was Friday night, September 21, on the East Coast. Once evaluated and confirmed, the intelligence was routed, via the Defense Intelligence Agency, to the Pentagon's National Military Command Center and relayed to America's top civilian and military leaders. The nuclear event was estimated to have taken place off the coast of Prince Edward Island, about fifteen hundred miles southeast of the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, halfway to Antarctica. The intelligence was at the top of the CIA's and DIA's Saturday-morning briefing for President Carter and his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Gerald G. Oplinger, Brzezinski's aide for global issues, was spending the early fall weekend at his summer house at Deep Creek Lake, Maryland, when word of the possible test came: he was summoned back to an urgent meeting in the White House situation room. Oplinger had retired from the Foreign Service and worked at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission before joining Brzezinski's staff; he was familiar with the VELA program and knew that its previous sightings of Chinese and French atmospheric tests had been unfailingly accurate. "Everybody showed up," Oplinger recalled, meaning that Brzezinski was at the meeting, "and we went around and asked, 'Was it a test?' CIA and DIA said that odds were at least ninety percent that it had been a nuclear explosion." Oplinger personally had no doubt, as he recalled: "Common sense told me that there was a high probability that it was what it was -- it was just too incredible."
"People just stood there, paralyzed," recalled Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr., deputy director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), a senior bureaucrat who had been involved in high-level scientific issues since the Eisenhower administration. Keeny realized, he said, that he and his colleagues "needed to buy some time. Even if a test was done, we didn't know who did it. This was a serious matter." Keeny also was troubled by the intelligence community's assurances that its assessment was 90 percent accurate. In his view, the CIA and DIA officials at the situation-room meeting surely could not know all the facts: "They were middle-level bureaucrats relaying data."
In Keeny's account, it was his idea to set up an outside panel to study the VELA data and ensure that the satellite had not made an error -- one with enormous political consequences. Jerry Oplinger had a different recollection: "The meeting was going nowhere and Frank Press [the presidential science adviser] said, 'Let's convene an unbiased outside study.''' Oplinger had no illusions about what Frank Press meant: "Press kept on asking, 'What do we do if it leaks out that we've concluded it was a test?' He did not want that panel to conclude there had been a nuclear explosion." Brzezinski had little to say during the meeting, Oplinger recalled. 
Frank Press, a seismologist who had worked for years on classified nuclear detection issues, knew the VELA program far better than any of his peers in the White House. He knew that the satellites were ancient by satellite standards-some having been launched in the early 1960s-and were constantly being updated and analyzed by scientists at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratories, who had helped design the system, to ensure that no deterioration had set in. There had been, in fact, recent concern about false alarms that could trigger a phony intelligence report. The outside panel was a natural step, one that would indeed buy some time, and one that would also add a patina of legitimacy to the delaying effort. Meanwhile, existence of the VELA sighting became one of the most important secrets of the Carter administration.
The officials at the top of the troubled Carter administration knew that public revelation of the VELA sighting, with its strong inference of an illicit Israeli-South African test, would create a horrible dilemma for the President, just a few months away from the 1980 presidential campaign. Carter had draped himself in the flag of nonproliferation, and if he did not get tough with the two pariah nations, he would be criticized for hypocrisy; if he did seek sanctions, there would be political hell to pay. "When that thing up there went 'Twinkle, twinkle, little star,' " recalled Hodding Carter III, then the assistant secretary of state for public affairs, "I can remember running around on the seventh floor," where Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance's office was located. "There was sheer panic," Carter said. "It was very much 'Oh, shit. Oh, dear. What do we do with this?'"
"We were in the worst possible position," another government official recalled. "Here we are, ready to send the SALT treaty up to the Senate, and we know there's been a violation of the  test ban treaty and we can't prove it and we can't pin it on anyone. There was a very immediate strategic imperative to make this thing go away." The official, who had access to all of the available intelligence on the VELA sighting, said it was evident that the satellite had observed what "could only be a nuclear event. Our capturing it fortuitously was an embarrassment, a big political problem, and there were a lot of people who wanted to obscure the event."
