Israel’s Nuclear Triggers

FBI files detailing Israel’s stealth acquisition of U.S. nuclear triggers were declassified and released on Dec. 28, 2011. The FBI’s secret Portland and Los Angeles inter-office communications were originally scheduled for release in the year 2036. Their availability today reveals how Israel’s elite spy networks acquire U.S. nuclear technologies while evading criminal and diplomatic consequences.

A krytron is a gas-filled tube used as a high-speed switch. U.S. State Department munitions licenses are needed to export krytrons because they can be used as triggers for nuclear weapons. California-based MILCO International Inc. shipped 15 orders totaling 800 krytrons through an intermediary to the Israeli Ministry of Defense between 1979 and 1983. MILCO obtained the krytrons from EG&G Inc. After the U.S. government rejected several requests for krytron export licenses to Israel, Arnon Milchan’s Heli Trading Company brokered the transactions with MILCO. Milchan is an Israeli movie producer who became successful in Hollywood for such movies as Brazil, JFK, and Pretty Woman.

The FBI file reveals that after the illicit krytron exports were discovered, a U.S. attorney tried to flip MILCO President Richard Kelly Smyth to implicate Milchan during intense plea bargaining. The gambit failed, and in May 1984 Smyth was indicted on 30 counts of smuggling and making false statements. Smyth and his wife promptly fled to Israel and remained at large until captured in Malaga, Spain, in July 2001 after Richard Smyth applied for Social Security benefits. INTERPOL arrested Smyth and extradited him to the United States, where he pleaded guilty to violating the U.S. Arms Export Control Act. In November 2001, Smyth was sentenced to 40 years in prison and fined $20,000, though he was freed within four years because of his advancing age.

In 1985, a federal grand jury was convened in Los Angeles to investigate potentially related Atomic Energy Act and Arms Export Control Act violations, but no charges were ever filed against Milchan or those who secretly helped Smyth flee and who covered his living expenses abroad. A 2011 biography called Confidential: The Life of Secret Agent Turned Hollywood Tycoon Arnon Milchan claims that Milchan was recruited into Israel’s LAKAM economic espionage unit in his 20s and became a key operative for Benjamin Blumberg (head of LAKAM) and Rafi Eitan (who ran Jonathan Pollard and infiltrated NUMEC). Milchan is also the close confidant of Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu. According to the book, Blumberg himself taught Milchan how to establish front companies and secret bank accounts to launder millions in commissions obtained during LAKAM and Mossad arms transactions. In turn, it was Milchan who encouraged Smyth in 1972 to incorporate MILCO and share profits on export sales to his Tel Aviv–based Milchan Brothers company. Milchan Brothers received purchase orders from Blumberg and sent them on via secure telex to Smyth. MILCO did 80% of its business with Milchan, including shipments of other dual-use technologies useful to Israel’s clandestine nuclear weapons program such as gyroscopes, neutron generators, high-speed oscilloscopes, and computerized flight control systems. According to the book, after Smyth was ordered to appear before a federal prosecutor in Los Angeles, LAKAM issued a burn notice. Milchan claimed, “I felt bad, but I was ordered to cut all contact with Smyth.” Milchan still officially denies any involvement in MILCO/Heli’s krytron smuggling

The FBI records reveal ongoing interest in Milchan into the mid-1990s. In 1992, a confidential informant relayed details of Milchan’s ties to Smyth. The declassified but heavily redacted “secret” communications reveal the Bureau’s fascination with Milchan, from his 1996 entry in Who’s Who to A-list associates such as Robert De Niro and an unsavory Iran-Contra operative.

Like the NUMEC case, the krytron caper benefited from flawed elite news coverage that today seems superficial if not suspicious. Among the final pages of the FBI’s file is a clipping of Thomas Friedman’s May 1985 New York Times interview with Milchan, who had suddenly decamped for Jerusalem after the Smyth indictments. Milchan said he had only recently learned “that a krytron was a small little gizmo which anyone can go buy freely in the United States. You can use them or all kinds of things, including, incidentally, making cholent.” Friedman clarified for readers that “Cholent is a stew of beans, carrots, potatoes and beef that is a traditional Jewish dish prepared on Friday night for eating on the Sabbath. Mr. Milchan said that with a krytron timer a stove could be set to turn on automatically to heat up cholent on the Sabbath without anyone working to light the fire.”

The FBI’s news clipping file contains far less credulous accounts of frantic State Department attempts to secure the return of the krytrons or at least verify that they were not being deployed into Israel’s secret nuclear arsenal. Unlike most U.S. government agencies, the FBI didn’t muzzle itself under “strategic ambiguity” protocols but instead spoke candidly of Israel’s nukes. “At the time of [Smyth’s] disappearance, the U.S. did not have any reliable information that the Israelis were enriching uranium via uranium hexafluoride. That information did not surface for another year until an individual named [Mordecai Vanunu] detailed drawings and photographs of Dimona, Israel’s nuclear research center, to the London Times.”

The declassified details of Smyth’s and Milchan’s flight, elite influence networks, and near complete lack of accountability over the krytron case fits neatly into a larger emerging set of attributes common to many major Israeli espionage efforts in the United States. As happened during NUMEC’s diversion of weapons-grade nuclear material to Israel, apparently more time was spent exploring Milchan’s elite connections than figuring out how to indict LAKAM’s nuclear technology operative. As in the case of the Lawrence Franklin AIPAC espionage affair, the mysterious figures who offered to spirit the main operative out of the United States to overseas safe houses were never apprehended or even publicly identified.

In America today, open financial support for Israel’s clandestine nuclear program is becoming more brazen even as many of its supporters and lobbyists demand U.S. military attacks on Iran’s nuclear program. The American Committee for the Weizmann Institute raises millions in tax-deductible funding for its Israeli parent organization, which was found in a 1987 Pentagon-sponsored study to have developed a cutting-edge high-energy physics and hydrodynamics program “needed for nuclear bomb design.” The Weizmann Institute advanced methods for enriching uranium to weapons-grade through the use of lasers even as the United States worried that Weizmann’s networked supercomputers were being used to reduce the size of warheads. Despite public calls for an IRS review of its tax-exempt status, the American Committee plows on announcing new corporate grants, ever confident that its elite overlapping board, which has included such luminaries as AIPAC/WINEP chairman emeritus Robert Asher, will back Weizmann, ensuring that nuclear funding continues to flow.

Perhaps trying not to be outdone, President Barack Obama announced at AIPAC’s Washington conference that he will soon take center stage in the Israeli nuclear Théâtre de l’Absurde. According to author Avner Cohen, Israeli President Shimon Peres was a key architect of Israel’s nuclear weapons program from its very beginning. In 2010, scholar Sasha Polakow-Suransky released secret documents revealing how Peres even offered to sell nuclear-tipped Jericho missiles to the foundering apartheid regime in South Africa. That is why this summer, when Obama personally awards Peres a Presidential Medal of Freedom, he’ll be conferring America’s highest civilian award to the Middle East’s most notorious nuclear proliferator.