Concerned About Nuclear Weapons Potential, John F. Kennedy Pushed for Inspection of Israel Nuclear Facilities
Atomic Energy Commission Inspectors Gave Dimona a Clean Bill of Health – Twice – after Deliberately Truncated Tours, but U.S. Intelligence Remained Suspicious
International Atomic Energy Agency Inspection of Dimona Was “Our Objective,” According to State Department
National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 547
Posted - April 21, 2016
Avner Cohen and William Burr, editors
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John F. Kennedy was a member of Congress when he first met Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in 1951. In this photograph taken at Ben-Gurion’s home, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr., then a member of Congress from New York, sat between them. (Image from Geopolitiek in Perspectief)
Kennedy, Dimona and the Nuclear Proliferation Problem: 1961-1962
by Avner Cohen and William Burr
Washington, D.C., April 21, 2016 - President John F. Kennedy worried that Israel’s nuclear program was a potentially serious proliferation risk and insisted that Israel permit periodic inspections to mitigate the danger, according to declassified documents published today by the National Security Archive,Nuclear Proliferation International History Project, and the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Kennedy pressured the government of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to prevent a military nuclear program, particularly after stage-managed tours of the Dimona facility for U.S. government scientists in 1961 and 1962 raised suspicions within U.S. intelligence that Israel might be concealing its underlying nuclear aims. Kennedy’s long-run objective, documents show, was to broaden and institutionalize inspections of Dimona by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
On 30 May 1961, Kennedy met Ben-Gurion in Manhattan to discuss the bilateral relationship and Middle East issues. However, a central (and indeed the first) issue in their meeting was the Israeli nuclear program, about which President Kennedy was most concerned. According to a draft record of their discussion, which has never been cited, and is published here for the first time, Ben-Gurion spoke “rapidly and in a low voice” and “some words were missed.” He emphasized the peaceful, economic development-oriented nature of the Israeli nuclear project. Nevertheless the note taker, Assistant Secretary of State Philips Talbot, believed that he heard Ben-Gurion mention a “pilot” plant to process plutonium for “atomic power” and also say that “there is no intention to develop weapons capacity now.” Ben-Gurion tacitly acknowledged that the Dimona reactor had a military potential, or so Talbot believed he had heard. The final U.S. version of the memcon retained the sentence about plutonium but did not include the language about a “pilot” plant and “weapons capacity.”
The differences between the two versions suggest the difficulty of preparing accurate records of meetings. But whatever Ben-Gurion actually said, President Kennedy was never wholly satisfied with the insistence that Dimona was strictly a peaceful project. Neither were U.S. intelligence professionals. A recently declassified National Intelligence Estimate on Israel prepared several months after the meeting, and published here for the first time, concluded that “Israel may have decided to undertake a nuclear weapons program. At a minimum, we believe it has decided to develop its nuclear facilities in such a way as to put it into a position to develop nuclear weapons promptly should it decide to do so.” This is the only NIE where the discussion of Dimona has been declassified in its entirety.
Declassified documents reveal that more than any other American president, John F. Kennedy was personally engaged with the problem of Israel’s nuclear program; he may also have been more concerned about it than any of his successors. Of all U.S. leaders in the nuclear age, Kennedy was the nonproliferation president. Nuclear proliferation was his “private nightmare,” as Glenn Seaborg, his Atomic Energy Commission chairman, once noted. Kennedy came to office with the conviction that the spread of nuclear weapons would make the world a much more dangerous place; he saw proliferation as the path to a global nuclear war. This concern shaped his outlook on the Cold War even before the 1960 presidential campaign – by then he had already opposed the resumption of nuclear testing largely due to proliferation concerns – and his experience in office, especially the Cuban Missile Crisis, solidified it further.
