THE SAMSON OPTION: ISRAEL'S NUCLEAR ARSENAL AND AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY
Chapter 6: Going Public
By December 1960, John W. Finney had been a reporter for three years in the Washington bureau of the New York Times, covering nuclear issues and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Finney, hired away from United Press International by bureau chief James A. Reston, was considered a solid addition to the news staff-but he had yet to bust a big one.
Finney's story came late that month and was, as Finney recalled, "handed to me on a platter."
The messenger was the Times's redoubtable Arthur Krock, then the patriarch of Washington columnists, who approached Finney's desk late one afternoon. Krock was known to young bureau reporters such as Finney for his remoteness and for his daily long lunches with senior government officials at the private Metropolitan Club, a few blocks from the White House.
"Mr. Finney," Krock said, "I think if you call John McCone, he'll have a story for you." John A. McCone, a very wealthy Republican. businessman from California, was chairman of the AEC, and Finney had established good rapport with him. Finney immediately understood the situation: "They were looking to plant a story. I was the right person and Krock was the intermediary." Finney made the call and was promptly invited to McCone's office.
"McCone was mad, sputtering mad," Finney recalled. "He started talking and saying, 'They lied to us.'"
"The Israelis. They told us it was a textile plant."  There was new intelligence, McCone said, revealing that the Israelis had secretly built a nuclear reactor in the Negev with French help; McCone wanted Finney to take the story public. Finney's subsequent article, published December 19 on page one in the Times, told the American people what Art Lundahl and Dino Brugioni had been reporting to the White House for more than two years: that Israel, with the aid of the French, was building a nuclear reactor to produce plutonium. "Israel had made no public announcement about the reactor, nor has she privately informed the United States of her plan," Finney wrote, faithfully reflecting what McCone told him. "There is an ill-concealed feeling of annoyance among officials that the United States has been left in the dark by two of its international friends, France and Israel."
Finney's story also noted that McCone had "questioned" Israel about the new information but then added: "Mr. McCone refused to go into details." It was standard operating procedure for official Washington: Finney got the story and McCone was able to duck responsibility for giving it to him.
McCone's leak to Finney would be his parting shot as AEC commissioner; a few days later he announced his resignation on Meet the Press, the NBC Sunday television interview show. The Finney story was being written that same day. Finney was convinced, as McCone wanted him to be, that the commissioner's anger stemmed from recently acquired knowledge, some new intelligence about the Israelis. "McCone left me with the impression," Finney recalled, "that they'd suddenly appreciated that the Israelis were lying to them."
Finney paid a higher price than he realized for his big story; the Eisenhower administration was using him and the New York Times to accomplish what its senior officials were publicly apprehensive about doing themselves-taking on the Israelis over Dimona. McCone, as he did not indicate to Finney, had been briefed regularly on the Israeli nuclear program after replacing Lewis Strauss as AEC commissioner in July 1958; there is no evidence that Strauss, who also received regular briefings on Dimona from Art Lundahl and Dino Brugioni, personally shared his knowledge with McCone. But Lundahl and Brugioni did. McCone, as AEC chairman, was a member of the U.S. Intelligence Advisory Committee, the top-level group at the time, and was, according to Walter N. Elder, a former CIA official who was McCone's long-time aide, "in on the action from the beginning. He sat at the table."
What made McCone (who died in early 1991 after a long, incapacitating illness) join the administration in suddenly reacting to intelligence that had been around for years? Walt Elder, who wrote the still-classified history of McCone's CIA tenure, described McCone as being committed to the concept of nuclear nonproliferation and also aware of the convenient fact that Eisenhower was a month away from ending his eight-year reign in the White House. There could be no better time to act. "He figured, 'I'm through and this is my duty-to let the public know about this,'" said Elder. Another issue, he added, was McCone's frustration at the constant Israeli lying about Dimona: "There was an impetus to do them in."
By December 1960, work at Dimona had progressed to the point where the reactor dome had become visible from nearby roads in the Negev, and thus was more susceptible to being photographed by military attaches. By this time, too, the U-2 program was in disarray: its decline began in May 1960, when Gary Francis Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union. Premier Nikita Khrushchev's rage at the incident, which caught the White House in a series of lies, ruined Eisenhower's Paris summit meeting scheduled for a few weeks later and led him to order an end to all reconnaissance flights over Russia. Arthur Lundahl recalled those months as being "full of fingerpointing and turbulence." The Powers fiasco did not diminish the fact that Eisenhower and Khrushchev had made steady progress over the previous year in drafting a comprehensive treaty banning all nuclear tests; such testing was suspended by both nations until September 1961. That success had led to an overall heightened sensitivity about nuclear proliferation, and also may have played a role in the sudden concern over Dimona. Another factor may have been timing: with the administration coming to an end, there was no longer any compelling reason to worry about domestic pressure from Jewish lobbying groups.
