America’s Loose Nukes in Israel

Israel decided this week to send Minister for Intelligence Affairs Dan Meridor to the Nuclear Security summit. This U.S. bid to secure vulnerable nuclear stockpiles against non-state actors is both closely watched and furiously spun. Israel avoided exposing Prime Minister Netanyahu to embarrassing scrutiny of Israel’s clandestine nuclear weapons arsenal. For this reason, trumpets the New York Times, Israel sent a lower-level delegation. But Israel has long responded defiantly to threats of robust U.S. oversight. A long-running investigation into how weapons-grade uranium went missing from Pennsylvania illustrates why America has been incapable of securing its own nuclear materials and know-how from insider threats. The future of that uranium may determine the success or failure of the Obama administration’s non-proliferation effort.

David Lowenthal was a member of the underground Haganah – a precursor to the Israel Defense Forces – and fought during Israel’s 1948 war under Meir Amit, who later became head of Israeli intelligence. Lowenthal was a close friend of David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel. In the mid-1940s while leading the Jewish Agency, Ben-Gurion launched a massive clandestine conventional arms financing, theft, and smuggling network [.pdf] in the United States diverting to Palestine small arms, heavy machine guns, munitions-making equipment, aircraft, ships, and tanks destined for American scrap yards after World War II.

On the nuclear front, Lowenthal financed the purchase of the Apollo Steel Company facility in Pennsylvania for $450,000. Founder and President Dr. Zalman M. Shapiro, a genius inventor and head of a local Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) chapter, incorporated the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation (NUMEC) at Apollo in 1956. Lowenthal capitalized NUMEC through a stock offering in 1957 and business took off – propelled by the critical knowledge of highly talented scientists. NUMEC co-founder Dr. Leonard P. Pepkowitz previously worked on the clandestine Manhattan Project in 1944 producing America’s first atomic bombs. Pepkowitz later led analytical chemistry research at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. NUMEC regularly received large quantities of highly enriched uranium and plutonium from industry giants Westinghouse and the U.S. Navy for reprocessing into nuclear submarine fuel and other specialty uses. Shapiro was meticulous in his stewardship of the company’s financial resources, carefully shopping around for banks willing to accommodate the complex demands of the fast growing NUMEC.

In the early 1960s, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) began documenting suspicious lapses in NUMEC’s security, inexplicably lax record-keeping, and the ongoing presence of large numbers of Israelis at the plant. In 1962 the AEC considered suspending "classified weapons work" at NUMEC. In 1965 an AEC audit found that NUMEC could no longer account for 220 pounds of highly enriched uranium. In 1966 the FBI opened an investigation – code-named Project DIVERT – and began monitoring NUMEC’s management and Israeli visitors. On Sept. 10, 1968, four Israelis visited NUMEC to "discuss thermoelectric devices with Shapiro," according to correspondence seeking official AEC consent for the visit from NUMEC’s security manager. Among the approved visitors was Rafi Eitan. After Eitan’s visit, 587 pounds of highly enriched uranium was classified as missing.

Former Deputy of the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology Carl Duckett said the agency came to the conclusion by 1968 that “NUMEC material had been diverted by the Israelis and used in fabricating weapons.” An eyewitness gave testimony to the FBI about one late evening in 1965 when he encountered several NUMEC employees loading a flatbed truck with nuclear materials. It was unusual that material was shipping so late at night. Moreover, these particular employees (names were censored from the 2,654 pages of FBI documents released under the Freedom of Information Act) "never loaded trucks themselves." The eyewitness was "sure this was high-enriched uranium products due to size and shape of the container and the labeling." An armed guard ordered the witness away; he was later threatened to never reveal what he had seen on the loading dock.