The American policy in Iran was in chaos, with the ailing shah-who had been so warmly toasted two years earlier by Jimmy Carter-in Mexico and pleading for admission to the United States.  There had been a stupendous intelligence gaffe just a few weeks before over a breathtaking report suggesting that a Soviet brigade had moved into Cuba, presenting a direct challenge to Carter, just as the Soviets had challenged John F. Kennedy in 1962. The intelligence leaked, and the administration, taking the hard line in public, demanded that the Soviets remove their troops. It turned out not to be a triumphant Cuban missile crisis, however, as embarrassed Carter officials were forced to acknowledge that their initial intelligence report was simply wrong: Soviet soldiers had been in Cuba since the early 1960s. Adding to the mortification was the fact that the administration was then preparing for what was sure to be a bitter fight with Senate Republicans over the U.S. government's ability to verify the June 1979 SALT II agreements. The SALT agreement plus Carter's success at Camp David were scheduled to be featured in his reelection campaign.
An Israeli bomb threatened all this and made it imperative that the American President, once again, not know what there was to know. The American bureaucracy had been in training for more than thirty years in looking the other way when it came to the Israeli nuclear program, and every part of the system instinctively sought to find a way to avoid calling the Israeli-South African test a test.
There was widespread knowledge of the test in Israel. Ari Ben-Menashe recalled seeing correspondence on the issue in his ministry of defense office shortly after Menachem Begin's election in 1977. It was widely assumed that there had been some secret diplomacy between former Defense Minister Shimon Peres and John Vorster during Peres's visit to South Africa in 1976, but just what commitments had been made were not widely known inside the Israeli government. It was also understood, Ben-Menashe said, that Peres was not going to tell Menachem Begin about it. And Begin, in turn, would not directly approach Peres, who--along with David Ben-Gurion -- had treated him with contempt and ridicule throughout his career. Begin's solution was to dispatch Ezer Weizman, the newly appointed minister of defense, to South Africa. Weizman's mission, said Ben-Menashe, was "just to find out what was going on."
"Weizman came back," Ben-Menashe recalled, "and said, 'We've promised these guys nuclear warheads.' He recommended to Begin that they pay up and carry out the promise." Ben-Menashe said he and others in External Relations understood that Begin responded by saying, in effect, "Yes. Do it!"
Another Israeli, who also had direct access to defense ministry information about the test in South Africa, said that Weizman signed an agreement before the 1979 tests calling for the sale to South Africa of technology and equipment needed for the manufacture of low-yield 175mm and 203mm nuclear artillery shells. Weizman's order triggered an internal dispute with senior nuclear officials, the Israeli recalled, who protested the government's decision to sell the information, considered by the men running Dimona to be "the best stuff we got." 
Frank Press finally settled on Jack P. Ruina, a professor of electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to direct the outside panel and determine whether some of Israel's "best stuff" had ended up over the South Indian Ocean. It was a perfect choice, in terms of discretion: Ruina, a longtime consultant to the Pentagon on military and scientific issues, held many of the most sensitive clearances in the American military and scientific community; he had served as director in the early 1960s of the Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA), the Pentagon's research arm, and later directed the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA), the Pentagon's most important think tank. Ruina was an honorable and cautious man who could be counted on to follow orders and not talk to reporters, especially after his hush- hush introduction to the White House crisis. "Press called and asked me to come on down [to the White House]," Ruina recalled. "He said, 'I can't talk about it on the phone. Just come on down.'"
Within weeks, as the White House's secret continued to hold, Press and Ruina picked an ad hoc panel of eight distinguished scientists, whose integrity was beyond reproach. Ruina's key colleagues included Luis Alvarez, of the physics department at the University of California, a Nobel laureate; Wolfgang K. H. Panofsky; of Stanford University's Linear Accelerator Center; and Richard L. Garwin, of IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center. Panofsky and Garwin had served often as government consultants and were known for their independence.
The panel's assignment, carefully drawn up by Spurgeon Keeny and Frank Press, was weighted, to no one's surprise, toward a thorough investigation into the possibility that the VELA sighting had been a false alarm. The Ruina panel was also told to investigate the possibility that the recorded signal "was of natural origin, possibly resulting from the coincidence of two or more natural phenomena... ."
Ruina was clear about the limits on his assignment. "My mandate was to only look at technical data," he recalled. He and his colleagues were provided with all of the available intelligence about the VELA sighting, Ruina said, "but we didn't include any political data-like are the Israelis interested in nuclear weapons? That was not in our charter." The panel members were comfortable with their mandate: purely technical studies were a way of life for scientific consultants to the government.
