THE SAMSON OPTION: ISRAEL'S NUCLEAR ARSENAL AND AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY
Chapter 4: First Knowledge
General Dwight D. Eisenhower's reliance on aerial photography as Allied Commander in Chief in World War II was reaffirmed by the exhaustive postwar bombing surveys of Germany and Japan, which concluded that as much as 80 percent of the most useful intelligence had come from overhead reconnaissance. Eisenhower came into the presidency in 1953 concerned about the lack of aerial intelligence on the Soviet Union and ordered the CIA to do something about it. A Photographic Intelligence Division was promptly set up, and CIA officials selected a University of Chicago graduate named Arthur C. Lundahl to direct it. Lundahl had analyzed reconnaissance photos for the Navy during the war and stayed in the business afterward. One of his first moves was to entice Dino A. Brugioni, then compiling dossiers on Soviet industry for the CIA, to join his staff. Brugioni was another World War II veteran who had served as an aerial photographer and radio and radar specialist in lead bombers with the Twelfth Air Force in Italy. He hay been recruited by the CIA in 1948, the year after it was established; like Lundahl, Brugioni was very good at what he was doing. The two men would remain colleagues and close friends for the next forty years.
Eisenhower's next major step was to authorize a daring reconnaissance program-primarily targeted at the Soviet Union - nd assign the development of the revolutionary airplane that would make it work jointly to the CIA and the Air Force. The aircraft, built under cover by the Lockheed Aircraft Company in Burbank, California, and known as the U-2, would be able to fly and glide for almost eleven hours-covering more than five thousand miles-at heights greater than 65,000 feet, while utilizing only one thousand gallons of fuel. Special lenses, cameras, and thin film were developed, enabling the spy plane to photograph a path from Moscow to Tashkent, southeast of the Ural Sea, in one take. The U-2 went operational from a secret base in West Germany on July 4, 1956. Its initial targets: Soviet long-range bomber bases and Leningrad. Moscow was overflown on the next day, and dramatic photographs -- code-named CHESS -- of the Kremlin and the Winter Garden were later shown to the President and his advisers. A second V-2 base was authorized in Turkey; later there would be more bases in Pakistan and Norway.
It was a spectacular asset: Soviet sites were photographed, mapped, and targeted, all within a few days, by American missiles and bombers from the Strategic Air Command. There was, however, an equally essential mission in those first years: to locate and photograph the industrial elements of the Soviet nuclear program. Where were the reactors, the heavy-water-production facilities, and the uranium- and plutonium-processing plants? Where were the Soviets machine- cooling the nuclear warheads and assembling the actual weapons? 
By the mid-1950s, it was clear that Soviet technology, to American dismay, had done a brilliant job of catching up in the nuclear arms race. By August 1949, four years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Soviets had managed to explode their first atomic bomb, using plutonium. That first bomb, like its American predecessor, was the most basic in the atomic arsenal-a fission weapon. Such weapons consist of a small core of fissile material surrounded by high explosives. The explosives are triggered inward in a precise sequence (measured in nanoseconds), suddenly and intensely compressing, or imploding, the core. The fissile material goes "supercritical" and begins discharging neutrons at a much faster rate than they can escape from the core. The sudden release of energy produces the violent explosion.
Well before the end of the war, Edward Teller and other American nuclear weapons designers understood that a far more powerful nuclear device, with fission as merely a first step, was theoretically possible. The new weapon, developed under the code name of "Super," was the hydrogen bomb, known to today's physicists as a fusion device. There were two central problems in the development of a high-yield hydrogen bomb: how to ignite the fusion material and how to make it burn efficiently. After much trial and error, scientists at Los Alamos developed a two-stage device, with two separate components inside a single warhead case. A fission bomb would be triggered (the first stage) inside the warhead. Much of the radiation from the fission device would be contained in the warhead case and compress and ignite a special thermonuclear fuel in the separate compartment (the second step). Deuterium, a hydrogen isotope twice the weight of hydrogen, or lithium deuteride could be used as the thermonuclear fuel. Deuterium is the main fuel of the sun, and is burned there at temperatures of 18 to 36 million degrees Fahrenheit. American physicists conducted experiments and came to understand, with appropriate awe, that a thermonuclear fuel, once ignited by fission inside a hydrogen bomb, would burn at a speed, temperature, and pressure greater than it burned at in the center of the sun. A key to the hydrogen bomb was the initial triggering of a fission device, for only fission was capable of generating the heat and, as the scientists later came to understand, the radiation needed to burn the thermonuclear fuel. The thermonuclear device, when successfully tested in 1952 at Eniwetok, an atoll in the western Pacific, produced a crater 6,240 feet in diameter-more than a mile-and 164 feet deep. It was 650 times as powerful as the primitive device dropped at Hiroshima. The Los Alamos team later determined that the fusion of deuterium and tritium, another heavy hydrogen isotope that is a by- product of lithium, could produce a thermonuclear explosion of fifteen megatons -- that is, one thousand times greater than the Hiroshima bomb.
