This morning we learned that the proverbial smoke-filled room of political dealmaking in American politics has now been merged with the smoke-filled room of Israeli politics– with Netanyahu’s plans to have an election just ahead of our own, so the Israel lobby can play one election off against the other.
Well, in that connection, I cannot say enough about a new book by Grant Smith of the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy about the idea of Israel exercising nuclear coercion over policymakers. Smith shows how Israel gamed the American system going back to its apparent diversion in the 1960s of enriched uranium from an American front plant in Pennsylvania owned and operated by Israel lobbyists, guys who’d worked for Zionist organizations and run guns during Israel’s war of independence.
At a time when the entire international community is now engaged on the issue of Iranian nuclear enrichment activities lest we have an arms race in the Middle East, it’s amazing to read about how casual was American oversight of a plant from which hundreds of pounds of uranium disappeared in the 1960s even as John Kennedy was opposed to Israeli nukes. Meantime, Israeli officials were visiting the plant and company officials were going over to Israel. And all the while the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation, or NUMEC, was contaminating the small town of Apollo, Pennsylvania, because its retrofitted steel mill was ill-suited to nuclear work. Collateral damage.
Divert! is based on government documents that the tireless Smith has obtained through FOIA requests over many years. The book chronicles the progress of Zalman Shapiro, a brilliant chemist, but it is most notable for Smith’s argument about the power granted to Israel by the secrecy surrounding Israeli nukes, a “pact” Smith says was effected by Golda Meir and Richard Nixon, who like Lyndon Johnson was more compliant than their predecessor, the late John Kennedy.
Smith argues that that unspoken nuclear coercion– the behind-closed-doors threat of using nukes, has permitted Israel to avoid serious negotiations for decades. (I’ve frequently argued that Netanyahu played Obama on the peace process with all the Iran threats.)
We’ll do an interview of Grant Smith soon. Meantime, shortly after his book was published, Smith was interviewed by Shelton Walden on WBAI’s Walden Pond. Here’s a partial transcript (boldface mine):
SHELTON: And your book kind of goes into a little bit of how the Israeli government obtained a nuclear weapon and by subterfuge and frankly you allege by outright theft of U. S. uranium materials. So if you could just explain a little, first of all how, why did you decide to write this particular book and give us a little bit of the overview of it before we go into……
GRANT: Sure. Well, back in the late fifties there was an enterprising chemist by the name of Zalman Shapiro who was keeping an eye— along with another person called David Lowenthal—on the Atoms for Peace Program which was going to encourage the development of nuclear industries in the U. S. and abroad. And in 1958-1959 he incorporated a company in Pennsylvania at a steel plant site in a small village called Apollo which they acquired for either free or $500 and immediately turned it into a nuclear fuel processing plant. And so this plant was ostensibly going to receive U. S. government owned U-235—which is bomb grade material—and convert it into fuel for the Nautilus nuclear submarine program where Zalman Shapiro had worked and actually done quite a number of brilliant innovations to have nuclear power plants on Navy vessels.
They began receiving large quantities of materials in the early sixties and had a lot of strange things going on at the plant such that even the Admiral Hyman Rickover who was running the Nautilus program sent them letters saying they should not have Israeli chemists working on this, that they should tighten up their security at this plant, and they were basically operating out of an old steel mill. And they had basically just gone in and painted the walls and then began handling very highly enriched nuclear materials for the Navy.
What happened in 1963-1964 is that the Atomic Energy Commission discovered that significant quantities of materials were missing. And they discovered this when NUMEC was unable to kind of “roll over” another contract and it became evident that there was a bit of a Ponzi scheme going on at the plant where they were actually using material from recent contracts to cover losses from earlier contracts. The plant’s management and Zalman Shapiro, the president, claimed they were processing losses; that they had lost the materials into the environment and water of Apollo—and certainly they lost a lot of toxic materials that way, but not this uranium— and they faced down an Atomic Energy Commission investigation over the uranium losses. This put the plant on the map of the FBI and the Central Intelligence Agency and through investigations they discovered that the NUMEC had a joint venture with the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission which was called Isorad.
The Israel Atomic Energy Commission was a front for the Israeli nuclear program and their relationship necessitated the shipment of a lot of sealed containers to Israel. In fact a lot of them left from Pier 34 which is about 15 miles north of where your studio is, Shelton.
But anyway, after a while the FBI began wiretapping Shapiro and trailing him and found that Shapiro was interacting with Avraham Hermoni who was part of an Israeli spy network in the United States called LAKAM. That he had invited in Raphael Eitan to the plant in 1968 which was another year of high losses. Raphael Eitan is the same person that ran Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard against the United States. And they discovered that he was having so much contact with Israeli nuclear weapons program officials that it raised concern that they thought the uranium had been diverted to the Israeli program and that is in fact what the CIA and FBI concluded by the late sixties and early seventies.
