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Biden Maintains Veil Over Israeli Nuclear Bomb Program
Declassification of CIA super spy Angleton’s top secret 1975 testimony still keeps lid on Israel’s atomic weapons effort
On April 27 the National Archives released the long-redacted September 1975 congressional testimony of CIA spy chief James Angleton, in which he discussed topics ranging from the agency’s sensitive relations with foreign intelligence services to its tangential connection to the so-called “White House plumbers,” authors of the Watergate break-in. However, government censors continued to withhold significant portions of Angleton’s prior testimony in June 1975, which concerned a topic still evidently radioactive in Washington nearly a half-century later: Israel’s nuclear weapons program.
The contrast in the handling of ancient secrets is revealing. The testimony of Angleton, chief of the agency’ counterintelligence staff from 1954 to 1974, is fully public. But less well known is that Angleton held a second position for most of his career, that of the agency’s manager for relations with Israel. It was a unique arrangement, which began with Israel’s
The testimony of Angleton, the brainy Yale literary critic turned legendary counterspy, remains studded with redactions to protect the fact that Israel’s secret nuclear program blossomed during his tenure. Albeit an open secret for decades now, full disclosure of U.S. acceptance of Israel’s nuclear weapons program would no doubt complicate Washington’s now troubled relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right coalition government, not to mention the American-led effort to persuade Iran to halt its nuclear drive. Israeli officials would certainly think the disclosure was deliberate. Iranian officials would crow.
Much of the story of Angleton’s handling of “the Israeli account” is already on the public record, thanks to the work of Israeli scholar Avner Cohen, the investigation of Roger Mattson, a former engineer for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and the findings of the late John Hadden, a former CIA station chief in Tel Aviv who worked for Angleton.
(I told Hadden’s little-known story in my 2017 biography of Angleton, The Ghost. Hadden’s son first told the story of his father’s scathing private analysis of the Israeli nuclear program in his 2016 memoir Conversations With a Masked Man.)
The CIA is loath to surrender any more details on its dealings with Israel, but a censorship lapse in testimony released last December confirmed a key detail of Angleton’s Israel duties, even as many other details are still deemed off-limits to the American people in the interest of “national security.”
Here is Angleton’s redacted testimony from September 1975, when the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Activities, chaired by Sen. Frank Church, focused on the Nixon administration’s so-called Huston Plan to expand domestic surveillance of antiwar radicals. Until April 27 the details of his comments were deemed too sensitive to share with the public.
Now we have the parts of the story that were once withheld, and they are underwhelming: For example, Angleton went on a rambling discussion about monitoring Soviet-Romanian intelligence relations, Norway’s cooperation with the CIA, and how he had alerted French intelligence to a mole in its ranks. Angleton also took the opportunity to avail the senators of his now well known (and discredited) theory that public splits within the communist world were all part of a Kremlin ruse to lull the West into dropping its vigilance against Moscow’s drive for global domination.
Angleton spoke his piece 48 years ago. Now, over 30 years after the Soviet Union’s evaporation, the CIA’s long overdue declassification of his testimony lets the American people in on something they might have guessed on their own: release of these dull details poses no danger to U.S. national security or foreign policy.
Behind Closed Doors
Compare these mundane disclosures with the agency’s redactions three months earlier in Angleton’s closed-door testimony, and its concerns remaining in 2023 come into focus. In his first appearance before the Church Committee in June 1975, Angleton testified behind closed doors and spoke freely. And he was bitter. He had been fired six months earlier, after New York Times reporter Seymour Hersh revealed that Angleton’s counterintelligence staff had run a massive, illegal spying operation on the antiwar movement. The bombshell disclosure was followed by revelations of CIA assassination plots against foreign leaders and stunning televised scenes of America’s humiliating defeat in the Vietnam War.
Behind closed-doors, the imperious Angleton was glad to tutor committee counsel Fred Schwarz and Republican senators John Tower, Charles Mathias and Howard Baker about his dual responsibilities—overall counterintelligence operations plus Israel. When Schwarz pressed for details about “both those jobs,” he used a word that remains classified today throughout the transcript —except for one slip up: On page 10, CIA censors failed to conceal it: Israel.
So when Angleton went on to explain how he negotiated an agreement in 1951 between the CIA and an unidentified country, the spymaster’s secret was no longer very secret. It is clear now that Angleton’s agreement was with the Israeli intelligence agency that later became known as Mossad.