Despite its explosiveness, knowledge of the VELA report remained a closely held secret for more than a month, until ABC television reporter John Scali was told by an old friend about a simulated Soviet nuclear attack on the United States that had been missed by America's early warning system. The old friend was very conservative, Scali recalled, and he thought the American failure "was an outrage." Scali, who had been the ambassador to the United Nations under Nixon, ran the story by another old friend in the Pentagon. Within hours, he was summoned to the office of a senior Defense Department official who gave him the essential facts.  He broadcast his story on the evening of October 25: the secret had held for more than a month, long enough for the White House to have its cover story ready. Its spokesmen immediately informed the news media that there was "no confirmation" of a test. Secretary of State Vance, following the company line, also told journalists there was no conclusive evidence of a test, and South Africa issued a heated denial.  "Faced with a denial by South Africa of such nuclear activity," dutifully wrote the New York Times, "and lacking any proof beyond the uncorroborated evidence of a single satellite, the United States Government sought to avoid a major confrontation over what it said was only the possibility that some nation had secretly exploded a nuclear device in an area of some 4,500 square miles... ." Vance further told the press that within hours of the first VELA signal, he had discussed the matter with Brzezinski and Defense Secretary Harold Brown.
None of the reporters knew, of course, that Harold Brown's Office of Net Assessments had already been approached two times by a senior Israeli official seeking to discuss joint U.S.-Israeli strategic targeting of the Soviet Union. Did Brown tell Cyrus Vance at the time about the nuclear approach, or, for that matter, did he report it to the President and his national security adviser? Did anyone in the U.S. government review the intelligence files on the planned 1977 South African test in the Kalahari? Did any of the senior White House officials wonder why a flotilla of South African and Israeli military ships had been tracked by the National Security Agency and other elements of the intelligence community to a site fifteen hundred miles off the coast of South Africa? 
And, finally, did anyone notice what Prime Minister P. W. Botha had to say on September 25, 1979, three days after the test -three days in which there had been no international comment or outcry? Botha had reason to believe that his nation and its Israeli partners had pulled it off. There was a swagger in his remarks before a meeting of the Cape National Party congress as he warned, according to the Rand Daily Mail, that South Africa had and could produce sufficient arms to counter terrorism -- an obvious reference to the African National Congress (ANC), leaders of the anti-apartheid movement. "If there are people who are thinking of doing something else," the newspaper quoted Botha as saying, "I suggest they think twice about it. They might find out we have military weapons they do not know about."
The Ruina panel members would spend months effectively poking holes in and raising legitimate questions about the reliability and integrity of the VELA satellite system. The panel chose to concentrate on what became known as the "false alarm" issue. Nuclear explosions produce two distinctly characteristic and separate flashes of light-from the initial detonation and the subsequent fireball about one third of a second later-that are recorded as double humps on a graph by the VELA satellite. The panel was troubled by the anomalies it found in the double humps as recorded on September 22 and concluded, as it stated in its final report, that the VELA sighting "contains sufficient internal inconsistency to cast serious doubt whether that signal originated from a nuclear explosion or in fact from any light sources in the proximity of the VELA satellite." The panel also could find no collateral signs of a nuclear event-seismic signals, acoustic waves, ionospheric disturbances, magnetic or electromagnetic pulses that had accompanied previous VELA reports. No significant radioactive fallout or other debris was located; there was no "smoking gun" that made the panel's conclusion ineluctable. The lack of such findings was not unusual in itself, given the low yield of the test and its isolated location; Press and the panel members knew that U.S. government seismologists had long suspected the Soviets had conducted many low-yield tests in the 1950s and 1960s that were not detected by the available American systems.
The panel eventually reported in July 1980, ten months after the event, that the flash observed by the satellite "was probably not from a nuclear explosion. Although we cannot rule out the possibility that this signal was of nuclear origin," the unclassified version of the ad hoc report said, "the panel considers it more likely that the signal was one of the zoo events [a signal of unknown cause], possibly a consequence of the impact of a small meteoroid on the satellite."
The findings outraged the nuclear scientists and professional bomb makers of Los Alamos, who had designed the VELA system. Many of these men were members of the Nuclear Intelligence Panel (NIP), the most highly classified nuclear intelligence group in the U.S. government. NIP had done its own investigation into the VELA test, and had been ordered by the White House -- citing national security -- not to discuss it publicly.