This Electronic Briefing Book (EBB) is the first of two publications which address the subject of JFK, his administration, and the Israeli nuclear program. It includes about thirty documents produced by the State Department, the Atomic Energy Commission, and intelligence agencies, some of which highlight the president’s strong personal interest and direct role in moving nonproliferation policy forward during the administration’s first two years. Some of the documents have been only recently declassified, while others were located in archival collections; most are published here for the first time. The compilation begins with President Kennedy’s meeting with departing ambassador to Israel Odgen Reid on January 31, 1961, days after Kennedy took office, and concludes with the State Department’s internal review in late 1962 of the of the second U.S. visit in Dimona.
The documents published today also include:
- The Atomic Energy Commission’s recently declassified report on the first official U.S. visit to the Dimona complex, in May 1961. The Ben-Gurion-Kennedy meeting was possible only after that visit produced a positive report on the peaceful, nonmilitary purposes of the reactor. According to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), Dimona “was conceived as a means for gaining experience in construction of a nuclear facility which would prepare them for nuclear power in the long run.”
- A letter from the State Department to the AEC asking it to place prominent Israeli nuclear scientist Dr. Israel Dostrovsky of the Weizman Institute, who was a visiting researcher at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, under “discreet surveillance” as a “precautionary step” to safeguard U.S. nuclear know-how. The document notes Dostrovsky’s reputation as one of the individuals “primarily responsible for guiding Israel’s atomic energy program.” In 1966 Dostrovsky was appointed by Prime Minister Levi Eshkol as director-general of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission, which he reorganized and gave new impetus.
- Recently declassified records of U.S.-U.K. meetings during 1962 to discuss the possibilities of putting pressure on Israel to accept inspections of Dimona by the International Atomic Energy Agency. While State Department officials did not believe that pressure would work, they agreed that “IAEA controls should be our objective.” In the meantime, “interim ad hoc inspections” were necessary to satisfy ourselves and the world-at-large as to Israel’s intentions.”
- An assessment of the second AEC visit to the Dimona site in September 1962. After weeks of diplomatic pressure by the Kennedy administration for a second visit, two AEC scientists who had inspected the U.S.-supplied Soreq reactor were “spontaneously” invited for a [tk: Bill, 40 or 45 minutes? All other references are to 40.] 45-minute tour to Dimona, while on their way back from an excursion to the Dead Sea. They had no time to see the complete installation, but they left the site with the impression that Dimona was a research reactor, not a production reactor. CIA and State Department officials were skeptical about the circumstances, unable to determine whether the spontaneous invitation was a treat or a trick.
President-elect John F. Kennedy and Secretary of State-designate Dean Rusk Meet with President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secretary of State Christian Herter, 19 January 1961. At this meeting Herter warned Kennedy about the Israeli nuclear problem (Photograph AR6279-D, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library)
More than any other country, it was Israel which most impressed upon President Kennedy the complexity of nuclear proliferation. Israel was the first case with which he had to struggle as president. Only weeks before his inauguration, the outgoing Eisenhower administration quietly discovered and confirmed the secret reactor at Dimona. In mid-December the news leaked out while the Eisenhower administration was pondering a Special National Intelligence Estimate, which asserted that, on the basis of the available evidence “plutonium production for weapons is at least one major purpose of this effort." According to the estimate, if it was widely believed that Israel was acquiring a nuclear weapons capability it would cause “consternation” in the Arab world, with blame going to the U.S. and France for facilitating the project. The United Arab Republic (Egypt/Syria) would “feel the most threatened,” might approach the Soviets for more “countervailing military aid and political backing,” and the Arab world in general might be prompted to take “concrete actions” against Western interests in the region. Moreover, Israel’s “initiative might remove some of the inhibitions to development of nuclear weapons in other Free World countries.”