The Atomic Energy Commission was embarrassed by all of this and they had the plant acquired by another provider of the AEC [Atlantic Richfield] so that they could get rid of this. Shapiro could no longer really manage the plant and direct its activities toward Israel and so in coordination with the Israelis he was in contact with he left. And although he was a power plant specialist he got a job which would have been giving him access to the most advanced hydrogen bomb technology that the U. S. had in its arsenal. That created another crisis in the White House with the Nixon administration fighting to keep him from getting into that position, threatening to revoke his security clearances, and it just, the whole incident and the documentary record shows pretty much how the president was more afraid of this person and the lobby that supported him than he was—or should have been in my opinion.
So the case has been, it was effectively closed by 1971. He [Shapiro] was thwarted from getting this job. But then Edward Levi, an Attorney General from the Ford administration, decided to reopen the case because there were so many questions raised by the theft. So many members of Congress wanted to know what actually happened. And when they opened the investigation in the late seventies they found reason for investigating U. S. government officials for having covered up this and they also, by the early 1980s, had found eyewitnesses who had witnessed Shapiro and some unknown outsiders stuffing equipment with U-235 for shipment to Israel. They also discovered material which was mainly given by the U. S. government to NUMEC [Shippingport U-235], they also found traces of it in Israel. So they were pretty sure at that time there had been a diversion. But of course there was never any accountability, no indictments, no prosecutions, and everything was shut down by the entrance of the Reagan administration. So that’s a synopsis.
On the issue of nuclear proliferation:
John F. Kennedy was working very hard to prevent the Israelis from going nuclear because both the Central Intelligence Agency and national security officials could see that once this small state and this extremely volatile region acquired a nuclear arsenal that it would have what is called a coercive, or less charitably, a nuclear blackmail, option over the United States. Israel would be able to say to the United States, if you don’t toe the line and have policies that are favorable to us then we might have to actually unleash this arsenal against one or more enemies in the Middle East. And so this has really tied the United States’ hands.
But as is documented in the book, one of the reasons that no American president except for Jimmy Carter—after he was long gone from office—ever talks about the Israeli nuclear arsenal, is that its existence relied on a lot of covert and illegal activities that the U. S. government was actively trying to resist. The current policy of course was pacted in 1969 with Golda Meir in which the president [Nixon] would not actually discuss the nuclear arsenal, it would not subject Israel to any pressure to join the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and this was, as Henry Kissinger put it, designed to keep the existence of the arsenal from becoming an established international fact.
And so by keeping this topic off the table and by continually shielding this arsenal from scrutiny, the American people never really get a clear picture of the actual dynamics that are driving the region. And exploring the NUMEC cases provides a good viewfinder for seeing how the entire policy was put together and how much it harms this country.
…SHELTON: I did find it interesting that in the book, your book President Kennedy was rather resistant to a lot of the requests that the Israeli government had made regarding this and when he made his unfortunate and untimely demise President Johnson came on the scene and things began to clear up quite quickly for the Israeli government regarding nuclear activities.
GRANT: That’s true…. what we see doing the primary research is that at the time Kennedy was assassinated he was fighting three battles against the Israelis. One of them was to get their nuclear facility inspected internationally and he wanted to shut down their nuclear program and the second one was that he was taking on the top Israel lobby group and actively ordered them to register as foreign agents which kind of put all of their public relations out for public view and really put a damper on their activities in the United States. And so the more research that we’ve done this 1962-1963 period the more questions come out about the circumstances of the Israeli nuclear weapons program and the absolute reversal that took place between ’63 and ’64 where you had LBJ coming in and his top campaign financier, Abraham Feinberg, was there helping set policy objectives, finance Johnson’s campaign and as Avner Cohen put it so eloquently in his book Israel and the Bomb, this was the man who was designated by David Ben-Gurion to be the fundraising coordinator for the Israeli nuclear weapons program in the United States. And that’s just how close to the administration the Israelis were.
SHELTON: I have to tell you. Seeing the activities of President Johnson before he took office and after, vis-à-vis Israel and– I have done shows on the USS Liberty and other activities, you know I think that to me President Johnson really did a disservice to this country and in some cases he looked like a crook.
GRANT: Well he was just very malleable and he didn’t want to take on or have any sort of accountability over what the Israelis were doing in the United States. And that is very clear from the documentary record. Although I suspect it’s even worse than what we know.