Whatever the reason, even before McCone's summoning of John Finney, there was a coordinated effort at the top levels of government to make Israel acknowledge what it was doing at Dimona. Such unanimity of purpose and widespread access to sensitive intelligence about Dimona wouldn't happen again -- ever.
By the date of McCone's appearance on Meet the Press, Washington had been awash for at least ten days with new information about Dimona and a new desire to do something about it. Even Christian A. Herter, the usually detached and preoccupied secretary of state, was in on it. Armin H. Meyer, a senior foreign service officer soon to be posted as ambassador to Lebanon, recalled his surprise in early December at finding Herter seemingly upset upon being given a photograph of the reactor, as taken from a highway. Herter, the under secretary who had been given the top job after the death of John Foster Dulles in May '959, had gone so far as to call in Avraham Harman, the Israeli ambassador, for an explanation. "I remember being amazed that he felt he could take on the Israelis," Meyer said. "It was the only time I really saw him burn. Something must have happened in the nuclear field that gave him the safety to raise the issue. He felt he was on sacred ground." 
Herter, in fact, had done some independent checking of his own. Shortly after receiving the intelligence, he asked an aide to approach the French and find out whether they indeed were helping the Israelis. The aide, Philip J. Farley, had been around -he'd served since '956 as a special assistant to John Foster Dulles for arms control-and knew that a direct approach would be "pointless." Farley quietly raised the issue with a deputy to the French ambassador and came away convinced, as he reported to Herter, that the fears about a French connection were warranted. The ambassador's deputy "said all the right things," Farley recalled, referring to his pro forma denials, "but the way he acted ..." The next step was a discussion with the ambassador, who insisted that Dimona was "merely a research reactor." Farley was enough of an expert to know that the reactor at Dimona was obviously too large for pure research, and, after a discussion in the National Security Council, Herter was instructed by the White House to give a formal diplomatic protest (known as a demarche) to the French. As luck would have it, Couve de Murville, the French foreign minister, was in Washington for a meeting. He was approached, Farley recalled, but assured the State Department that the Israeli reactor was benign and that any plutonium generated in its operation would be returned to France for safekeeping. "He just plain lied to us," said Farley, still indignant in an interview thirty years later. At the time, of course, Farley added, he and his colleagues in the bureaucracy did not begin to realize the extent of Couve de Murville's dissembling; they had no idea that it was France that had made the Israeli bomb possible.
The summoning of Israeli Ambassador Harman had taken place on December 9; within days, the administration had escalated the question of what was going on at Dimona to a near-crisis level. House and Senate members of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy were summoned urgently from Christmas recess to a secret briefing on Dimona by CIA and State Department officials. CIA Director Allen Dulles also arranged for President-elect John F. Kennedy be be briefed. It seems clear that none of this-the demarche to the French, the briefing of the joint committee, and the briefing of the President-elect -- could have taken place without the explicit approval of Dwight Eisenhower.
Washington also was sharing its concern with its allies, and it was that communication that moved the diplomatic concern about Dimona onto the front pages. The story broke in the world's press on December 16, when the London Daily Express, a tabloid, published a major story saying that "British and American intelligence authorities believe that the Israelis are well on the way to building their first experimental nuclear bomb." The dispatch was written by Chapman Pincher, known for his close ties to the British intelligence and nuclear communities. Pincher had indeed gotten a tip from a senior figure in British atomic weapons research, whose concern was that an Israeli bomb would necessarily be "dirty"- that is, generate a lot of radioactive fallout. Pincher, in a telephone interview, said that his next step was to call an old contact in Mossad and verify the story. "I had a very good connection to Mossad," Pincher said. "I had good Jewish friends here [in London]. They did make use of me for quite a long time -- feeding me anti-Palestinian information." Pincher's relationship with Mossad was predicated on the understanding that, as he recalled, "if they ever fed me a bum steer, I'd blow them out of the water."
McCone's leak to John Finney, his strong statements on Meet the Press, and his later actions in the Kennedy administration -- he replaced Allen Dulles as CIA director in the fall of 1961would get him labeled by some as anti- emitic. There was no known basis for such allegations, however: McCone, as he would demonstrate anew as CIA director, was dead set against any nuclear proliferation and repeatedly railed against the French as well as the Israelis. He also was offended by the Israeli and French lying about their collaboration in the Negev, and he viewed Washington's acquiescence in those lies with contempt. Myron B. Kratzer, the AEC's director of international affairs in December 1960, recalled being telephoned a few hours before McCone's farewell appearance on Meet the Press by a State Department colleague and told to urge McCone to downplay the Israeli issue. Kratzer relayed the request, and McCone blew up. "He said to me," Kratzer recalls, " 'I haven't lived all these years to go out of office telling anything less than the truth.'"  One of McCone's goals, Kratzer says, was to force the Israelis to accept international inspection of Dimona.