On January 19, 1961, on the eve of his inauguration, President-elect Kennedy visited the White House – for the last time as a guest – along with his senior team. After 45 minutes of one-on-one conversation with President Eisenhower, the two men walked to the Cabinet Room to join their departing and incoming secretaries of state, defense and treasury to discuss the transition. One of Kennedy’s first questions was about the countries which were most determined to seek the bomb. “Israel and India,” Secretary of State Christian Herter fired back, and added that the newly discovered Dimona reactor, being constructed with aid from France, could be capable of generating 90 kilogram of weapons-grade plutonium by 1963. Herter urged the new president to press hard on inspection in the case of Israel before it introduced nuclear weapons into the Middle East.
With his concern about stability in the Middle East and the broader nuclear proliferation threat, Kennedy took Herter’s advice seriously. Within days he met with departing Ambassador Reid for discussions of Dimona and other regional matters. To help him prepare for the meeting, new Secretary of State Dean Rusk provided an updated report about Israel’s nuclear activities and a detailed chronology of the discovery of Dimona. For the rest of Kennedy’s time in office, Dimona would remain an issue of special and personal concern to him and to his close advisers.
The most important event covered in this collection was the “nuclear summit” held at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City on May 30, 1961, between Kennedy and Ben-Gurion. We refer to it as a nuclear summit because Dimona was at the heart of that meeting. The encounter was made possible thanks to a reassuring report about the first American visit to Dimona, which had taken place ten days earlier.
Kennedy had tirelessly pressured Ben-Gurion to allow the visit since taking office, insisting that meeting the request – made initially by the Eisenhower administration after the discovery of Dimona – was a condition for normalizing U.S.-Israeli relations. In a sense, Kennedy turned the question into a de facto ultimatum to Israel. For weeks Ben-Gurion dragged his feet, possibly even manufacturing or at least magnifying a domestic political dispute (what was known in Israel as the Lavon Affair) into a government resignation, primarily as a ploy to stall or delay that Dimona visit.
By April 1961, after a new government had been organized, Israeli Ambassador Avram Harman finally told the administration that Israel had agreed to an American tour of Dimona. On May 20, two AEC scientists, U. M. Staebler and J. W. Croach Jr., visited the nuclear facility on a carefully crafted tour. The visit began with a briefing by a Dimona senior management team, headed by Director-General Manes Pratt, who presented a technological rationale for, and historical narrative of, the project: the Dimona nuclear research center, the Americans were told, was “conceived as a means for gaining experience in construction of a nuclear facility which would prepare them [Israel] for nuclear power in the long run.” In essence, according to Pratt, this was a peaceful project. As the American team’s summary report, which was highlighted in a memorandum to National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, made very clear, the AEC team believed that the Israelis had told them the truth: the scientists were “satisfied that nothing was concealed from them and that the reactor is of the scope and peaceful character previously described to the United States by representatives of the Government of Israel.”
The AEC’s team’s official report (document 8A) is now available for the first time. Previously only draft notes written by the team’s leader had been accessible to researchers. The differences between the two versions are minor except for a noteworthy paragraph in the final report, under the headline “General comment.” That paragraph is important because it reveals that the Israeli hosts told the AEC team that the reactor’s power was likely to double in the future. “It is quite possible that after operating experience has been obtained the power level of the reactor can be increased by a factor of the order of two by certain modifications in design and relaxation of some operating conditions.” The AEC team could have seen that acknowledgement as a red flag, a worrisome indication that the reactor was capable of producing much more plutonium than was then acknowledged. But the team’s one-sentence response was benign: “Design conservatism of this order is understandable for a project of this type,” On the basis of such a positive report, the Waldorf Astoria meeting was able to go ahead.
The Kennedy-Ben-Gurion Meeting
This collection includes both American and Israeli transcripts of the Waldorf Astoria meeting. One of the transcripts is a previously unknown draft of the Kennedy-Ben-Gurion memcon, which has interesting differences with the final version. The U.S. official memorandum of conversation, declassified and published in the 1990s, was prepared by Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs Phillips Talbot (and approved – possibly corrected – by White House Deputy Special Counsel Myer “Mike” Feldman). The Israeli minutes, prepared by Ambassador Avraham Harman, were also declassified in the 1990s and historians have made extensive use of them.
