The Samson Option: Israel’s Nuclear Arsenal and American Foreign Policy

Here are some highlights from this 1992 book by Seymour Hersh:

* America’s most important military secret in 1979 was in orbit, whirling effortlessly around the world every ninety six minutes, taking uncanny and invaluable reconnaissance photographs of all that lay hundreds of miles below. The satellite, known as KH-11, was an astonishing leap in technology: its images were capable of being digitally relayed to ground stations where they were picked up–in “real time”-for instant analysis by the intelligence community. There would be no more Pearl Harbors.

The first KH-11 had been launched on December 19, 1976, after Jimmy Carter’s defeat of President Gerald R. Ford in the November elections. The Carter administration followed Ford’s precedent by tightly restricting access to the high-quality imagery: even Great Britain, America’s closest ally in the intelligence world, was limited to seeing photographs on a
case-by-case basis. The intensive security system was given a jolt in March 1979, when President Carter decided to provide Israel with KH-11 photographs.

* Through the 1960s, for example, one of the most sensitive operations in the Agency was code-named KK MOUNTAIN (KK being the CIA’s internal digraph, or designation, for messages and documents dealing with Israel) and provided for untold millions in annual cash payments to Mossad. In return, Mossad authorized its agents to act, in essence, as American surrogates throughout North Africa and in such countries as Kenya, Tanzania, and the Congo. Other intelligence agreements with Mossad revolved around the most sensitive of Israeli activities in the Middle East, where American dollars were being used to finance operations in Syria, and inside the Soviet Union, where the CIA’s men and women found it difficult to spy. Some of the Soviet activities apparently were financed by regular Agency disbursements and thus cleared through the appropriate CIA congressional oversight committees-but the complex amalgamation of American financing and Israeli operations remains one of the great secrets of the Cold War.

The Israelis had responded to Admiral Turner’s 1977 cutback in liaison-in essence, his refusal to pay for the continuing operations in Africa and elsewhere-by sharply reducing their flow of intelligence back to Washington. In the Israeli view, the KH-11 agreement in March 1979 was made inevitable not by the success of Camp David but by the CIA’s failure to anticipate the steadily increasing Soviet pressure on Afghanistan in 1978 and the continuing upheavals in Iran. There were large Jewish communities in both nations-many shopkeepers in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, were Jewish-and Mossad’s information was far superior to the CIA’s. Most galling to the President and his top aides was the CIA’s embarrassingly inept reporting on Iran, where Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, a U.S. ally of long standing, had been overthrown in February 1979 in a popular uprising–despite a year-long series of upbeat CIA predictions that he would manage to cling to power: The CIA had rejected the Israeli view, provided in a trenchant analysis in 1978 by Uri Lubrani, a former Israeli ambassador to Iran, that the shah would not survive. The CIA had failed the President and forced the American leadership to turn once again to Israeli help in trying to anticipate world events. It was no accident that Lubrani was attached to the Israeli delegation that negotiated the March 1979 KH-11 agreement in Washington.

* French officials reciprocated the Israeli trust: Israeli scientists were the only foreigners allowed access throughout the secret French nuclear complex at Marcoule. Israelis were said to be able to roam “at will.” One obvious reason for the carte blanche was the sheer brilliance of the Israeli scientists and their expertise, even then, in computer technology. The French would remain dependent for the next decade-the first French nuclear test took place in 196~n Israeli computer skills. A second reason for the Israeli presence at Marcoule was emotional: many French officials and scientists had served in the resistance and maintained intense feelings about the Holocaust. And many of France’s leading nuclear scientists were Jewish and strong supporters of the new Jewish state, which was emerging-to the delight of these men-as France’s closest ally in the Middle East.

* Ben-Gurion was treating the Knesset as he always did when it came to issues of state security: as a useless deliberative body that debated and talked instead of taking action. He and his colleagues simply did not believe that the talkative Knesset had a prominent role to play when it came to security issues.

* Like many Jews, Strauss remained hostile to Zionism all of his life, but he won the confidence of his colleagues in the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission by publicly joining them in prayer in Geneva during the 1955 United Nations Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, at the time the largest international scientific conference ever held.

[LF: I’m sure this prayer was deeply heartfelt.]

* One Jew who served decades later in a high position in the CIA angrily acknowledged that when he arrived, “every fucking Jew in the CIA was in accounting or legal.” The official wasn’t quite right, but even those few Jews who did get to the top, such as Edward W. Proctor, who served as deputy director for intelligence in the mid-197os, were not given access to all of the sensitive files in connection with Israel. Jews also were excluded from Hebrew language training (at one time called “special Arabic”) in the National Security Agency; such training, of course, is a prerequisite for being assigned to NSA field stations that intercept Israeli communications. There was a flat ban in the Navy communications intelligence agency (known as the Naval Security Group) on the assignment of a Jew to a Middle East issue. There was-and still is-a widespread belief among American foreign service officers that any diplomatic reporting critical of Israel would somehow be delivered within days to the Israeli embassy in Washington. In 1963 the Kennedy administration informally agreed with Israel that neither country would spy on or conduct espionage activities against the other. The agreement was sought by American officials, a former Kennedy aide recalled, in an attempt to limit the extent of Israeli penetration of America. The truth is that Jews and non-Jews alike looked the other way when it came to Israel’s nuclear capability.

