Peter Beinart’s New York Times essay "America Needs to Start Telling the Truth About Israel’s Nukes" earlier this month caused a firestorm. In it, Beinart noted how the prevalence of US "lies of omission" allow policymakers and politicians to pretend Israel does not have nuclear weapons. This in turn generates the false narrative that Iran’s nuclear program could initiate a Middle East nuclear arms race. Beinart laments how US deceptions about Israel’s nuclear arsenal undermine America’s self-proclaimed status as a champion of non-proliferation.
What Beinart did not appear to know – until educated by Twitter users – is what machinery keeps the US in lockstep with Israeli so-called "nuclear ambiguity" and why it exists.
Much has happened in the decades since President Richard Nixon first promised Israeli Prime Minster Golda Meier never to publicly discuss Israel’s nuclear weapons. US Senators Stuart Symington and John Glenn learned that Israel (with help from some proxies in the US) in the 1960s diverted enough US weapons grade uranium from the government contractor NUMEC to build a dozen bombs. Outraged that nothing was being done about it, the senators complicated presidential "strategic ambiguity" by amending US foreign assistance laws to condition aid to nuclear weapons countries that were not signatories to the treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Israel and its US surrogates responded by lobbying incoming presidencies to ignore the law and commit in writing to upholding nuclear ambiguity.
In 2012 the Obama administration passed a gag regulation forbidding any US federal agency employee or contractor from discussing Israel’s nuclear weapons.
The regulation severely restricts agency responses to Freedom of Information Act requests about Israel’s nuclear weapons activities. For example, Israeli spymaster Rafel "Rafi" Eitan’s covert operations team penetrated the NUMEC facility in 1968, the year of some of its most stunning losses. In closed briefings to top agency officials, CIA has never wavered in its conclusion that Israel – with the help of chemist Zalman Shapiro who ran the plant – diverted material to fuel Israel’s nuclear weapons development.
After Eitan died in March of 2019, a great deal of formerly classified information about his exploits against America, which included running Jonathan Pollard, should have become available since privacy claims no longer prevailed. However, the CIA’s internal profile of Eitan, while mentioning his 1960 operation to kidnap Adolf Eichmann from Argentina and Jonathan Pollard, carefully redacts his NUMEC operation in the 1960s chronology. (PDF)
Why is such information continuing to receive protection? If multiple US government agencies reveal that the US has long known Israel has a nuclear weapons program, it raises uncomfortable questions about amount of foreign aid illegally delivered to Israel. Since Symington and Glenn became law, the US has transferred nearly a quarter of a trillion dollars in publicly known foreign assistance to Israel, and additional billions in covert assistance.
One of the principal tasks of Israel’s US lobby is delivering enough campaign contributions to US politicians that upholding the law remains unthinkable. This has been a winning strategy but also makes the power of Israel’s surrogates in the US increasingly visible and the subject of scorn and derision. However, not even the continually lobby-maligned members of the squad have dared to uphold Symington & Glenn to block US aid to Israel, which they could easily do.
Meanwhile, Israel and its surrogates have continued to feed Americans a rich banquet of justifications for attacking Iran on the pretext that it is on the verge of introducing the very weapons to the Middle East that Israel deployed long ago.
Grant F. Smith is the author of the book Divert! NUMEC, Zalman Shapiro and the diversion of US weapons-grade uranium into the Israeli nuclear weapons program. He is director of the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy in Washington, D.C.