This post is also available in: עברית (Hebrew)
By Ami Dor-on
Vanunu told his interrogators from the security service , that the motive for his actions was one “All I wanted was to expose the true face of Israel, an “insane state ”
Researchers from the “Sunday Times” were skeptical about the reliability of “Nuclear ” information that Mordechai Vanunu tried to sell them.
The only lead which they evaluated could help them find the facts , were the Israel journalists that their names were known in the world .
Sunday Times sent to Israel another researcher. He met the Israeli journalists and had only one question “Please verify one thing – does Israel have nuclear weapons”
When the word reached Shimon Peres the prime minister at that time , he summoned the chief editors of the Israeli press and urged them not to use any reports from “Foreign sources” about the information Vanunu revealed
Israel managed to maintain a thick coating of ‘nuclear ambiguity policy’ for decades, struggling to contain its greatest secret and most prized security asset. That was true until Mordechai Vanunu,a technician at its Dimona nuclear research facility tried to remove that cloak before the entire world. To the great sorrow of the country, it was discovered that Vanunu had photographed the Dimona reactors secret installations, smuggled the photographs abroad and helped the international media disclose that according to his personal knowledge, Israel had quite a few operational atomic bombs.
Vanunu who was kidnapped in Italy by Mossad agents was brought back to Israel to await trial for treason. Vanunu tried to explain the motive behind his actions to his interrogators, “All I wanted was to reveal the face of true Israel, the insane state”. To Israel’s benefit was the skepticism that Vanunu met with in his contacts with foreign journalists.
Researcher from the Sunday Times of London were skeptical about the reliability of the ‘atomic’ information Mordechai Vanunu was trying to sell them. They believed then that the only way to verify this lead was to turn to some of Israel’s top journalists. A top researcher of the Sunday Times arrived in Israel and began his inquiry by meeting with Israeli journalists. He asked them one frank and specific question, “I want you to tell me the truth. Does Israel have nuclear weapons or not?”
Information about these inquiries of Israeli journalists came to the attention of Shimon Peres who was Prime Minister at the time. Peres quickly contacted the ‘Editorial Committee’ representing every newspaper, radio, and TV network. He asked its members not to publish any reports originated by foreign sources concerning the information brought by Vanunu, regarding the Dimona reactor. His plea concerned the likelihood that spies like Vanunu were currently active in Israel, as well as others planted under cover by hostile countries. Peres suggested that it could be assumed that some spies were waiting as if in a state of ‘hibernation’ until the right information were to come along.
The disclosure of Israel’s nuclear secret as published in London’s Sunday Times was awkward with the headline and story furnished by British researcher Peter Hounam. Mordechai Vanunu was tried in Israel and was sentenced to 18 years in prison.Having served the full sentence imposed on him, Vanunu was released a few years ago. The conditions of his release involved restrictions imposed on him as well as a permanent ban on his ever leaving Israel.
Who is Mordechai Vanunu? Was he really the ultimate idealist willing to lose his freedom in the pursuit of his dream? Was he trying to fight against the dangers of proliferation portraying himself in the image of a warrior, in the manner he used while trying to ‘sell’ himself to the media? Or was he merely a traitor-spy who planned to sell, for money, the most hidden secrets of his nation, secrets he had sworn never to reveal.
To answer these questions one must travel back in time, to seek the real facts and see what distorted, misleading, image was built around the nature of the actions of the atomic spy – Mordechai the Christian.
Mordechai Vanunu, born in 1954, came to Israel from Morocco as a child, along with his parents, as part of the massive immigration of the late nineteen fifties. The family found a place in a neighborhood in Be’er Sheva. After graduating from high school young Mordecai joined the army and after his release he began to study philosophy at Beer-Sheba University of Ben-Gurion. After completing his studies and following his graduation, he found a job, like many other residents of the capital of the Negev, as a technician and control panel operator at the NRC (Nuclear Research Center) in Dimona.
Vanunu was summoned several times to the reactor’s security officer during his years there. Each time he was asked to clarify the meaning of allegations that he was consorting with ‘undesirable groups’. He was warned three times regarding his actions. Later, after taking part in protests against ‘Israeli occupation’ organized by Palestinian students, Vanunu was summoned for ‘clarification talks’ with representatives of the Shin Bet in Malmab (Defense Ministry Security Department). He told his friends that he was offered a role as ‘an agent’ but had refused.