The Soviets, at one point known to be at least three years behind the American thermonuclear bomb program, moved ahead rapidly in the science of making doomsday weapons. The first Soviet two-stage hydrogen bomb was successfully tested in 1955, and six years later Soviet scientists detonated the largest known hydrogen bomb, with an explosive force of fifty-eight megatons. At its height in 1988, the Soviet nuclear stockpile totaled an estimated 33,000 warheads, slightly more than the United States maintained in 1967, its peak year.
In the beginning, everything was secret-even the existence of the CIA as well as its Photographic Intelligence Division.
The first U-2 flights over the Soviet Union had provided dramatic evidence that the Soviets were not nearly as advanced in conventional arms as the Pentagon had assumed. There was no "bomber gap" or "missile gap." These revelations were of the utmost importance and were immediately presented to President Eisenhower himself, as well as to other top officials. Lundahl, as head of the U-2 intelligence unit, soon found himself becoming the American government's most listened-to briefing officer. "I was a courier on horseback," he recalled. "I'd spend my nights soaking up the lore and then gallop around Washington in the morning."  The man in charge of providing him with information gained from the U-2 flights was Brugioni.
The United States also was keeping its eyes on the Israeli desert. Eisenhower and the men around him, including John Foster Dulles, the secretary of state, and his brother Allen, the CIA director, had been infuriated by Israel's attempt to mask the extent of its military buildup prior to the 1956 Suez invasion. The administration's truth-teller continued to be the U-2, whose pilots, including Gary Francis Powers, later to be shot down, were usually assigned to overfly the Soviet Union. But there were other standing U-2 targets in sensitive areas and especially in moments of crisis-and that description fit the Middle East in 1958. Egypt and Syria had merged early in the year to form the United Arab Republic, and the Arab world was immediately thrown into political turmoil. Muslim opposition, sparked by Egypt and Syria, led to violence in pro-Western Lebanon, where American marines waded ashore in July to protect the regime of President Camille Chamoun. The Iraqi monarchy, also pro-Western, was overthrown in a bloody coup d'etat and replaced by a military dictator, Abdel Karim Qassem.
Gary Powers and his colleagues, who had continued intermittently to overfly the Middle East, were now steadily back at work in the area. The CIA's photo interpreters were suddenly seeing a lot of activity at an Israeli Air Force practice bombing range south of Beersheba, an old Bedouin camel-trading center.
Photo interpretation was still a fledgling science in 1958, a hands-on business. The developed film from the U-2 missions was rushed to the CIA's Photographic Intelligence Division, printed, analyzed, mounted on boards if necessary, cleared with Allen Dulles, and then immediately taken to the White House. Eisenhower remained an avid consumer until the last days of his presidency, and access to the photographs and briefings often was limited to the President and his immediate aides. Secrecy was paramount, although the Soviet Union eventually learned of the U-2 operations and began to complain bitterly, in private, about the American violations of its airspace. 
There also was a continuing and essential need for close coordination between exotic groups such as America's nuclear planners and the men authorizing U-2 operations. Plutonium and tritium, for example, occur in nature only in minute amounts and thus must be manufactured by irradiating lithium in a nuclear reactor. Among the inevitable by-products of the manufacturing process are radioactive gases, which are vented into the atmosphere. The analysts of the early U-2 photography learned to look for huge or distinctive chimneys, or "smokestacks," as the photo interpreters called them, all of which were studied intently to see if they were linked to a nuclear weapons facility.
It was Brugioni who recalled seeing the first signs of what would become the Israeli nuclear reactor. "Israel had a bombing range in the Negev, and we'd watch it," Brugioni said. "It was a military training spot-where they'd stage exercises." One clue, not immediately understood, was the fencing off of a large, barren area a dozen or so miles outside the small desert town of Dimona. Brugioni and the photo interpreters assumed that the Israelis were setting up an ammunition-testing site. A new road from Beersheba, twenty-five miles to the north, was observed, leading directly to the fenced area. Construction workers and heavy machinery suddenly showed up. The site was no longer just another point of reference amid the thousands of feet of U-2 negatives flowing into CIA headquarters. The subterranean digging began in early 1958; soon afterward, cement began to pour into heavy foundations. Brugioni and his colleagues had studied and visited nuclear weapons reactors in the United States and knew something unusual was going on: "We spotted it right away. What the hell was that big of a plant, with reinforced concrete, doing there in the middle of the desert?"