In Israel, Deputy Minister of Defense Shimon Peres, forewarned by Ambassador Harman and perhaps by Mossad, began working up the cover story. There was a widespread suspicion in the prime minister's office that the truth about Dimona had been leaked to the British press by some of the men around de Gaulle; the French had continued to urge the Israelis to make public the existence of the reactor since the June summit meeting between de Gaulle and Ben-Gurion. Betrayal by an ally was, for the Israelis, always the expected; Peres's immediate goal was to keep his and Ben-Gurion's dream on track. The stakes were high: any extended publicity about Dimona threatened one of Israel's most significant international successes-the purchase from Norway the year before of twenty tons of heavy water, to be used, Israel had assured the Norwegians, to fuel what was said to be an experimental nuclear power station at Dimona. Norway had been given a pledge of peaceful use and the right to inspect the heavy water, which it would do only once in the next thirty-two years. The twenty-ton purchase of heavy water was obviously much more than required to fuel a twenty-four-megawatt reactor; a Norwegian complaint, with its resulting publicity, would be devastating in the wake of the worldwide protests over Dimona.
On December 20, Peres met with those defense ministry staff aides who knew of Dimona and summarized the various cover stories that would become David Ben-Gurion's public stance on the issue: the reactor at Dimona was part of a long- ange program for development of the Negev desert and existed only for peaceful purposes. Those who called for inspection of the reactor, Peres said, "are the same people who advocate the internationalization of Jerusalem." 
On the next day, Ben-Gurion publicly described to the full membership of the Knesset what was being built, in the name of Israel, in the Negev: a twenty-four-megawatt reactor "dedicated entirely to peaceful purposes." There was another facility on the grounds of Dimona, the prime minister added: "a scientific institute for arid zone research." When completed, Ben-Gurion said, the entire facility "will be open to students from other countries." It was the first time members of Israel's parliament had been officially told about the reactor construction. Asked specifically about the published reports in Europe and the United States, Ben-Gurion casually denied them as "either a deliberate or unconscious untruth."
Ben-Gurion was treating the Knesset as he always did when it came to issues of state security: as a useless deliberative body that debated and talked instead of taking action. He and his colleagues simply did not believe that the talkative Knesset had a prominent role to play when it came to security issues. They were not contemptuous of the Knesset, whose deliberations on other issues were accepted with respect, but saw themselves as pragmatists who-unlike the Knesset-believed in acting first, and then talking. Knesset members, for their part, accepted Ben-Gurion's view that it would be inappropriate to assert their legislative rights in a debate over Dimona. Not one member dared to ask the obvious question: if the reactor at Dimona were nothing more than a peaceful research tool, as Ben-Gurion publicly insisted, why did it need to be swathed in such secrecy? The Knesset was only too eager to accept any government statement denying the intent to produce nuclear weapons.
Even Ernst David Bergmann's categorical denial of any plan to make the bomb was accepted without challenge, although Bergmann's total involvement with the bomb was widely known. Bergmann was in the embarrassing position of still serving as chairman and sole member of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission, although there had been no commissioners for him to chair for years. The six other members all had left their posts by the mid-1950s; the departures have repeatedly been cited by scholars and in American intelligence files as evidence of serious disagreement inside the Israeli scientific community over Bergmann's plans for Dimona. For the most part, they were not. The commission members moved en masse to the physics department at the Weizmann Institute, according to Israeli sources, because senior government officials hostile to nuclear development, including Levi Eshkol and Pinhas Lavon, then the defense minister, refused to allocate research funds for them. Two of the former commissioners would emerge in the 1960s as critics of the nuclear programs; others, such as Amos Deshalit, Israel's most eminent nuclear physicist, ended up being closely involved with Dimona.
The Israeli statements were not challenged in subsequent days and weeks by the Eisenhower administration, which, having triggered the first public discussion of the Israeli bomb, immediately retreated in the face of Israeli's shameless denials. In a statement released to the press on the day after Ben-Gurion's speech, the White House joined with the Knesset in accepting the Israeli cover story for Dimona at face value: "The government of Israel has given assurances that its new reactor is dedicated solely for research purposes to develop scientific knowledge and thus to serve the needs of industry, agriculture, health and science.... Israel states it will welcome visits by students and scientists of friendly countries to the reactor upon its completion." The statement, personally approved by the President, added, "It is gratifying to note that as made public the Israel atomic energy program does not represent cause for special concern."
