Declassified GAO Report Exposes Fatally Flawed Israel Investigations
by Grant Smith, May 10, 2010
The 2010 Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons is underway at UN Headquarters in New York. A working paper calls for a nuclear-free Middle East. It would require member states of the NPT to “disclose in their national reports on the implementation of the resolution on the Middle East all information available to them on the nature and scope of Israeli nuclear facilities and activities, including information pertaining to previous nuclear transfers to Israel.” On May 6, 2010, the Government Accountability Office (formerly known as the General Accounting Office) released the previously secret 1978 report “Nuclear Diversion in the U.S.? 13 Years of Contradiction and Confusion” [.pdf]. It fills in important historic gaps about weapons-grade uranium diversions from the U.S. to Israel.
U.S. presidents have long acquiesced to “strategic ambiguity” – a policy of neither confirming nor denying that Israel even possesses nuclear weapons. This pretext has allowed the U.S. to deliver the lion’s share of its foreign assistance budget to Israel, despite clear legal prohibitions imposed by the Glenn and Symington amendments to the Foreign Assistance Act. UN member countries have long suspected that the United States either turns a blind eye or actively supports the transfer of know-how, weapons-grade uranium, and dual-use technology to Israel. The 62-page General Accounting Office investigation and correspondence confirms the United States refuses to mount credible investigations that would enable warranted prosecutions of the perpetrators.
“Nuclear Diversion in the U.S.? 13 Years of Contradiction and Confusion” investigates the period between 1957 and 1967 when the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation (NUMEC) received over 22 tons of uranium-235 – the key material used to fabricate nuclear weapons. NUMEC’s founder and president Zalman M. Shapiro was head of a local Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) chapter and a sales agent for the Defense Ministry of Israel in the U.S. In the early 1960s the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) began documenting suspicious lapses in security at NUMEC’s plant at Apollo, Pa. In 1965 an AEC audit found NUMEC could no longer account for over 200 pounds of highly enriched uranium. Subsequent estimates spiraled to almost 600 pounds.
The GAO was chartered by Congress to investigate four allegations about what happened to the uranium. The first was that “the material was illegally diverted to Israel by NUMEC management for use in nuclear weapons.” This was a result of early AEC and FBI investigations into the activities of Zalman Shapiro. The second theory “the material was diverted to Israel by NUMEC management with the assistance of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)” came from the CIA’s silence and demonstrated lack of interest in the entire matter. The final theories explored by GAO were more general, that “the material was diverted to Israel with the acquiescence of the United States Government” or “there has been a cover-up of the NUMEC incident by the United States Government.”
GAO solicited all available information developed by the CIA, FBI, Department of Energy, and AEC, but was “continually denied necessary reports and documentation … by the CIA and FBI.” GAO attempted to fill in gaps or outright refusals to cooperate by directly interviewing FBI special agents. The GAO also intended to make the report public, in order to respond to growing public concerns. Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Power, who requested the inquiry, was assured six months before it was issued that only the most sensitive areas in the report would be classified. The CIA and FBI insisted that the entire report be classified at the “secret” level over the objections of Dingell, who said, ”I think it is time that the public be informed about the facts surrounding the … affair and the possible diversion of bomb-grade uranium to Israel.”
The GAO report lambastes the FBI’s on-again off-again approach to investigating NUMEC: “The FBI, which had the responsibility and authority to investigate the alleged incident, did not focus on the question of a possible nuclear diversion until May 1976 – nearly 11 years later. Initially, the FBI declined DOE’s request to conduct an investigation of the diversion possibility even though they are required to conduct such investigations under the Atomic Energy Act….”
The FBI’s initial investigation during the 1960s quickly zeroed in on NUMEC management, but FBI recommendations for action were stymied. According to the GAO, “The FBI became so concerned about the security risks posed by NUMEC’s president that they asked DOE whether it planned to terminate his security clearance or stop the flow of materials to NUMEC. According to the FBI’s liaison with GAO, the FBI recommended that NUMEC’s operating license be taken away….” When the FBI request was ignored, it dropped the entire investigation between 1969 and 1976.
It took a direct order from President Gerald Ford in 1976 for the FBI and Department of Justice to “address the diversion aspect.” The renewed investigation soon led to reversals of official U.S. government positions on NUMEC. According to the GAO report, “until the summer of 1977, the only publicized Government view on the NUMEC incident was that there was no evidence to indicate that a diversion of nuclear material had occurred.” By February 1978, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) announced it had “reconsidered” its previous position that there had been “no evidence” to support diversion.
more at this link