Pollard Espionage Ring Still Unfolding

Almost one year ago Victor Gilinsky and Roger J. Mattson penned the stunning article “Revisiting the NUMEC Affair” in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. It describes how in the 1960s Israeli agents and their U.S. collaborators stole highly enriched uranium from the Pennsylvania NUMEC plant for Israel’s first atomic weapons.

The two former Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials’ exposé reveals how 337 kilograms of material, enough for several weapons, made their way into Israel’s Dimona nuclear weapons facility likely packed in the same sealed containers as lawful radioactive agricultural and scientific equipment shipments. It cites a secret CIA diversion briefing held at the NRC, credible official audits of materials lost to processing waste and absorption versus diversion, accounts of CIA recovery in Israel of HEU traces matching the Portsmouth signature of NUMEC’s government-supplied uranium, and the plant owner’s deep and ongoing ties to Israeli intelligence case officers and suspicious activities.

Inadvertently, these expert nuclear diversion researchers make a very strong case against releasing Jonathan J. Pollard, currently sentenced to life in prison for spying for Israel. In 1986 espionage investigators discovered and alerted the press that Pollard’s handler, Rafael Eitan, shared the same birth date as a supposed “chemist, Ministry of Defense, Israel” who visited NUMEC on Sept. 10, 1968, as part of a “four- man team.” But it is now clear that the entirety of the Israeli spy network of agents and operations has not yet been fully revealed.

Gilinsky and Mattson charge that NUMEC gravely misled the Atomic Energy Agency when it applied for permission to host Avraham Bendor (listed as a visitor from the Department of Electronics, Israel), Avraham Hermoni (scientific counselor, Israeli embassy, Washington), and Ephraim Biegun (Department of Electronics, Israel). NUMEC claimed they were all scientific experts visiting Zalman Shapiro to discuss “thermo electric devices.” But citing an FBI file released under the Freedom of Information Act [.pdf], Gilinsky and Mattson prove not only that NUMEC lied to the AEC, but that Israel’s clandestine espionage network, in which Pollard was only a small cog, was much larger than previously known.

According to the two experts, Israel desperately wanted HEU from the U.S. for bomb-making in the late 1960s, since scientists could not be sure that their plutonium-based complex would work as designed, and HEU could be used as a driver fuel at Dimona. This is why Israel sent over its top spies to pick up American taxpayer-funded HEU from Shapiro, a devout Israel supporter and president of a local Zionist Organization of America chapter.

Shapiro, investigated for years as a national security risk, was meeting with Israel’s top covert operatives, none of whom had any expertise in “thermo electric devices.” Ephraim Biegun was head of the Israeli technical department of its Secret Services between 1960 to 1970. Avraham Hermoni was technical director of Israel’s nuclear bomb project at RAFAEL and had a role in the highly decentralized Dimona project. Bendor was a long-time Shin Bet operative and Eitan’s “right-hand man” on overseas operations. A 2001 Energy Department audit found that NUMEC’s losses were highest between 1966 and 1968, and only returned to industry standards after Shapiro left NUMEC when Babcock and Wilcox Company bought the plant in 1971.

This latest revelation of the identities and motives of Israel’s clandestine network in the U.S. has been all but drowned out by growing calls for Pollard’s release. As might be expected, the Zionist Organization of America has intensified its calls for Pollard’s release. Former Vice President Dan Quayle is the latest voice in the growing choir of U.S. and Israeli politicians demanding Obama release the convicted Israeli spy. In a Jan. 31 letter, Quayle argued that “a life sentence for the crime committed is very extreme.” He joins former Secretary of State George Schultz and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, along with 38 members of Congress who have formally called for Pollard’s release

Pollard filed his own request for clemency with the U.S. pardon attorney on Oct. 15, 2010. On Jan. 3 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu became the first Israeli prime minister to publicly call for Pollard’s release after September negotiations for an illegal settlement freeze in exchange for additional U.S. arms and aid collapsed. Though billed as a measure to “soften Israeli opposition to peace concessions with the Palestinians,” it is curious that American proponents of clemency demand nothing useful from Israel in exchange for Pollard.

Given the latest revelations, this negotiating stance is clearly unacceptable.

Although Israel promised cooperation in the aftermath of Pollard’s treason, it stonewalled U.S. investigators sent to Israel and never returned the stolen classified U.S. documents. Contrary to Quayle and Mukasey’s statements, this rendered a full U.S. damage assessment of documents sent to the Soviet Union impossible, particularly during the tail end of the Cold War when it mattered most. “MEGA,” an Israeli mole(s) suspected of helping handler Rafael Eitan task Pollard with specific file number requests, was never unmasked, and despite newly released FBI files, Israel’s espionage wing responsible for obtaining klystrons, krytons, and other nuclear technologies in addition to raw materials from the U.S. was also never fully revealed in time to thwart its many procurement activities with U.S. collaborators.

Petitioners such as Lawrence Korb, a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense, claim that former Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger’s classified briefing to Judge Aubry Robinson exaggerated the harm done to U.S. national security and led to an unduly harsh sentence. But it is much more likely that Pollard’s own clumsy attempts to avoid accountability sealed his fate. In court Pollard solicited classified documents in an attempt to prove that “it was the established policy of the Department of Justice not to prosecute U.S. citizens for espionage activities on behalf of Israel.” Pollard’s public relations campaign, which violated agreements with the court, included interviews with former AIPAC newsletter editor Wolf Blitzer in which Pollard compared himself to an Israeli pilot shot down behind enemy lines. None of this performance garnered sympathy from Judge Robinson. But the belief that crimes for Israel should never be punished in the U.S. continues unabated.

Shapiro nominated himself for 2009 and 2010 (not yet awarded) presidential awards for scientific inventions, as if the nuclear diversion matter was either long forgotten or now deserved a medal of honor. Fox News has published laudatory accounts of Eitan’s overseas exploits, conveniently editing out the NUMEC and Pollard incidents. Such an environment makes Pollard’s release probable.

But if President Obama releases Pollard, it should be preceded by the belated return of the massive trove of classified documents he stole for Israel as well as all purloined nuclear materials and technologies. Americans also need more information about Bendor, Hermoni, and Biegun’s operations targeting the U.S. If they weren’t really the scientists they claimed to be, then what were they up to all the years they traveled unfettered throughout the U.S.? Who beyond Shapiro helped them? Under the ardent din of Pollard supporters, stakeholders are only beginning to receive credible damage assessments about the overarching Israeli espionage network, making his release for nothing seem altogether premature.