Officials Believed Ally Used Materials Lifted From Pennsylvania Toward a Weapons Program
Declassified documents from the 1970s provide new evidence that federal officials believed bomb-grade uranium that disappeared from a Pennsylvania nuclear facility in the 1960s was likely taken for use in a clandestine Israeli atomic-weapons program.
The documents, obtained earlier this year through public-records requests by a Washington-based nonprofit group, also indicate that senior officials wanted to keep the matter under wraps for fear it could undermine U.S. Middle East peace efforts.
Though the Central Intelligence Agency’s case for the suspected theft wasn’t conclusive, it was sufficiently persuasive that “I do not think that the President has plausible deniability” regarding the question, said a memo dated July 28, 1977, by a National Security Council staffer in President Jimmy Carter’s administration.
A security council memo to Mr. Carter a few days later expressed more uncertainty about whether a theft had occurred, but noted that then-Secretary of State Cyrus Vance had a coming Middle East trip and discussed the need to keep attention “away from the CIA’s information.”
The question of whether one of America’s closest allies was involved in the theft of some of its most valuable and dangerous material in pursuit of nuclear weapons has been one of the enduring mysteries of the atomic age. The suspected theft has drawn the attention of at least three presidents and other senior government officials.
The evidence suggested that “something did transpire,” said Zbigniew Brzezinski, Mr. Carter’s national-security adviser, in a recent interview. “But until you have conclusive evidence you don’t want to make an international incident. This is a potentially very explosive, controversial issue.” Besides, he added, even if a theft was proved, “What are we going to say to the Israelis, ‘Give it back?’ ”
Israel hasn’t ever said whether it has nuclear weapons. A spokeswoman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., declined to comment for this article.
So did a spokeswoman for the Obama administration, which like past U.S. administrations has declined to say whether it believes Israel has an atomic arsenal. A CIA spokesman also declined to comment.
Mr. Carter, who said at a 2008 gathering in Britain that he believes Israel has nuclear weapons, declined through a spokeswoman to be interviewed.
His diplomatic efforts as president, which helped produce a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979, likely wouldn’t have been possible “if there was some huge scandal at the time about this,” said John Marcum, the staffer who wrote the July 28, 1977, memo, in a recent interview.
The theft suspicions surround events at a now-dismantled facility in Apollo, Pa., owned by a company called Nuclear Materials & Equipment Corp., or Numec. In the mid-1960s, some 200 pounds of bomb-grade uranium—enough possibly for several Hiroshima-sized bombs—couldn’t be accounted for there.
An FBI investigation begun in the late 1960s, which drew interest from top Nixon administration officials, including the president, couldn’t determine what happened to the uranium, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation and other agency documents. But FBI officials did raise questions about suspected dealings between Numec’s founder and president, Zalman Shapiro, and Israeli intelligence officials, according to government documents. Babcock & Wilcox Co., a nuclear-technology and energy company that acquired Numec in 1971, declined to comment.
In an interview late last year, the 93-year-old Mr. Shapiro, who has long argued the material had been lost in the production process, said that no theft took place. He said his dealings with Israel, where Numec had commercial activities, were legitimate and to his knowledge never involved intelligence officials.
Potentially crucial sections of the recently released documents—obtained by the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy, an organization that has been critical of Israel—remain classified.
The latest document release underscores the need for the government to declassify the remaining information about the suspected theft, some former federal officials say.
“We know the CIA thought the material was stolen. We want to know why they thought that,” said Victor Gilinsky, a former commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Government records show that a federal nuclear-enrichment facility in Ohio sent shipments to Numec containing the highest percentage of U235, the explosive form of uranium, ever known to have been produced, said Roger Mattson, another former NRC official.
Did the CIA later find that such uranium had turned up in Israel, as some documentary evidence suggests? “That’s not something that’s declassified,” said Jessica Tuchman Mathews, a national-security official in the Carter administration who wrote or received some of the recently declassified documents.
By JOHN R. EMSHWILLER
Updated Aug. 6, 2014 7:41 p.m. ET
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