* Many American Jews, perhaps understandably, believe the question of “dual loyalty” is an issue that should never be raised in public. They fear that any discussion of Jewish support for Israel at the expense of the United States would feed anti-Semitism; the fear seems to be that non-Jews are convinced that any Jewish support for Israel precludes primary loyalty to the United States. A second issue, in terms of American Jewish support for Israel, is that any public accounting of Israel’s nuclear capacity would trigger renewed fears among Arab nations of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy and a redoubling of Arab efforts to get the bomb.

* “As an American citizen he was outraged,” Bartlett recalled, “to have a Zionist group come to him and say: ‘We know your campaign is in trouble. We’re willing to pay your bills if you’ll let us have control of your Middle East policy.'” Kennedy, as a presidential candidate, also resented the crudity with which he’d been approached. “They wanted control,” he angrily told Bartlett.

* One factor obviously was political: a higher percentage of Jews (81 percent) voted for Kennedy in 1960 than did Roman Catholics (73 percent); it was the Jewish vote that provided Kennedy’s narrow plurality of 114,563 votes over Nixon.

* Kennedy’s complicated feelings about Jewish political power and the Israeli issue were summarized in his appointment of former campaign aide Myer (Mike) Feldman as the presidential point man for Jewish and Israeli affairs. The President viewed Feldman, whose strong support for Israel was widely known, as a necessary evil whose highly visible White House position was a political debt that had to be paid.

* Dayan got a boost in his lobbying sometime in the last few months of 1967 when the Israelis learned from American intelligence that the Soviet Union had added four major Israeli cities -Tel Aviv, Haifa, Beersheba, and Ashdod-to its nuclear targeting list. This most sensitive information was apparently obtained unofficially, according to a former member of Prime Minister Eshkol’s staff: “We got it in a nonkosher way,” the Israeli explained, without amplification.

A second boost was supplied by Henry Kissinger, then New York Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller’s foreign policy adviser in the campaign for the Republican nomination. Kissinger met privately in February 1968 with a group of Israeli scholars at the Jerusalem home of Major General Elad Peled, director of Israel’s Defense College, where Kissinger had taught the year before. His message, according to Shlomo Aronson, an academic who has written on Israeli nuclear policy, was electrifying: the United States would not “lift a finger for Israel” if the Soviets chose directly to intervene by, “say, a Soviet missile attack against the Israeli Air Force bases in Sinai.” Aronson, who attended the meeting, quoted Kissinger as making three declarations: “The main aim of any American President is to prevent World War III. Second, that no American President would risk World War III because of territories occupied by Israel. Three, the Russians know this.”

* Yet for Dayan and many of his supporters at Dimona and elsewhere, America had proved its basic unreliability as an ally a month before the Six Day War when it failed to respond to Nasser’s closing of the Strait of Tiran and blockade of Elat. Israeli foreign ministry documents showed that Dwight Eisenhower had promised in writing after the Suez debacle in 1956 that the United States would use force, if necessary, to keep the strait open. Israel called on Johnson to keep that commitment after Nasser’s blockade and felt betrayed upon learning that the State Department considered Eisenhower’s commitment to have expired when Eisenhower left office in early 1961. Only a treaty ratified by the U.S. Senate was binding on subsequent administrations, the Israelis were told. Washington, without knowing it, was playing into the hands of Moshe Dayan and his nuclear ambitions.

* After the Six-Day War, and despite Israeli complaints about the increased Soviet threat in the Middle East, the Johnson administration turned out once again to be a fitful ally in Israel’s eyes, as the President-anxious to avoid a break with the Arab world-joined de Gaulle and embargoed all arms deliveries to Israel for 135 days. America did so, bitter Israelis noted, while the Soviets continued to resupply their allies. Johnson also publicly eschewed any firm commitment to defend Israel in a crisis. He was asked by CBS newsman Dan Rather at an end-of-the-year press conference whether the United States had “the same kind of unwavering commitment to defend Israel against invasion as we have in South Vietnam.” His answer satisfied few Israelis: “We have made clear our very definite interest in Israel, and our desire to preserve peace in that area of the world by many means. But we do not have a mutual security treaty with them, as we do in Southeast Asia.”