The deep digging was another major clue. "After the '56 war," Brugioni explained, "it was all sub rosa in Israel. But man builds by patterns. For example, you can draw a circle twenty-five miles in diameter in most areas of the world and understand how man spends his life by studying that circle. You see cattle grazing, hog and poultry pens, and conclude that people eat meat. You can also spot industries, schools, churches, homes, etc., by what we call their 'signatures.' The military are even more patterned. Whenever you build something nuclear you build it thick and deep. They were pouring a hell of a lot of concrete. We knew they were going deep."
The Eisenhower administration was sympathetic to Israel's precarious international position in 1958, Brugioni recalled: "The United Arab Republic was seen as a great threat. There was a fear that Nasser would get together [with the Arab world] and they'd take Israel. It'd have been a real coup if Nasser had taken Lebanon in '58." Eisenhower secretly authorized the U.S. Air Force to provide fighter pilot training and courses in aerial reconnaissance and photo interpretation to the Israelis. Some of the Americans operated under cover: "The attitude was help them [Israel] out -- wink, but don't get caught."
There was no way that Lundahl and Brugioni could wink at the imminent construction of a secret nuclear reactor. They and their colleagues in the U-2 shop believed strongly in Israel's right to exist, but were equally convinced that an Israeli bomb would destabilize the Middle East. They also knew that they were dealing with political dynamite, and chose to wait; speculation would be deadly. "Whenever you get something on the Israelis and you move it along," said Brugioni, "you'd better be careful. Especially if you've got a career."
The pouring of concrete footings for the reactor's circular dome was all the evidence Lundahl needed. Lundahl rushed the early raw photographs to the White House; it was late 1958 or early 1959.  Lundahl understood the rules: he carried no written report-paper was never to be generated in the U-2 briefings. "Ike didn't want any notes--period," recalled Lundahl. The special secrecy of the U-2 was heightened by the fact that Lundahl's unit had been given unusually broad access to all of America's secrets, including reports from defectors and covert agents in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. The photo interpreters also were provided with communications intercepts and reports of Soviet and Eastern European refugee interrogations, as compiled by special American and Israeli intelligence teams. The assumption was that since most of the nuclear weapons installations behind the Iron Curtain were carefully camouflaged, the photo interpreters needed all the help possible. A refugee's random comment about a secret factory somewhere in the Soviet Union often triggered a major discovery.
The White House briefings on important issues followed a set pattern, Lundahl recalled: he would tell the President, usually accompanied by Allen Dulles, the CIA director, and John Foster Dulles, the secretary of state, what he knew and then get a presidential request for further intelligence. The CIA's Photographic Intelligence Division offered three categories of follow-up. Phase One was the immediate report-presented as soon as possible, as were the early photos of the Israeli reactor. A Phase Two report, to be presented overnight, would require Lundahl's shop to enlarge the intelligence photos and mount them for display. There would be annotation and perhaps some text. A Phase Three report called for extensive analysis based on many more overflights over many weeks. There would be special assignments for the D.2S, and an extensive series of photographs.
Lundahl anticipated a Phase Two or Three request on the Israeli intelligence. Instead, he recalled-still amazed, more than thirty years later-there was "no additional requirement. No request for details." In fact, added Lundahl, over the next years, "nobody came back to me, ever, on Israel. I was never asked to do a follow-up on any of the Israeli briefings."
But no one told him not to do so, and so the D-2 continued to overfly the Negev. Lundahl also relayed the findings on Dimona to Lewis L. Strauss, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, and a few AEC aides who were among the handful of officials in the Eisenhower administration cleared for D-2 intelligence. Lundahl's standing orders called for him to provide all nuclear intelligence to the White House and then, unless directed otherwise, to the AEC commissioner. Something as important as Dimona was rushed over, Lundahl recalled.
"The way I look at it," Lundahl said, "I reported all that I knew to my masters. They sit at a higher place on the mountain."