What was the source of his enmity toward the State that had developed in the troubled soul of young Mordechai? It was difficult to understand at the time, because the introverted and taciturn man kept his feelings to himself. One thing is clear. Prior to the time he stopped working at the NRC, he snuck a camera into the site on his own initiative, and according to his personal testimony, as published in the Sunday Times, he secretly took dozens of pictures from different sites on different levels of the campus. In those days, the early nineteen eighties, Vanunu was probably fed up with the prospects for the future that Israel held for him and decided to leave the country. The most promising destination in his eyes was Sydney, Australia and he did make it there in 1985.
At First, Vanunu worked in random jobs but soon he had realized that if he wanted to socialize in his new country he must join the local community. Although born and raised in a traditional Jewish family, he decided to break away completely from his spiritual sources and to abandon Judaism.
He turned to a priest, John MacKnight, who headed the Anglican Church in the city, and asked to convert to Christianity. He believed that the Christian community would readily adopt him so he might fit in and be accepted by the community with ease. Indeed, Vanunu was baptized in a ceremony and became a Christian. Later, when his parents in Beer Sheva had learned about this, they tore their clothing as a sign of mourning and treated him as if he were dead.
Vanunu’s tough luck continued to mock him in distant Australia, as if his path in life was dictated by the heavens. One of the members in the community Mordechai the new Christian had joined, was a journalist called Oscar Guerrero. Guerrero was of South American origin and employed at different times as a freelance reporter by London’s Sunday Times.
While trying to befriend his new community member, Vanunu met Guerrero and told him his most confined secret. He told him about his work at the NRC, the photos he had taken and the information that was in his possession regarding Israel’s nuclear capability. Vanunu’s new friend realized that a strange coincidence had caused a story worth its weight in gold to fall into his hands. Experienced in the practices of the British media, Guerrero thought he could probably could ‘sell’ Vanunu’s story and benefit from attention and a nice package of cash for himself. He explained to Mordecai, the new Christian, the possible financial rewards his secret could bring him.
The conversations between the two men in those days centered on business negotiations. What really interested Vanunu, who suffered from a lack of steady work and meager sources of income, was an answer to an important question. How much is the newspaper willing to pay me in exchange for Israel’s atomic secrets?
To obtain an accurate answer for Vanunu, Guerrero called London, reported his startling discovery including detailed information about the secrets of the reactor and photos. He asked if they had interest in the story and received an answer that Peter Hounam, an experienced researcher, was being assigned to check out the story.
Years Later, while participating on a BBC radio show about ‘Israel’s secret weapon,’ Hounam talked about his initial contact with Israel’s atomic spy. Following the ‘tip’ he had called Australia and talked to Vanunu. Vanunu told Hounam that during his employment in the NRC, he had worked at a plutonium separation facility, processing one of the chemical elements used to produce nuclear weapons. Vanunu claimed that he had many photos including all the reactor’s important and secret sites and expressed his willingness to make them available to the paper for a fee, which was yet to be discussed.
Hounam was amazed. In those days the assessment by members of the world intelligence community was that Israel had nuclear capability. However none of them had ever been presented with tangible proof that would confirm those assessments let alone expose all of Israel’s secrets kept for years under heavy security cover and a policy of ‘nuclear ambiguity’. The story sounded too good to be true.
At first Hounam suspected that someone was trying to ‘pull his leg’. At a meeting of the paper’s management, it was decided to send Hounam to Australia to try to examine the material offered for sale. Hounam flew to Australia and met Vanunu and his ‘broker’ friend and saw the secret photos.
Upon seeing the pictures that Vanunu had secretly taken, and as a person who was unfamiliar with the atomic field, it was hard for him to believe that the photos were real. Peter Hounam was not an expert but despite his lack of professional knowledge in the nuclear field, the entire story seemed reliable to him.
Hounan came up with an idea to ensure that this story did not escape him and make it’s way to another newspaper. He offered to fly Vanunu to London, at the expense of the paper, along with his friend Guerrero, bringing with him the secret material which Vanunu had refused to part with. In this way Hounam would bring the prized story home in hand so it could be closely examined by British nuclear experts. Only then would they talk about the final price of the transaction.
Vanunu agreed to the plan and the trio flew to London. For reasons of secrecy, Vanunu was booked in a country hotel outside London at the newspaper’s expense, and whenever the editors wanted to talk to him or verify certain details in his story, Vanunu was secretly smuggled into the newspaper’s offices in London.