Ben-Gurion provided Kennedy with a rationale and narrative of the Dimona project that was very similar to what the Israeli hosts provided to the AEC team visiting Dimona (albeit in non-technical and more political terms): the Dimona project was peaceful in nature; it was about energy and development. However, unlike during the Dimona visit, Ben-Gurion’s narrative and rationale left a little wiggle room for a future reversal. The prime minister did that by qualifying his peaceful pledge and leaving room for a future change of heart. The Israeli transcript makes Ben-Gurion’s caveat pronounced: “for the time being, the only purposes are for peace. … But we will see what will happen in the Middle East. It does not depend on us” (italics added). The American transcript, by way of rephrasing Ben-Gurion, reveals a similar caveat as well: “Our main – and for the time being – only purpose is this [cheap energy, etc.],” the Prime Minister said, adding that “we do not know what will happen in the future” … Furthermore, commenting on the political and strategic implications of atomic power and weaponry, the Prime Minister said he does believe that “in ten or fifteen years the Egyptian presumably could achieve it themselves” (italics added).
In his draft minutes, Assistant Secretary Talbot notes (in parentheses) that during that part of the conversation, Ben-Gurion spoke “rapidly and in a low voice” so that “some words were missed.” Nevertheless, Talbot thought that he had heard Ben-Gurion making reference to a “pilot plant for plutonium separation which is needed for atomic power,” but that might happen “three or four years later” and that “there is no intention to develop weapons capacity now.” Talbot’s draft was declassified long ago but has been buried in obscurity; it needs to be taken into account by scholars. Notably, the Israeli transcript is even more straightforward in citing Ben-Gurion on the pilot plant issue: “after three or four years we shall have a pilot plant for separation which is needed anyway for a power reactor.”
Days after the meeting, Talbot sat with Feldman at the White House to “check fine points” about “side lines of interest.” There was the key issue of plutonium, about which Ben-Gurion mumbled quickly in a low voice. Ben-Gurion was understood to say something to the effect that the issue of plutonium would not arise until the installation was complete in 1964 or so, and only then could Israel decide what to do about processing it. But this appeared to be incompatible with what the prime minister had said to Ambassador Reid in Tel Aviv in January 1961, namely that the spent fuel would return to the country which provided the uranium in the first place (France). But Israeli affairs desk officer, William R. Crawford, who looked further into the record, suggested that what Ben-Gurion had said was more equivocal and evasive. Upon close examination, Ben-Gurion might have meant to hint in passing that Israel was preserving its freedom of action to produce plutonium for its own purposes. Kennedy may not have picked up on this point, but he, like Talbot, may not have been sure exactly what Ben-Gurion had said.
The most intriguing – and novel – document in this collection is National Intelligence Estimate 35-61 (document #11a), under the headline “Outlook on Israel,” which was declassified only in February 2015. This NIE left no doubt that the AEC scientists’ impressions from their visit to Dimona had no impact on the way which the intelligence community made its own determination on Dimona’s overall purpose. While the visit clearly helped to ease the political and diplomatic tensions between the United States and Israel over Dimona, and removed, at least temporarily, the nuclear issue as a problem from the bilateral agenda, it did not change the opinion of U.S. intelligence professionals. In their view, while acknowledging the Israeli official narrative of Dimona as peaceful, it was truly about weapons capability. The Dimona complex provided Israel with the experience and resources “to develop a plutonium production capability.” NIE 35-61 reminded its readers that France had supplied “plans, material, equipment and technical assistance to the Israelis.”
