Dimona Revealed

Israel started the construction work at the Dimona site sometimes in early 1958, but it took the United States intelligence community almost three long years to "discover" the site for what it was, namely, a nuclear site under construction. The final "proof" was a testimony came from a human source, Professor Henry Gomberg of the University of Michigan, a nuclear physicist who visited Israel as a consultant to the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC). In his conversations with Israeli officials and scientists he came to the conclusion that Israel was engaged in a vast classified nuclear project, in addition to the Soreq peaceful project. He reported his conclusion to American Ambassador in Tel Aviv, Ogden Reid, to the representative of the AEC in Paris, and was debriefed by representatives of the intelligence community upon his return to Washington. In the wake of his testimony, other pieces of information concerning that site added to his findings. In early December 1960 the CIA distributed its findings to other government agencies, including the White House, State Department and congress. Dimona was revealed.

On December 7, 1960, an action on the matter was taken. The State Department summoned Israeli Ambassador and asked Israel for explanation. For the first time Dimona was placed on the table.

The late discovery of Dimona was clearly a major blunder of the American intelligence community. In comparative terms, that failure was more severe than the 1998 failure of the CIA to identify the Indian test because of both the length of time involved and because it involved the misreading of many pieces of available information.

From an Israeli perspective, however, this failure was crucial for the survival of the nuclear project. Had the U.S. discovered Dimona soon after launching, and exerted political pressure on both France and Israel, the Dimona project might have never been completed.

In retrospect, the late 1950s might have been the only time that the United States could have successfully pressured Israel to give up its nuclear weapons project in exchange American security guarantee, but the opportunity was not explored.

Documents

Document 1. "Post-Mortem on SNIE 100-8-60: Implications of the Acquisition by Israel of a Nuclear Weapons Capability."

In response to the blunder concerning the late discovery of Dimona the U.S. Intelligence Board (USIB) asked on 13 December 1960 the CIA to prepare a "detailed post-mortem report on why the intelligence community did not recognize this development [Dimona] earlier." On January 31, 1961, ten days after President Kennedy took office, and in response to his explicit request, the 17-page "post-mortem" report was forwarded to his office.

The report confirmed that "information was available to some elements of the intelligence community as early as April 1958 that could have alerted Israeli intentions." Such indications came from many sources-clandestine and open-and from a number of countries, including France, Norway, and Israel itself. It stated that "information concerning the site in the Negev came to intelligence channels from special intelligence sources in mid 1959, but was discounted because the other information in the item was demonstrably untrue." Yet, the report concludes that those leads were lost in the bureaucratic shuffle.

Despite its details, the report appears more concealing than revealing. For example, it makes no reference whatsoever to the U-2 data. Since the report was classified only "secret/nonforn," one could easily speculate that there might have been another more classified report on the matter.

Source: United States National Archives
For more details: Israel and the Bomb, pages 81-85.

Document 2. A telegram from the American Embassy in Paris to Washington (directed to the USAEC), dated 24 November 1960, was written in response to a specific request for further information a bout "French participation in the alleged construction of nuclear power plant in Beer Sheba, Israel." The drafter of the telegram, the USAEC representative in Paris, discussed the matter with "an appropriate member of the French Atomic Energy Commission," and that individual "stated flatly that the French CEA was not collaborating with the Israelis in the construction of a nuclear power reactor." While, semantically speaking, this statement was not an outright lie-because the Dimona reactor was NOT a power reactor-it was nothing but a deliberate effort to mislead the United States.

Source: National Security Archive, nonproliferation collection
For more details: Israel and the Bomb, page 86.

Documents 3. A telegram, sent from the American Embassy in Paris on 26 November 1960, is the first reference to Dr. Gomberg's preliminary report that Israel was engaged in a secret nuclear project that he "discovered" while visiting Israel as a guest of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission.

Source: National Security Archive, nonproliferation collection
For more details: Israel and the Bomb, page 86.

Document 4. A two page Memorandum of Conversation, dated 1 December 1960, is the first debriefing Dr. Henry Gomberg (his name is still deleted in this document) had in Washington as to the findings he made concerning Israel's secret project. Gomberg made clear that he was convinced that Israel was secretly constructing a "Marcoul-type reactor" near Beer Sheba. During the visit it became apparent to him that the Israelis he talked to had been instructed "to restrict their discussion within security bounds."

Source: National Security Archive, nonproliferation collection
For more details: Israel and the Bomb, pages 86-89.

Document 5. CIA Information Report that contains Dr. Henry Gomberg's debriefing as to his findings in Israel.

Source: United States National Archives
For more details: Israel and the Bomb, pages 86-89.

Document 6. Telephone log of Secretary of State Christian Herter dated 9 December 1960. Two days after Secretary Herter summoned Israeli Ambassador Harman, and asked explanation about the Dimona reactor, he made a call to the French Charge D'affairs in Washington, Mr. Label, asking about French involvement in the project. Herter prefaced his question by referring to a report he received from his embassy in Tel Aviv that Prime Minister Ben Gurion was about to announce that a new experimental reactor was built in the Negev with French aid. Herter noted that according to information the United States had ascertained Israel had been involved in constructing a reactor since 1958 "which is at least ten times as large as claimed," and that the design appeared not for power but for plutonium production, hence, it would provide Israel "Considerable weapons potential." The French diplomat had no information to provide Herter and promised to pass it on to Paris. The conversation makes it evident that once Dimona was revealed the United States had little doubt as to the real purpose of the project. From very early on the Israeli explanation about peaceful use-isotope research-did not make any sense "since they already have an experimental reactor big enough to take care of that."

Source: The Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library
For more information: Israel and the Bomb, pages 87-89.

Document 7. A partially sanitized memorandum of conversation dated December 19 between President Eisenhower and his senior aides concerning the discovery of the Dimona project. The purpose of the meeting was to form a policy on the Israeli nuclear matter, given the imminence of publicity. President Eisenhower estimated that the project might cost Israel between 100 to 200 million dollars; it is not clear what was the basis for his estimate. Allen Dulles, CIA Director, referred explicitly to Israel's efforts to confuse the Dimona plant, "which is a large production installation," with the small Soreq reactor. This document does not shed light whether President Eisenhower had known about Dimona before it was officially in the first week of December. One must also remember that the Eisenhower administration was in its last month in office-a lame duck of sorts-and it clearly did not seek a long-term policy for the problem.

Source: The Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library
For more information: Israel and the Bomb, pages 87-89

Document 8 and Document 9. These are partially sanitized cables sent by American Ambassador Ogden Reid on December 24 and 28 following his conversations with both Prime Minister Ben Gurion and Foreign Minister Golda Meir. The Eisenhower administration's message to the Israeli leaders was that the United States was pleased with the public and private assurances about the "peaceful purposes" of the program. While many in Washington did not really believe the Israeli assurances, a political commitment from Israel was worth pursuing because it would constrain Israeli action in the future.

Source: The Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library
For more information: Israel and the Bomb, pages 91-93.

Document 10. This is a document submitted on the last day of the Eisenhower Administration (19 January 1961) to the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. The document is a summary of all the answers the administration received from Israel concerning the Dimona reactor. In a sense, this was official record the Eisenhower administration passed on to the Kennedy administration on the Israeli matter. On the issue of Plutonium, the document states that Israel had no Plutonium of its own and all the Plutonium to be produced in Dimona will be returned to France.

Source: The Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library
For more information: Israel and the Bomb, pages 95-97


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