The Sunday Times followed serious editorial practices. Its editors really wanted to publish a story that they believed would cause tremors around the world. However their journalistic responsibilities required that they check out the facts to the greatest degree of certainty. To answer the question if the photographs depicted actual images or were merely an attempt to ‘sting’ them, they presented the photographs along with Vanunu’s information about the nuclear arsenal developed by Israel to an expert for review. Professor Frank Barnaby, a leading nuclear researcher in the UK was asked for his opinion.
Professor Barnaby replied that the material “looks real” but even that was not sufficiently conclusive for the editors of the Sunday Times. For reasons of maximum professional caution they decided to undergo another check. Another researcher of the newspaper was sent to Israel in an attempt to verify the legitimacy of the details handed them by Vanunu, including background about his family, his home in Be’er Sheva, and his studies. An assessment was made by the Sunday Times and a decision was taken to verify the facts through one final source. That final source would be their counterparts in Israel, fellow journalists.
More details in the context of the Vanunu affair were revealed by an Israeli journalist Yossi Melman (“Ha’Haretz” newspaper, 21/04/04). Melman wrote that details of the original report that the Dimona nuclear reactor worker, named Mordechai Vanunu, meant to transfer came to the attention of the Israeli security establishment in August 1986. This included all of the information on the activities of the reactor which were to be published in the Sunday Times newspaper.
Melman revealed that on a date in August of 1986, a Sunday Times reporter made contact with an Israeli journalist named Dor-On and asked him for his help to get information about a man named Vanunu. The British reporter “claimed Vanunu was a technician at the Dimona reactor”. Dor-On alerted his friend, Yoav (Fishy) Dayagi, who was at the time head of the IDF field security department. regarding the information he had received. Because the security of the reactor was not handled by the IDF, the IDF transferred the information to Shin Bet and Mossad which immediately established a ‘Steering Committee’ to handle the information. Among the committee members were key figures such as Yossi Ginosar of Shin-bet and Shabtai Shavit, Deputy Director of the Mossad. The Prime Minister then was Shimon Peres.
The hot Information landed on Peres’ desk. Peres was very concerned that information about his ‘baby’, the nuclear reactor in Dimona, was to be published extensively around the world. To prevent this from happening, Peres called for a meeting with the members of the Israeli Committee of Editors. His report and discussion with them was declared officially ‘Off the Record’. Peres asked the editors not to publish reports that might originate from foreign sources regarding the information about the Dimona reactor which was revealed by Vanunu.
Information about Peres’s request to representatives of the Israeli media reached the Sunday Times. As a result the newspaper concluded their deliberations of two weeks deciding that Vanunu’s story was credible and releasing it for publication..
Yossi Melman’s report was too concise. In actuality, the Sunday Times researcher came to Israel and contacted Eli Teicher. Eli reported to me (Ami Dor-on) and we met in late 1986 with the British reporter in the lobby of the Hilton hotel in Tel Aviv. After introducing and identifying himself to us, the British journalist extracted the information Vanunu had offered them and then asked a ‘simple’ request of us.
“You must know the truth about what Vanunu is saying. I ask that you tell me the truth, does Israel have nuclear weapons or not and how can I get information about Vanunu?”
Eli and I were terrified. To ensure that there would be no mistake made, not even for an instant, I rushed to answer: “We have no idea whether or not Israel has nuclear weapons. Regarding Vanunu , you would need to travel to Be’er Sheva and try to find out where his family lives and then to continue your inquiries”.
Melman went on to explain why the Israeli journalists were terrified at the time. According to the Emergency Defense Regulations applied in Israel, even if a person gives false information to those who bear no security clearance, he may be prosecuted and imprisoned for acts against national security. The simple fact that we spoke with a reporter that we did not know, who might write something that might never be revealed, could create suspicion that we had given him information on the activities of the Dimona reactor. It created a situation that would likely result inour imprisonment. Because we decided we did not want to be locked up and presented ‘as if’ we had cooperated, we promised we would try to gather the maximum information we could and to present it to the authorities.
To fortify our line of defense we acted in parallel. Eli’s brother was a senior intelligence officer. Eli took upon himself to report to his brother who would seek to pass the information on to any person competent of handling it. I, for my part, took upon myself the responsibility to address the problem at the level of journalistic context. During that period I was one of the senior editors of the ‘Ma’ariv’ newspaper. I contacted the Chief editor at the time, Ido Dissentshik, and told him the story and asked to pass the information to Shimon Peres, the Prime Minister. Ido understood the importance of the matter and fulfilled my request.