The administration's retreat continued on the next day: it was now concerned with limiting the worldwide criticism directed at Israel. A private State Department circular sent on December 22 to American embassies around the world, written in cablese, noted that the government "believes Israel atomic energy program as made public does not represent cause for special concern." Officials of the department, who had been involved in the initial decision earlier in the month to pressure Israel, were now said, according to the circular, which was released under the Freedom of Information Act, to be "considerably disturbed by large amount of info re USG [United States Government] interest in Israel's atomic program which has leaked into American and world press. Effort has been to create more excitement than facts as revealed by Israelis warrant. Department will do what it can in Washington and hopes addressee posts can assist in stilling atmosphere." The notion of "stilling atmosphere" would define America's enduring policy toward the Israeli bomb.
There was one final protest, in secret. On January 6, 1961, Christian Herter gave his farewell briefing as secretary of state to a closed session of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (the transcript was declassified in 1984). Dimona came up, and Herter was discussing the "disturbing" new element in the Middle East when Senator Bourke B. Hickenlooper, the conservative Republican from Iowa, interrupted testily. "I think the Israelis have just lied to us like horse thieves on this thing," Hickenlooper said. "They have completely distorted, misrepresented, and falsified the facts in the past. I think it is very serious ... to have them perform in this manner in connection with this very definite production reactor facility which they have been secretly building, and which they have consistently, and with a completely straight face, denied to us they were building." Hickenlooper knew what he was talking about: at the time he was chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy.
The powerful senator also knew that he was just blowing off steam in a secret hearing. No one in the lame-duck Eisenhower administration was going to do anything more to take on Israel. "I'm not going to ask you as secretary of state to answer," Hickenlooper added limply. "I hope I am wrong."
Dimona would be left for the New Frontier of John F. Kennedy.
1. There is no evidence that the Israeli government ever claimed to Washington that the construction at Dimona was a textile plant. Those American and European diplomats who inquired invariably were informed that Dimona was a research facility (usually for agriculture) or a chemical plant. McCone's comment to Finney became widely accepted as fact, nonetheless, and prompted a whimsical column by Art Buchwald in the New York Herald Tribune on January 10, 1961. Buchwald told of an Israeli cab driver who six months earlier had driven an American diplomat to Dimona in search of a suit, at wholesale prices, from the textile plant. The technicians at Dimona decided to let him in and pretend that "nothing was going on." When the diplomat inquired about buying a suit, he was told: "'Perhaps you would like something in cobalt blue? Or maybe a nice uranium brown? How about a cosmic gray, double-breasted, with pinstriped particles?' " The diplomat was measured for his suit behind a six-foot wall of lead. Another scientist "rushed in with a Geiger counter, a slide rule, and two robot arms. The head of the plant took a pad and said: 'Shimshon, call off the customer's measurements.' Shimshon yelled out: 'Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, oil' " There were more measurements: "'Waist U-235; relatively good chest; there is a hexagonal prism in the left shoulder; the right sleeve needs reactor.''' As the diplomat left, Buchwald wrote, he was told: " 'Please, kind sir, do not tell your friends about us because we have too much work now, and if we take any more orders the plant will explode.'"
2. Herter had stunned America's European allies during his April 1959 confirmation hearings by declaring that he could not "conceive of any President engaging in all-out nuclear war unless we were in danger of all-out devastation ourselves." The statement, while undoubtedly correct, played into the hands of de Gaulle's ambitions for the force de frappe. The historian Richard J. Barnet, writing about Herter's statement in 1983, commented: "In a sentence the new secretary had blown away the solemn assurances of a decade."
3. McCone, perhaps anticipating a return to public life, did play the game nonetheless, saying on television that there was only "informal and unofficial information" about Dimona. He also said he did not know whether any of the nuclear powers (France, England, the United States, and the Soviet Union) had aided Israel. McCone's discretion was made easier, of course, by the knowledge of the Pincher dispatch and the fact that the New York Times was a day away from publishing John Finney's much more complete story.
4. Ben-Gurion and his immediate associates were prepared to say whatever was necessary for what they believed to be the good of the state. In his biography of Ben-Gurion, Michael Bar-Zohar tells of the prime minister's determination to shield his and the Israeli Army's responsibility for the brutal 1953 slaying of seventy Jordanians in the border village of Kibiya. The retaliatory raid had been led by Ariel Sharon. A statement was issued in Ben-Gurion's name blaming the atrocity on the inhabitants of nearby Jewish border settlements. Asked by a confidant to explain his action, Ben-Gurion cited a passage from Victor Hugo's Les Miserables in which a nun lies to a policeman about the whereabouts of an escaped prisoner. The nun committed no sin in lying, Ben-Gurion argued, "because her lie was designed to save human life. A lie like that is measured by a different yardstick." Moshe Sharett, Ben-Gurion's longtime rival, subsequently was depicted by Bar-Zohar as being "astounded" by the lie: "I would have resigned if it had fallen to me to step before a microphone and broadcast a fictitious account of what happened to the people of Israel and to the whole world."