Its finding, openly discussed by NIP members in interviews with the author, was that a low-yield nuclear weapon most certainly had been detonated on September 22. They were dismayed by the extent of White House interference in the investigation. "If it looks like a duck, it's got to be a duck," said Harold M. Agnew, a NIP member and director of the Los Alamos laboratory from 1970 to 1979. "But that wasn't an answer Carter liked." The overriding issue, in Agnew's view, was not whether a nuclear bomb was exploded, but "Who did it?" Another panel member, Louis H. Roddis, Jr., who played a major role in America's postwar nuclear weapons development, concluded that the South African-Israeli test had taken place on a barge, or on one of the islands in the South Indian Ocean archipelago. He, too, expressed anger at Frank Press and the White House. "There was a real effort on the part of the administration to downplay it," Roddis said. "They were, indeed, concealing the fact -- manipulating the facts. Everybody in New Mexico was convinced that it was a test."
The secret NIP study was directed by Donald M. Kerr, Jr., who had served in the Carter administration as acting director of the defense programs at the Department of Energy-he was the man responsible for America's nuclear bombs. "We were all insiders-not the kind of guys who'd run off at the mouth in public," pe said, in explaining why his panel members did not speak out on the issue at the time. "We had no doubt it was a bomb," Kerr said, adding that in his opinion the Ruina panel's mandate was driven by politics: "to find a different explanation."
One mystery is why the Ruina panel scientists, all honorable men, would place themselves in a position where others could limit what information they could evaluate. The panel members had been assured that they would be given all of the relevant intelligence about the satellite, and yet one of the most important discoveries-uncovered by Ruina himself and known to the White House-was not made available to them.
Ruina was a director of MIT's Defense and Arms Control Studies Program and, as such, was involved in late 1979 in the preparation of a federally funded MIT report that assessed the foreign availability of critical components for the assembly of short-range ballistic missiles and compared those components with those manufactured in the United States. One of Ruina's three colleagues in preparing the report was an Israeli postgraduate student. Shortly after Ruina's involvement on the VELA sighting became known at MIT, the Israeli, who said he had worked on the Israeli nuclear missile systems, began talking to Ruina about Israel's nuclear capability. "I had the feeling he [the Israeli] knew an enormous amount," recalled George Rathjens, the former Carter administration nonproliferation official who was Ruina's close colleague at MIT. "He knew about missiles and he knew about guidance systems, and he talked freely about anything. It was almost as if he had an ordinary kind of job." Ruina, appropriately, forwarded the Israeli's information in a written report to Spurgeon Keeny at ACDA. "Some people [in the intelligence community] thought he was telling it like it was," Keeny said of the Israeli's intelligence. "The message is 'We've got a huge system that's more sophisticated than you think.' The guy said it [the September 22 flash] was a joint Israeli-South African attempt."
Keeny, confronted with the potentially explosive intelligence about what had happened and who had been involved, remained loyal to the Carter presidency and dismissed the report as nonsense. "I concluded that it was very questionable," he acknowledged. "I took it with a grain of salt." His colleagues in the White House, Keeny said, shared his view that Ruina's postgraduate student was peddling Israeli disinformation. The information was not made known to the intelligence community or to Ruina's colleagues on the panel. It stayed buried in the bureaucracy.
There were a few government experts on nonproliferation policy who were convinced that Frank Press and Spurgeon Kenny made the right choice in seeking to mitigate the impact of a South African-Israeli nuclear test. "My belief is that the conclusion of the Ruina panel was the right conclusion for that time," one nonproliferation official said. "What do you do? Look at the issues involved-apartheid, Camp David, NPT, human rights, dealing with the Indians [on nuclear proliferation], stopping reprocessing worldwide. You would have do something strong, especially to Israel, but there was a large segment of the population that Carter couldn't alienate."
