Who Is Mordechai Vanunu and Why Should You Care?

En route to an apartment building situated in the old quarter of Rome, Italy, a dark-complexioned Israeli man and an attractive female tourist sit quietly in a taxicab. Ready to relax for a short holiday in the beautiful Italian city with his beautiful companion, the man feels at ease.

The couple arrive at their destination, pay the cab driver, but as they enter the unlit abode, something immediately feels wrong. Out of the darkness of the room, three figures spring forward, attacking the man who walked in only seconds prior. Before he can think, he is overpowered, thrown to the floor, and handcuffed. He has just enough time to feel a syringe pierce his flesh – a sedative flows into his veins – before he fades from consciousness.

That man was Mordechai Vanunu, Israeli nuclear technician-turned-whistleblower – his female companion and three assailants all intelligence agents of the Israeli Mossad, on a mission to abduct him. These would be his last moments of freedom for the next 18 years.

Vanunu’s story begins a decade earlier, however, in 1976, when he applied for a job at the Negev Nuclear Research Center (NNRC), a facility located in the Negev desert, about 13 kilometers southeast of Dimona, Israel.

Following his application, he met with a security official to attain proper clearance, then underwent an intensive training course in mathematics, chemistry, physics, English, first aid, and fire-fighting, and was officially hired in February of 1977 as a shift manager and plant technician. Vanunu worked at the facility over the next three years without incident.

In 1980, Vanunu embarked on a trip abroad. Sometime after a stay in the United States, he became critical of several Israeli policies, such as its treatment of Arabs both in Israel and the occupied territories. When he returned to Israel, he began to associate with pro-Arab activists, a fact which officials at the NNRC eventually caught wind of. Beginning in 1984 Vanunu was interrogated three separate times and, in at least one instance, was sternly warned by a security official not to divulge any sensitive information.

Vanunu would get laid off in 1985, but soon returned with the help of his labor union. Sometime between his resumption of work and 27 October 1985 (the day he quit the job), Vanunu made a life-altering decision: He smuggled a small camera into the nuclear facility, made illicit access to sensitive areas, and captured 57 images of rooms and equipment. Such images would directly contradict the claims of Israeli officials, who maintained a policy of "nuclear ambiguity."

Nobody but Vanunu knew about the photographs at this point, so upon his departure from the NNRC, he was granted a severance-pay of $7,500 and a positive letter of recommendation. He took the money and again left to travel abroad, to or through Greece, Russia, Thailand, and Burma, eventually settling in Sydney, Australia.

In Australia Vanunu met Oscar Guerrero, a Colombian freelance journalist, to whom Vanunu eventually revealed his secret. Guerrero, assuring Vanunu of the immense monetary value of his story, began looking for a major media outlet to publish it. Failing to interest Newsweek, Guerrero caught the attention of the Sunday Times, a British newspaper.

A few days after contacting the newspaper, Vanunu conferred with Sunday Times journalist, Peter Hounam, who determined the story at least plausible (newspaper outlets were especially skeptical of sensational-sounding stories at this time, due to the then-recent Hitler Diaries hoax). In September of 1986, Vanunu was flown to London, England to relate his story in full detail to the Times’ writers and staff.

The newspaper, in turn, sought verification from American nuclear weapons designer, Theodore Taylor, and British Atomic Weapons Establishment engineer, Frank Barnaby. Both experts corroborated Vanunu’s claims and estimated from his information that, at the facility’s rate of production of weapons-grade plutonium, Israel could possess somewhere around 150 nuclear weapons (many multiples of the amount analysts had estimated before).

The Sunday Times ran the story 5 October 1986. It was the world’s first definitive confirmation of a significant Israeli nuclear weapons program, a subject of mere speculation and conjecture before Vanunu blew the whistle.

By 6 October 1986, Vanunu had already been captured by the Mossad and taken back to Israel to be convicted. In a classic "honey trap" operation, the Mossad sent an attractive female agent to seduce Vanunu into false trust. He agreed to join her on a short trip to Italy for vacation – the rest has already been told.

Mordecai Vanunu was found guilty of treason and espionage in a secret trial on 28 March 1986, and spent 11 out of 18 years imprisonment in solitary confinement. He was released from prison in 2004, but remains on a strict probation (which he has violated, more than once leading to additional time behind bars). For his brave actions he is heralded worldwide as a hero and an icon, someone who dared to do what nobody had done before him.

Why This Matters

This story, while an incredible one in even the narrowest sense, has a greater importance to world affairs. The country most vocal in recent times regarding nuclear issues, Israel, is perhaps the most notorious among "rogue" nuclear states in the world. Israel, unlike Iran, is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In light of this fact alone, Israel’s rabid demands on Iran are rendered hollow and hypocritical.

Israel’s nuclear weapons program, long known to exist, has only recently been acknowledged by American officials (who, I doubt, will ever publicly discuss the program’s quasi-criminal origins).

The broader issue of nuclear weapons – made all the more relevant by the recent anniversary of the American nuclear bombing of Japan – should have particular significance to libertarians. By their very nature, such weapons effectively cannot be used without the destruction of innocent life. To echo the Rothbardian position, nuclear weapons are impossible to target, thus they should, in almost any practical usage, be considered de facto violators of the libertarian principle of nonaggression.

Not everyone is capable of striking as strong a blow to the menace of nuclear weapons as Mordechai Vanunu, but libertarians, peaceniks, humanitarians – humans – should reject them on principle. However remote in the future, we ought to ultimately seek a world free of the bomb, a world in which humanity is no longer held hostage.

Will Porter is an independent blogger and a student pursuing a career in journalism. He blogs at www.TheMarketRadical.wordpress.com and at www.notbeinggoverned.com.