* By 1973, according to former Israeli government officials, the Israeli nuclear arsenal totaled at least twenty warheads, with three or more missile launchers in place and operational at Hirbat Zachariah; Israel also had an unknown number of mobile Jericho I missile launchers that had been manufactured as part of Project 700. The missiles had been capable since 1971 of hitting targets in southern Russia, including Tbilisi, near the Soviet oil fields, and Baku, off the coast of the Caspian Sea, as well as Arab capitals. There also was a squadron of nuclear capable F-4 fighters on twenty-four-hour alert in underground revetments at the Tel Nof air base near Rehovot. The specially trained F-4 pilots were the elite of the Israeli Air Force and were forbidden to discuss their mission with any outsider. The long-range F-4s were capable of flying one-way to Moscow with a nuclear bomb; the daring pilots would have to be resupplied by an airborne tanker to make it home.

* The increased security of the early 1970s had one immediate casualty: Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan. Dayan’s standing among his peers in the military and the upper echelons of the Israeli government was far lower than among the public; he was considered overrated as a military leader and suspect because of his incessant womanizing and his financial wheeling and dealing-there was categorical evidence, never officially acted upon, of his appropriation of excavated antiquities for personal use, in direct violation of Israeli law: The main complaint about Dayan, however, was over his propensity to talk: one close army associate declared that “he had the biggest mouth in the world.” The Israeli added: “The feeling was that he was a loose cannon at a time when Israel was in a very precarious situation. We wanted the Arabs to know what we had”-without explicitly saying too much. Dayan, with his public statements and leaks to the press, blurred that tactic. There was another problem, the Israeli added: “Dayan went to bed with everything that moved”-not that unusual a trait among aggressive Israeli military men-“but he was totally capable of meeting a good-looking woman and telling her about Dimona. He and Peres felt like they were almost parents” of the nuclear complex. While Dayan lost no authority, it was eventually made clear to him, the Israeli said, that he was no longer welcome at Dimona; he no longer had a military need to know anything about the Israeli nuclear program, which was being managed out of the prime minister’s office.

* By 1973, Dimona’s success in miniaturization enabled its technicians to build warheads small enough to fit into a suitcase; word of the bomb in a suitcase was relayed to the Soviet Union, according to a former Israeli intelligence official, during one of what apparently was a regular series of meetings in Europe between representatives of Mossad and the KGB. The Soviets understood that no amount of surveillance could prevent Israeli agents from smuggling nuclear bombs across the border in automobiles, aircraft, or commercial ships.

Israel’s leadership, especially Moshe Dayan, had nothing but contempt for the Arab combat ability in the early 1970s. In their view, Israel’s main antagonist in the Middle East was and would continue to be the Soviet Union. Dimona’s arsenal, known by the Kremlin to be targeted as much as possible at Soviet cities, theoretically would deter the Soviets from supporting an all-out Arab attack on Israel; the bombs also would give pause to any Egyptian or Syrian invasion plans.

Israel wasn’t ready when Sadat attacked across the Sinai and Syria invaded the Golan Heights on Saturday, October 6, 1973 -Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the year for a Jew. The first days were a stunning rout. Israeli soldiers were being killed as never before; some units simply fled in disarray from battle. Five hundred tanks and forty-nine aircraft, including fourteen F-4 Phantoms, were lost in the first three days. In the Sinai, Egyptian forces, equipped with missiles and electronic defenses, blasted through the Bar-Lev defense line along the eastern bank of the canal and soon had two large armies on the eastern bank. The initial Israeli counterattacks by three tank divisions were beaten off. On the Golan Heights, Syrian forces, bolstered by fourteen hundred tanks, rolled through Israeli defenses and moved to the edge of Galilee. Only a few Israeli tanks stood between the Syrians and the heavily populated Hulla Valley. Haifa was just hours away. Many Israelis thought it was all over-that, as Moshe Dayan said, “this is the end of the Third Temple.”

The extent of Dayan’s panic on Monday, October 8, has never been fully reported, but it is widely known among Israelis. One of Dayan’s functions as defense minister was to provide the censored media and their editors-in-chief with a daily briefing on the warin essence, to control what they wrote. One journalist, a retired army general, who attended the Monday session, recalled Dayan’s assessment: “The situation is desperate. Everything is lost. We must withdraw.” There was talk in a later meeting of appeals to world Jewry, distribution of antitank weapons to every citizen, and last-ditch resistance in the civilian population centers. It was Israel’s darkest hour, but no withdrawal was ordered. Instead, Israel called its first nuclear alert and began arming its nuclear arsenal. And it used that alert to blackmail Washington into a major policy change.

* One Israeli assumption was that the Soviets, who would learn-as they had learned other secrets inside Israel in recent years–of the nuclear arming, would then be compelled to urge their allies in Egypt and Syria to limit their offensive and not attempt to advance beyond the pre-1967 borders. And a Soviet warning was given, according to Mohammed Heikal, editor of Al-Ahram, the leading Egyptian newspaper, and eminence grise to Nasser and Sadat. In an interview, Heikal revealed that the Soviet Union had told the senior leadership of Egypt early in the war that the “Israelis had three warheads assembled and ready.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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