It didn’t take long before a Shin-Bet interrogator called and asked to meet Eli and me. We met at Eli’s Apartment. The interrogator tried to draw as many details as possible from us regarding what we had heard from the British journalist. We agreed to cooperate providing we would receive proper security certification. Since we didn’t receive the certification we didn’t cooperate any further.
The balance of this story is written in the pages of history books. Shimon Peres summoned the Committee of Editors, his request to them was mentioned earlier, as written by Yossi Melman. The result was not exactly a leak. The editor of Ha’Haretz back then was Gershom Schocken. One of Schocken’s fundamental characteristics was not always believing what he was told by government representatives. As an experienced and accurate journalist he sought to verify the details of the story. Schocken called Ha’Haretz’ reporter in London in those days, Ephraim Tzdaka, and asked him to contact the Sunday Times in order to find out more details.
Peter Hounam stated in a number of interviews that Tzdaka’s inquiries made it clear in the eyes of the editors of the Sunday Times, that the story should be published. They viewed the inquiries from Haaretz as a form of final approval to the veracity of the story. From that point on the road to publication was a short one and once published, the echoes of the story were heard all over the world. The photographs were published in the media all over the world and were later featured in a complete compilation on the prestigious and trusted FAS (Federation of American scientists) website.
At the same time progress was made in London regarding the negotiations for the payment Vanunu was to receive for his ‘hot scoop’. What was the final sum offered by the Sunday Times to Vanunu for the revelation of Israel’s supposed secrets? Only Vanunu and the newspaper’s managers know for certain.
This information may have been revealed when Vanunu was put on trial in Israel. ‘Yedioth Ahronoth’, an Israeli newspaper, published a story on 24/11/99 after it had been released for publication by Israel’s security censor.
Both of the Shin-Bet interrogators who testified at Vanunu’s trial under the code names ‘Alon’ (Oak) and ‘Yehuda’ revealed some of the sophisticated investigative methods used in the Vanunu affair. They also responded to the question regarding the price for which Vanunu was willing to sell his country’s nuclear secrets. Yehuda disclosed some of his methods in questioning Vanunu’s motivation in exposing the secrets. “I asked him”, Yehuda testified, “would you be willing to sell out the country for 100,000 pounds?. Vanunu answered the question,100,000 pounds? We talked merely of $100,000”. And Judah added: “Vanunu told me his real desire was to reveal the true face of Israel, the insane country.”
After the Sunday Times was convinced of the authenticity of the information presented by the Israeli atomic spy, they were about to transfer the money to Vanunu’s bank account. Much to Vanunu’s misfortune he met ‘by chance’ a young blonde woman named ‘Cindy’ in London. Cindy succeeded in tempting Vanunu to get away together for some recreation in Italy. In reality the attractive young woman tricked Vanunu by baiting his passion, and aided in his capture.
Cindy was a Mossad agent as everyone now knows, and Vanunu was kidnapped and taken to an Israeli ship. From there he was taken to the ‘Shikma’ prison in Ashkelon, where he was kept in isolation under maximum security. Because of his bad luck, Vanunu failed to receive and enjoy the fat cash package the Sunday Times was to make available to him.
Vanunu has tried to hide these facts during his long and highly publicized and visual journey over the years. He has tried to build an image of himself as an almost utopian pacifist who tried to save the world from the dangers and burdens involved in the distribution of nuclear weapons. He continues to try, and has apparently met with some success in building his image. However, one fact remains undisputed, Mordechai Vanunu was a traitor, and will always remain a traitor.
It is fair to assume with a likely degree of reliability that there are active spies currently at work in Israel, people who subscribe to the same kind of ideology as did Vanunu. They may even have been planted here by hostile countries under some cover or another. It is also reasonable to assume that some of them are active in real time for their dispatchers and others remain in a state of ‘hibernation’ until they will be activated one day and their handlers will take them out of their lair to begin collecting and disclosing information. It is also most likely that at some eventual point these spies will be captured by Israeli security services. It is highly unlikely that these spies will look in a mirror one day and admit the truth to themselves, a truth without any embellishment, ‘we were traitors’. Nothing more nor less. To relieve their consciences and possible suffering, if they have any, they will likely choose to explain away their criminal deeds and credit them to ‘ideological’circumstances.