None of the communications between Eisenhower and Ben-Gurion about the ominous construction in the Negev has been made public, but such letters are known to have been written. In July 1958, at the Israeli height of concern over Nasser's Pan-Arabism, Ben-Gurion privately requested American "political, financial, and moral" assistance as Israel was standing up to Nasser and "Soviet expansion." Eisenhower responded, according to Ben-Gurion's authorized biographer, Michael Bar-Zohar, with a lukewarm note telling Ben-Gurion that "you can be confident of the United States' interest in the integrity and independence of Israel." Ben-Gurion had hoped to be invited to visit Washington for direct talks with the President. A former Israeli government official interviewed for this book revealed that Eisenhower privately raised the issue of Dimona at least once in this period, prompting Ben-Gurion to request that the United States "extend its nuclear umbrella to Israel." There was no subsequent reply from Eisenhower, the former official said. 
Brugioni remained fascinated by the Israeli construction at Dimona: "We kept on watching it. We saw it going up. The White House," he confirmed, also mystified, "never encouraged us to do further briefings. It was always 'Thank you,' and 'This isn't going to be disseminated, is it?' It was that attitude."
Brugioni prepared the presidential briefing materials for Lundahl and knew that the intelligence on Israel was getting to the top. "The thing is," Brugioni said, "I never did figure out whether the White House wanted Israel to have the bomb or not."
Lundahl's interpreters had watched, via the steady stream of U-2 imagery, as the construction teams (the Americans did not immediately know, of course, that they were French-led) dug two separate sites in the desert. There was an early attempt to estimate how large the sites were going to be by measuring the "spoil"-the amount of cubic feet of dirt unearthed each day. It was old hat for the American photo interpreters, who had watched in World War II as the Germans moved their industrial plants and factories underground in futile attempts to avoid the heavy Allied bombing. One clue that remained consistent was freshly unearthed dirt: it was always a dead giveaway of an underground operation. The CIA profited from the World War II experience: its team in charge of the 1956 Berlin tunnel that was dug from West to East Germany successfully masked its extensive digging by trucking away the dirt in military C-ration boxes. 
One fact became clear over the next few years: Israel knew about the U-2 overflights and didn't like them. At some point after 1958, the Israelis, using covered trucks, could be seen hauling away the dirt and debris from each day's digging. There was very strong circumstantial evidence by then that the second underground site at Dimona was being readied for the chemical reprocessing plant that was essential in order to make weapons-grade plutonium-and the bomb. The best evidence of Israel's intent came from an analysis of the striking similarities in layout, as seen from aerial photography, between Dimona and the French nuclear facility at Marcoule. The French facility was being constantly overflown in the late 1950s by civilian transport planes-equipped with hidden cameras that belonged to American diplomats and military officers assigned to the American embassy in Paris. By 1959, the reactor and the chemical reprocessing plant at Marcoule were known to be in full operation. "It was obvious that the Israelis were following the French pattern," Brugioni recalled. "We saw enough to know that it [the second site at Dimona] was going to be a chemical reprocessing plant," just as the reprocessing plant at Marcoule was separate.
As the Dimona reactor was completed, there was less to be learned from the U-2 overflights. The U-2 imagery could only depict what was on the surface, and the intelligence community would spend years trying to find out for certain whether Israel had taken the next step-construction of a chemical reprocessing plant. American military attaches were assigned to find a reason to travel to the desert-the CIA station even offered to buy the wine for any seemingly casual group that wanted to picnic-and take photographs. Special automatic cameras with preset lens settings were developed by the CIA for the attaches. "All they had to do was push the trigger," recalled Lundahl. In the early years, he added, a few of the attaches "snuck in and got some good shots." Later, in an attempt to determine whether the chemical reprocessing plant was in operation, the CIA began urging attaches to pick up grass and shrubs for later analysis. The theory was that traces of plutonium and other fission products, if being produced, would be in the environment. "A guy would go where there were clumps of grass and pretend to take a crap," recalled Brugioni with a laugh. "While pretending to wipe his butt he'd grab some grass and stick it in his shorts."
The Israelis responded by planting large trees to block the line of vision of any would-be candid photographers and increasing their perimeter patrols around Dimona. One American military attache was nearly shot by Israeli guards after overstepping the ground rules that had been set up by the American embassy in Tel Aviv.
The cat-and-mouse game would continue for the next ten years, with the Israelis shielding the expanding construction at Dimona while the United States remained unable to learn categorically whether the Israelis were operating a chemical reprocessing plant. "We knew they were trying to fool us," said Brugioni, "and they knew it. The Israelis understood [aerial] reconnaissance. Hell, most of them were trained by the U.S. Air Force. It was an Alphonse and Gaston act."
