A new report claims that the U.S. government was aware of an Israeli nuclear test conducted 40 years ago today.
On the 40th anniversary of this event, Foreign Policy Magazine has rounded up a team of scientists, academics, former government officials and nonproliferation experts to analyze data and documents that have declassified since then.
Shortly before the dawn of September 22nd, an American satellite called Vela6911 documented a double flash while orbiting over the southern Atlantic Ocean.
It was clear to the crew at the Patrick Air Force Base in Florida that this was a nuclear explosion, an occurrence that American satellites have already documented dozens of times before.
The U.S. Air Force issued an alert and President Carter rushed to call a meeting in the White House Situation Room the very next day.
The initial suspicion fell on South Africa's Apartheid regime, which was known to be working on a bomb, and even more so on Israel, which had close military ties with the South Africans.
It was the first report of an alleged Israeli nuclear test, though foreign publications had already reported that Israel possessed a nuclear arsenal.
Carter wrote in his journal on September 22: “There was indication of a nuclear explosion in the region of South Africa—either South Africa, Israel using a ship at sea, or nothing”.
An expert panel, appointed by the president’s science advisor, Frank Press, issued its final report in May 1980, after just three meetings. It concluded that "the September 22 signal was probably not from a nuclear explosion".
Its members dismissed all evidence that suggested otherwise. This included the Naval Research Laboratory’s analysis that had located the blast’s ground zero near the Prince Edward Islands, about 1,000 miles from South Africa’s southern coast, using hydroacoustic (underwater sound) data, and claims regarding possible detection of radioactive iodine-131 in thyroids of Australian sheep.
Foreign Policy didn't point to a single smoking gun connecting Israel to the event and no official source has ever publicly confirmed that Israel has carried out a nuclear test.
However, the researchers estimated, according to the available data, that the Vela event was a detection of a hydrogen bomb test.
Israeli nuclear program
During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israeli leaders and their nuclear advisors recognized that the country’s small nuclear arsenal was irrelevant to Israel's military situation.
That is why the Israel Atomic Energy Commission was carrying out a broad research and development program, with a focus on completing the mastery of two-stage thermonuclear weapons design.
It was in this period that Shimon Peres, the man who is credited with the birth of the Israeli nuclear program in the late 1950s, took the role of defense minister and supported that push.
A commitment to a two-stage design necessarily entails a need to test.
A high-level firing
Shalhevet Freier, the director-general of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, was fired in 1976, and his replacement by Brig. Gen. Uzi Eilam was allegedly directly related to the preparations for the 1979 event—the implication being that the swap was due to Freier’s opposition to the test.
Freier himself used to talk rather openly about his firing, stressing that it was not about “personal or moral conduct” and hinting that it was about a major policy issue about which he disagreed with his superiors, in particular Peres.
Freier even suggested that his direct boss, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, agreed with him on this classified policy issue, but for unrelated political reasons Rabin decided to defer to Peres and agreed to let Freier be fired.
A press leak from Israel
A CBS Evening News story about the Vela event on Feb. 21, 1980, was based on exclusive reporting from a young Tel Aviv-based American correspondent, Dan Raviv.
The report claimed that CBS had learned that the Vela event was indeed an Israeli nuclear test. Raviv filed his report from Rome in an effort to evade Israeli military censorship. As a result, Raviv lost his press credentials after a direct order from then-Defense Minister Ezer Weizman.
Decades later, Raviv said that he had an additional high-level and reliable Israeli political source who confirmed the Vela story. The late Eliyahu Speiser, a well-connected Israeli politician and member of the Knesset for the Labor Party between 1977 and 1988. Speiser was in those days close to Peres.
The MIT connection
Other documents disclose that Jack Ruina, the chairman of Carter’s controversial panel and a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, received anecdotal information from a “personal contact” at MIT relating to the “theory of Israeli involvement” in the Sept. 22 event.
The documents do not elaborate on what exactly that information was, but it is noted that Ruina considered it “significant but inappropriate for discussion on telephone”.
According to Seymour Hersh’s The Samson Option (published in 1991), Ruina’s source was an unnamed Israeli missile expert, who in 1980 to 1981 was a visiting fellow at MIT in a program that Ruina directed.
That missile engineer was Yaron Anselm, as MIT records from that period indicate. Anselm was one of the founders of Israel’s weapons development authority, known as Rafael.
Foreign Policy contributed to this report.