Significantly, the intelligence community estimated in 1961 that Israel would be in a position to “produce sufficient weapons grade plutonium for one or two crude weapons a year by 1965-66, provided separation facilities with a capacity larger than that of the pilot plant now under construction are available.” In retrospect, in all these respects, NIE 35-61 was accurate in its assessments and predictions, although no one on the U.S. side knew for sure when Israel would possess the requisite reprocessing facilities. The language about “separation facilities” raises important questions. If Israel was to produce nuclear weapons it would require technology to reprocess spent fuel into plutonium. Whether and when U.S. intelligence knew that Israel had begun work on a secret, dedicated separation plant – larger than a pilot plant – at the Dimona complex has yet to be disclosed. But if the CIA knew about such plans, it may have meant that key information was concealed from AEC scientists who visited Dimona (or perhaps they were instructed to locate such facilities).
Probably lacking secret knowledge of internal Israeli government thinking, the authors of NIE 35-61 may not have fully understood the depth of Israel’s nuclear resolve, or at least, the modus operandi by which Israel proceeded with its nuclear project. They could not be fully clear – both conceptually and factually – on the nature of the Israeli nuclear commitment, i.e., whether Dimona was a dedicated weapons program from the very start, or, alternatively, whether it was set up as infrastructure leading to a weapons capability upon a later decision. At a minimum, however, the authors of NIE 35-61 believed “that the Israelis intend at least to put themselves in the position of being able to produce nuclear weapons fairly soon after a decision to do so.”
Notwithstanding the lack of clarity, the NIE’s findings were incompatible with what Ben-Gurion told Kennedy about the overall purpose of the Dimona project as well as with what he said about Dimona’s plutonium production capacity. Similarly, the NIE was inconsistent with the AEC report whose writers accepted the Israeli narrative and rationale. The bottom line was that as early as 1961 the CIA already knew – or at least suspected – that the Israeli official account of the Dimona project – either by the prime minister or by Israeli scientists – was a cover story and deceptive by nature.
The Second Visit
The AEC visit and the Ben-Gurion Kennedy meeting helped clear the air a bit, but the wary view embodied in the NIE shaped U.S. perceptions of the Dimona project. The Kennedy administration held to its conviction that it was necessary to monitor Dimona, not only to resolve American concerns about nuclear proliferation but also to calm regional anxieties about an Israeli nuclear threat. In this context, the United States did not want to continue to be the only country that guaranteed the peaceful nature of Dimona to the Arab countries. Hence, during the months after the meetings, State Department officials tried to follow up President Kennedy’s interest in having scientists from “neutral” nations, such as Sweden, visit the Dimona plant. The British also favored such ideas but they sought U.S. pressure to induce the Israelis to accept inspection visits by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The Kennedy administration believed that IAEA inspections of Dimona were a valid long-term goal but recognized that a second visit by U.S. scientists was necessary if a visit by neutrals could not be arranged.
The talks with the Swedes did not pan out; by June 1962, the Kennedy administration decided to “undertake the responsibility once more.” On 26 September 1962, after “repeated requests over several months,” a second American visit to Dimona finally took place. Until recently little was known about that visit except that Ambassador Walworth Barbour referred to it as “unduly restricted to no more than forty five minutes.” Also, the late professor Yuval Ne’eman, at the time serving as the scientific director of the Soreq nuclear research center and the official host of the American AEC visitors, was cited in Israel and the Bomb to the effect that the visit was a deliberate “trick” (the word “trick” was used but was not cited in the book) he devised and executed to ease American pressure for a second formal visit in Dimona.
This collection includes archival material that sheds light on the second visit. The key document is a memo, written on 27 December 1962, by deputy director of the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs Rodger Davies to Assistant Secretary Talbot on the September visit. It was hiding in plain sight in a microfilm supplement to the State Department historical series, Foreign Relations of the United States. The memo narrated the improvised circumstances of the visit which fit well with the way Ne’eman told the story in the late 1990s. As the two AEC scientists who had arrived to inspect the small reactor at Soreq – Thomas Haycock and Ulysses Staebler – were being driven back from their Dead Sea tour, Ne’eman noted that they were passing by the Dimona reactor and that he could spontaneously “arrange a call with the director.” Notably, Staebler was among the two AEC scientists who had visited Dimona in May 1961, so he must have met director Pratt. It turned out that the director was not there, but the chief engineers gave them a 40-minute tour of the reactor.