There was much more intelligence, Brugioni believed, that did not filter down to the interpreters: "Allen Dulles would occasionally ask me if I'd seen 'the Jewish information' "-referring to CIA agent reports dealing with the Israeli bomb. "I'd say no," Brugioni added, "and his office would call later and tell me to forget it." One of the most complicated issues involved the question of American Jews who were also intensely committed -- as many were -- to the security of Israel. A few American nuclear physicists were known to have emigrated to Israel after World War II; one was a veteran of the Manhattan Project who had worked until 1956 in the most sensitive areas of nuclear reactor design. "We knew there were Jews going to Israel who were telling them how to do it," said Brugioni. On the other hand, he said, "We were getting information from Jews who went to Israel and never told the Israelis they talked to us." Jewish physicists and scientists began returning from visits to Israel by the late 1950S with increasingly specific information about Israeli interest in nuclear weapons. The CIA had even been tipped off about the fact that Israel was raising large sums of money for Dimona from the American Jewish community.
By the end of 1959, Lundahl and Brugioni had no doubt that Israel was going for the bomb. There also was no doubt that President Eisenhower and his advisers were determined to look the other way.
Brugioni said he and the others also chose in the end not to raise any questions about Dimona: "There was a lot of policy that we didn't know about -- and we didn't care to know. We weren't stupid; we could put two and two together. But the hierarchy decided to play it cool -- and that's the way it was. If you're a senior officer, you learn to read the tea leaves quickly -- and keep your mouth shut. Period."
1. American intelligence had been unable to locate all the Soviet nuclear facilities in the early 1950s, before the U-2 went operational, and the Pentagon's nuclear war planners had to emphasize Soviet airbases and missile fields in their primary targeting. The 1954 war plan of the Strategic Air Command (SAC), for example, called for as many as 735 bombers to hit the Soviets in a single massive nuclear blow. Despite the tonnage, SAC could not guarantee that the Soviets' nuclear retaliatory capacity would be destroyed, leaving American cities open to retaliation.
2. Lundahl briefed President John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office in October 1962, after a U-2 overflight produced evidence of Soviet missiles in Cuba. He recalled standing behind the President, who was studying the enlarged photos- which are essentially meaningless to a layperson-with a magnifying glass: "I showed him the various pieces of equipment that supported the medium-range missiles, about ten items in all. He listened to all that and was obviously unsure. He looked up from the U-2 photos, turned in his chair and looked me straight in the eye, and said, 'Are you sure of all this?' I replied, 'Mr. President, I am as sure of this as a photo interpreter can be sure of anything and I think you might agree that we have not misled you on the many other subjects we have reported to you.'" The Cuban missile crisis had begun.
3. It was widely known that the Soviets were able. to track a U-2 flight by radar once it passed over a border point. Much more disturbing to Washington was evidence that the Soviets were aware in advance of the take-off time for each mission. The National Security Agency, responsible for monitoring Soviet signals intelligence, reported -- precisely when could not be learned-that the Soviet military and civilian aviation authorities had established a pattern of abruptly grounding all air traffic before a U-2 flight was scheduled to depart. The elimination of all airplane traffic, of course, made it much easier for the Soviet radar system to plot the U-2 flight paths, and thus provided more time for the intended targets of the U-2 cameras to take countermeasures. How did the Soviets know the approximate schedule of U-2 activity? The mystery was solved early in the U-2 program by a group of Air Force communications technicians at Kelly Field in Texas-none of whom had any knowledge of the U-2 operation or any clearance for such knowledge. The Air Force analysts were able to deduce that a special intelligence operation was in existence as well as predict each flight simply by monitoring the extensive and poorly masked preflight communications between Washington and the U-2 airfields. The U-2 communications system did not change, and, one of the never-ending ironies of the intelligence world, the high-level American intelligence officer who brought the evidence of Soviet awareness to the attention of the U-2 planners was accused of a security violation. The incident reinforces a basic rule of the intelligence community: never bring information that is not wanted -- such as word of an Israeli bomb -- to the attention of higher-ups.
4. The lack of any written notes or documents inevitably made it difficult for Brugioni and Lundahl to recall the dates of specific events, such as the date of Lundahl's briefing on Dimona to President Eisenhower. No declassified documents about such briefings are available to the public in the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas. The dates cited herein are reasonable approximations, based on all the available data.
5. Few of the private messages between Eisenhower and Ben-Gurion on any subject have been made public by the Eisenhower Library. Retired Army General Andrew J. Goodpaster, Eisenhower's military aide in the White House, explained that the diplomatic exchanges between the two were "very closely held" and not available at the time to even close subordinates. Goodpaster, who also served as military aide to President Nixon, added that while there was presidential concern about "what they were doing at Dimona," he could remember no "specific exchange about a nuclear umbrella."
6. The Berlin operation was compromised from within, however, by British intelligence officer and Soviet spy George Blake.