The American intelligence community had done far better in its reporting on the South African test-the CIA insisted in internal estimates throughout 1979 and 1980 that there had been a test-but it basically remained in the dark about the sophistication of the Israeli nuclear program. In 1980, the Agency published another Special National Intelligence Estimate (SNIE) on Israeli capability and came up with essentially the same numbers as Carl Duckett had produced in 1974- Israel, the CIA said, had manufactured at least twenty and as many as thirty nuclear warheads. The new estimate, however, was much more comprehensive than previous studies. The CIA was able to report that the Israelis had upgraded the reactor to increase its output and also improved the reactor's cooling capacity-clear signs that a greater amount of plutonium for nuclear weapons was being generated. There was no longer any doubt, the estimate said, that Israel had completed construction of a chemical reprocessing plant-but just where and how was not known. "It was the first serious estimate," one Carter administration official said, "and it enabled the people in the field to really look out for what Israel had." Even so, the CIA report seriously underestimated the number of Israeli warheads and the sophistication of its nuclear operation. Sometimes facts were strained to keep the numbers low. The KH-11, with its brilliant photography, had captured an Israeli nuclear missile storage site and the experts at the National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC) had been able to count ten items that were subsequently confirmed as nuclear warheads. No one had ever seen an Israeli warhead before, and the intelligence community chose to take the fact that only ten warheads were seen, one official recalled, "as confirmation of our guesses. We thought the pictures were extraordinary, but decided that they didn't add anything new. It was consistent with our numbers."
The 1980 CIA estimate had been ordered by Deputy Under Secretary of State Joseph S. Nye, Jr., who emerged as the Carter administration's key -- and highly progressive -- adviser on nonproliferation policy. Nye acknowledged that coping with the Israeli bomb was a low priority under Jimmy Carter. "There wasn't much that could be done," Nye said. "The Israelis had already done it. It was not something you could make a demarche [diplomatic protest] about. The question is: do you make a big hullaballoo about it?"
The answer was no.
1. Brzezinski, according to his aides, was never particularly interested in proliferation or nuclear-fuel-cycle issues. President Carter had triggered an uproar by continuing President Ford's 1976 ban on the commercial reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel for power reactors. Carter's action, based on environmental and proliferation concerns, was viewed by the American nuclear power industry as a foolish move that would stifle the sale of American reactors and equipment around the world. His NSC aides weren't convinced that Brzezinski fully understood the issue. At one stage early in the administration, Oplinger recalled being told, Brzezinski agreed to a briefing by Jessica Tuchman, Oplinger's predecessor on the NSC staff, and stood by as she described the nuclear fuel cycle, beginning with the insertion of nuclear fuel into a reactor and ending with the reprocessing of the spent fuel. "Zbig listened to all this," Oplinger related, "and then asked, 'Okay, now tell me -- where does the energy come from?'" Brzezinski did not mention the VELA incident in his 1983 memoir Power and Principle.
2. The shah was admitted for medical treatment into the United States on October 22, triggering a renewed wave of anti- American rioting in Tehran and the eventual seizure of the American embassy on November 4, beginning Jimmy Carter's hostage nightmare. During the tense discussions before the shah's arrival, recalled Nicholas Veliotes, then serving as the assistant secretary of state for Near East and South Asian affairs, the ousted leader confided that he had been negotiating with the Israelis for the purchase of long-range missiles capable of firing a nuclear warhead. "He said that the Israelis had told him not to tell us," Veliotes added. Veliotes's information, like most intelligence data about Israeli nuclear intentions, was not made known to other American officials.
3. After the 1973 war, the Israeli Defense Force established at least three nuclear-capable artillery battalions, each containing twelve self-propelled 175mm cannons. The battalions were considered part of Israel's strategic reserve and operated under streamlined command-and-control: nuclear shells could be fired on the direct orders of the prime minister, as relayed through the minister of defense, the Army Chief of Staff, and the chief of operations directly to the artillery battalion commander. Clearance was not required, as in normal operations, from any officer at the regional headquarters, corps, division, or brigade level. Former Israeli army officers said at least three nuclear artillery shells eventually were stockpiled for each weapon -- a total of 108 warheads. Additional warheads were supplied for Israel's 203mm cannons.
4. Carter, with his emphasis on nonproliferation and human rights, was less than popular at the Pentagon.
5. One of the strangest denials to emerge from the controversy came from South African Vice Admiral J. C. Walters, who made public a statement suggesting that the flash could have been caused by an accident aboard a Soviet nuclear submarine. The admiral's statement, which said that Soviet involvement was "a real possibility," was reported by the New York Times to have been issued with the approval of Prime Minister P. W. Botha, who also was South Africa's minister of defense. The admiral offered no factual basis for his Cold War assertion, which soon sank from sight.
6. Victor Gilinsky, still serving in 1979 on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, recalled inquiring during an official briefing whether there were ships in the Indian Ocean and being told no. He learned the next day that there indeed had been ships there. Gilinsky wasn't surprised when the Ruina panel concluded that no nuclear test probably had taken place: "Everyone took the bureaucratically appropriate decision."