The 27 December document reveals that the circumstances of that tour made the AEC visitors feel a little awkward, “not certain whether they were guests of their scientist-host or on an inspection.” They did not see the complete installation, nor did they enter all the buildings they saw, but they believed that what they saw confirmed that Dimona was a research reactor, not a production reactor; and that, from their point of view, made the visit worthwhile and “satisfactory.” The memo also notes that the AEC scientists were presented with the option to come back to the site to complete the visit the next morning, but because that would have forced a four-day layover they declined the offer.
According to Rodger Davies, the highly unconventional nature of the visit stirred suspicion within the relevant intelligence offices in Washington. During one interagency meeting to discuss the visit’s intelligence value, the CIA’s “Director of Intelligence,” probably a reference to Deputy Director of Intelligence Ray Cline, was quoted as saying that “the immediate objectives of the visit may have been satisfied, [but] certain basic intelligence requirements were not.” It was also observed that “there were certain inconsistencies between the first and second inspection reports insofar as the usages attributed to some equipment were concerned.” The fact that the inspectors were invited to visit again the next day seemed to indicate that “there was no deliberate ’hanky-panky’ involved on the part of the [ Israelis,” but the fact that such a return visit would have caused a major delay in the team’s departure flight made the Israeli offer impractical and perhaps disingenuous.
Whatever the doubts about the intelligence value, the State Department deployed the visits’ conclusions to assure interested countries that Dimona was peaceful. A few weeks afterwards, just as the Cuban Missile Crisis was unfolding, the State Department began to quietly inform selected governments about its positive results. U.S. diplomats told Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, during a briefing on the Cuban situation, that the recent visit confirmed Israeli statements about the reactor. The British and Canadians were also told similar things about the “recent brief visit” to Dimona, without explaining what had made it so short. By the end of October, the Department had sent a fuller statement to various embassies.
Davies’ memorandum cites a formal report, dated October 12, 1962, prepared by the AEC team about their visit. But the report was not attached to the memorandum found in State Department files. Unfortunately, except for the 1961 visit report, the Department of Energy has been unable to locate the 1962 report or other such reports from the following years.
Documents 1A-B: Briefing President Kennedy
Document 1A: Secretary of State Rusk to President Kennedy, “Your Appointment with Ogden R. Reid, Recently Ambassador to Israel,” 30 January 1961, with memorandum and chronology attached, Secret, Excised copy
Document 1B: Memorandum of Conversation, “Ambassador Reid's Review of His Conversation with President Kennedy,” 31 January 1961, Secret
Source: National Archives College Park, Record Group 59, records of the Department of State (hereinafter RG 59), Bureau of Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, Office of Near Eastern Affairs (NESA/NEA). Records of the Director, 1960-1963, box 5, Tel Aviv - 1961
On 31 January 1961, only days after his inauguration, President Kennedy met with Ogden Reid, who had just resigned as U.S. ambassador to Israel, for a comprehensive briefing on U.S.-Israel relations, including the problem of the Dimona nuclear reactor (an issue in which the new president had a “special interest”). To help prepare the president for the meeting, Secretary of State Dean Rusk signed off on a briefing paper, which contained also a detailed chronology of the discovery of the Dimona reactor, and which reviewed the problems raised by the secret atomic project as well as U.S. interest in sending scientists there to determine whether there was a proliferation risk.
In their 45-minute meeting, Ambassador Reid told President Kennedy that he believed the U.S “can accept at face value Ben-Gurion’s assurance that the reactor is to be devoted to peaceful purposes” and that a visit to Dimona by a qualified American scientist could be arranged, “if it is done on a secret basis.”