SHELTON: And one person you quote who is a former military person said that… [Israel] spent a great deal of money cultivating career officials throughout the Defense Department and the department[s] of intelligence and it was understood that to raise this issue was a career-killer.
GRANT: Yeah. Yeah. I think that’s still the case. This has been described, this incident has been described, as a self-healing problem. Whenever there was any momentum toward getting out more information about it, it just sort of automatically self-seals because there is no upside for anybody. For presidents raising this meant endangering access to the campaign contribution network. For a person like an FBI director or a Justice Department political appointee, they had already seen how almost a hundred investigations of conventional weapon smuggling back in the late forties had been shut down by political maneuvers, so they knew that they couldn’t win, that at a certain point there would be political pressures and changes in DOJ employees and other subterfuges so that it would be unprosecutable.
And so this case in my view clearly illustrates just how corrosive and corrupting the lobby-backed demand for this sort of access and unaccountability has been. But the cover-up is clear. Even today there are hundreds and hundreds of pages of CIA documents about the financier behind NUMEC whose name was David Lowenthal that they refuse to release. The FBI has released quite a bit of information about its investigation but what was actually going on in Israel is kind of a black hole at this point and you know there’s no upside for the U. S. government to talk about this. Because it will make Americans, if it ever comes out and more people become aware of it, question whether the U. S. government…if it’s not even capable of protecting this most precious military material – what is it capable of doing. So it just raises too many questions that no party really wants to look at.
SHELTON: Yeah. Absolutely. You mentioned Helen Thomas in the book. You mentioned when she was at the White House she asked our current president, President Obama about the Israeli nuclear program and he punted.
GRANT: Right. But he did do a couple of good things. Early on I think, before somebody clued him in, he talked openly about getting Israel into the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Probably without realizing that if the U. S. ever formally found and made it an “established international fact” that Israel had a nuclear arsenal there’s all sorts of legislation such as the Symington and Glenn Amendments which would prohibit any further U. S. aid to Israel and so by kind of moving into that, and he also Victoria Nuland his State Department person, his appointee, talked about a nuclear free Middle East. But this was early on. This was before somebody…reined them back in.
SHELTON:.. one of the people you mentioned who was in part, another person was Ivan Novick. And he was head, he was one of the head lobbyists. And he had some connection also with NUMEC as well.
GRANT: Well yeah and Zalman Shapiro himself was the head of the Pennsylvania chapter and so just by being so hooked into the Zionist Organization of America which had its own battle with the Justice Department which tried to get them also to register as appendages of the Israeli government in the 1940s. Just by being connected with that organization, which is then interconnected with so many other members of the Israel lobby, that’s one of the reasons why the Justice Department and the Executive Branch didn’t feel like it could actually have any sort of indictments and accountability. These were people who— well I like the saying of Lawrence Franklin who was caught up in the AIPAC espionage scandal— these people are “beyond good and evil.” They really can’t be held to any sort of account to violations of the Atomic Energy Act, or any other statutes for that matter.
[Caller] STEVE: I would like to ask him, does he feel there is anything that can be done to undo this situation?…
GRANT: I think a great deal can be done and the first step is more awareness. The fact that nobody knows about this incident and the fact that mainstream corporate media doesn’t feel any need to discuss in an accurate fashion the actual nuclear situation in the Middle East, people can affect that by complaining about it, by turning to alternative media, by becoming media and I think people who turn to the Internet and begin going to credible alternative news sites will see information like this come out. I think that is a real positive step. Until people begin understanding more about what is going on they won’t be in any position to resist kind of the propaganda, particularly the big drive against Iran right now….
And just let me pick up on one thing [another caller] said. Shimon Peres, current President of Israel. He has been responsible for overseeing many of clandestine operations. And he is also on record as having offered nuclear weapons to Apartheid South Africa. That was uncovered by Sasha Polakow-Suransky from the Council on Foreign Relations in 2010. This is a man who President Barack Obama is going to award a Presidential Medal of Freedom this summer if people don’t get together and protest that we should not award something like that to the biggest nuclear proliferator in the Middle East.
SHELTON: Well you know something your book is great, but I have a feeling the American public has been kept like a mushroom about all these issues for so many years. And frankly I think a lot of people either some people don’t care or they certainly are scared to so anything about anything. They figure that’s business as usual, I think people should protest, but I think that people are going to say Ehhhh. You know what I mean.
GRANT: I think you’re right about the mushroom effect. People have been kept in the dark, but I’m also optimistic that people are beginning to get more of their information from credible Internet-based sources and turning away from kind of the propaganda networks that have been feeding them disinformation. And they are doing that even more so now that we’re seeing Iraq II being played out over the networks…. So I’m optimistic that some of the dark is beginning to fade.