The FBI, CIA, Congress, the GAO, and the AEC spent fruitless decades investigating the diversion. The FBI insisted on nuclear forensics to determine whether radioactivity in soil samples collected outside Dimona in Israel had any telltale NUMEC signature. But not until U.S. Navy analyst Jonathan Pollard was arrested spying for Israel in 1985 was Rafi Eitan’s importance fully understood. In 1986 investigators discovered the Eitan who entered NUMEC in 1968 had the same birth date – 11/23/1926 – as the spy handling Pollard. According to Anthony Cordesman, “There is no conceivable reason for Eitan to have gone [to the Apollo plant] but for the nuclear material.” Eitan has since been forced out of the cold as one of Israel’s top economic espionage agents for Israel’s secretive LAKAM, involved in multiple operations against U.S. targets. The Israel lobby’s role, never deeply explored by the Pollard investigators, was perceptible in the background. An operative of a U.S.-Israel business foundation provided the Washington, D.C., safe house where documents stolen by Pollard were duplicated and secreted away to Israel.

But Pollard’s subsequent life sentence in prison is the exception to the rule – crimes for Israel (even nuclear diversion) aren’t punished by America. In a now familiar pattern, the investigation of NUMEC uranium diversion waxed and waned into the 1990s. DIVERT was soon transformed into a futile investigation into whether Zalman Shapiro had foreknowledge or personal involvement in the caper and ways officials in agencies from the State Department to the AEC thwarted warranted law enforcement and accountability for Israel. To date, all of the uranium-diversion masterminds, financiers, and beneficiaries have escaped criminal prosecution, even as U.S. taxpayers fund a nuclear waste cleanup at the (now defunct) NUMEC Apollo facility.

That the U.S. is a sieve for Israeli nuclear espionage is well documented. In 1988 the GAO determined that Department of Energy nuclear laboratories were far too open to foreign visits from "countries identified as sensitive by DOE because they are a security and/or proliferation risk, such as Pakistan and Israel." The lessons of Eitan went unheeded. The report found that "Of 637 visitors from countries such as India, Israel, and Pakistan, the DOE required background checks for only 77." In addition to amassing critical knowledge, other nuclear technologies known to have been diverted from the U.S. to Israel include dual-use triggering technologies, klystrons, and krytons.

It never had to be this way. In the early 1960s, just as the problems at NUMEC began, President John F. Kennedy unleashed a robust non-proliferation and law enforcement pincer maneuver. He demanded U.S. inspections of Israel’s Dimona weapons plant in order to prevent Israel from going nuclear. Kennedy simultaneously ordered Israel’s American lobby to register as foreign agents to bring their undeclared activities out into the open. But Israel and its U.S. lobby ultimately prevailed on both counts.

In formally pressing Israel to join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty while pushing for a settlement freeze and peace negotiations, the Obama administration is retracing JFK’s final footsteps. Israel’s lobby still has its own sovereign policy priorities. As Zalman Shapiro and lobby elites such as neoconservative gadfly Frank Gaffney gathered at ZOA events on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, pivoting the U.S. military from Iraq toward Syria and Iran was a top priority. The lobby also worked day and night to keep America’s front (and back) doors open for massive aid transfers and trade preferences, buffing up its own image by plucking operatives from the harsh clutches of law enforcement – even winning presidential pardons to erase or exalt other unfortunate historic events that called into question the U.S.-Israel "special relationship." Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh noted that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) entire executive committee (the Conference of Presidents) favors releasing Jonathan Pollard on the grounds that "his crimes did not amount to high treason against the United States, because Israel was then and remains a close ally." These unspoken, forced policies directly pit Israeli prerogatives against American national security, governance, and rule of law – they are often only won only through illegal means. As Israel ratchets up its own "project divert" effort to compel others to confront NPT signatory Iran (while derailing meaningful Israeli-Palestinian negotiations), the rest of the world showed true commitment to non-proliferation by sending top diplomats to America’s summit.

Israel simply sent in another spy.

This is why the U.S. must demand more than Israel’s entry into the NPT. Only by recovering all purloined nuclear materials can Obama win confidence in America’s own commitment to controlling loose nukes.

Editor’s note: This article originally substituted the name Steve Levin for David Lowenthal. We regret the error.