And this is no secret at all. When I interviewed Efraim Halevy, a former chief of Mossad, in 2015, he told me about Angleton’s close friendship with Teddy Kollek, aide to Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion in 1951—who, as the transcript says, was stationed in Washington at the time.
Halevy explained that Angleton’s friendships with Kollek, with Reuven Shiloah, the founder of the Israeli intelligence service, and with Shiloah’s successors Isser Harel and Amos Manor, were key to his handling of the “Israeli account.”
“JJA had enormous admiration for Isser, as he always called him,” Halevy said. “In his eyes Isser was the ‘ultimate’ intelligence officer, just as Amos was the ultimate security chief foiling Soviet espionage and catching traitors and spies.”
Halevy told me he had nothing to add to what was in the public record about Angleton’s role in Israel’s nuclear program. A year earlier, the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP), the U.S. government’s highest classification authority, had released a number of top-level memoranda that shed additional light on the so-called NUMEC affair, in which the CIA concluded Israeli agents had stolen bomb-grade uranium from a U.S. nuclear fuel-processing plant in Apollo, Pennsylvania.
“Illegally received” might be more accurate than “stolen.” As two former Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials, Victor Gilinsky and Roger J. Mattson, wrote in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in 2014: “NUMEC’s owners and executives had extremely close ties to Israel, including to high Israeli intelligence and nuclear officials,” who frequently visited the plant in Apollo, Pennsylvania.
Angleton, we now know, had close relations with those intelligence officials. It’s inconceivable that he didn’t have at least some knowledge of Israel’s acquisition of the NUMEC uranium.
In his testimony to the Church Committee, Angleton categorically denied the CIA had “directly or indirectly transferred any nuclear technology or know-how to [redacted], referring to Israel. As an institution, the agency was not involved, he insisted.
But when Sen. Tower asked, “Did you ever have any certain knowledge that [redacted] agents were actually trying to acquire nuclear secrets in the US,” Angleton demurred. “Do I have to respond to that?” he asked. The conversation was taken off the record, and apparently Angleton was never forced to say on the record what he knew of Israel’s efforts.
Two years later, a newly elected President Jimmy Carter would sign on to the nondisclosure policy—”an ironic twist,” Gilinsky and Mattson wrote, “in view of Jimmy Carter’s identification with opposition to nuclear proliferation.” Those efforts continued under six more presidents and now, the Biden administration.
Altogether the CIA is still withholding portions of 39 pages of the 111-page transcript of Angleton’s June 1975 testimony.
Sometimes the redactions cover only a single word. Sometimes, they conceal an entire answer to a question. Judging from their context, many of the redactions concern Israel. The Biden administration’s refusal to release them implicates Washington in Israel’s policy of nuclear “opacity,” in which the United States avoids publicly acknowledging an undisputed fact: that Israel has a nuclear arsenal.
Full declassification of Angleton’s testimony would be the very opposite of “opacity,” meaning it would likely harm Washington’s relationship with Israel, which is rockier than usual with the ascension of Israel’s new ultra-rightist government. At the same time, declassification could also prompt Iran to shed its own opacity and rationalize its drive to acquire nuclear weapons.
The Biden administration thus finds itself in a curious position: to disclose Angleton’s testimony fully will alienate a strategic ally, Israel, and comfort a strategic enemy, Iran. So to maintain its credibility with Israel and its policy of hostility to Iran, the Biden administration feels obliged to obfuscate the widely known facts for the American people.
Angleton’s testimony, like all Church Committee testimony, was categorized as an “assassination-related” record by the 1992 JFK Records Act, meaning it is subject to a “presumption of disclosure.” On the last page of his December 2022 memo on the remaining JFK files, Biden adopted a CIA-authored Transparency Plan that seeks to protect information in the JFK files that the government wants to keep out of public view indefinitely.
The CIA’s plan, as outlined in a letter from the Pentagon to the White House National Security Council (NSC) in September 2022, features five “triggering events” for making still-withheld JFK documents public. One of them is, “Partnerships or diplomatic relationships are formally dissolved.” That means, according to the CIA’s plan, that the details of Angleton’s June 1975 testimony must be kept secret until the U.S.-Israeli intelligence partnership is “formally dissolved”—in other words, for a very long time, or practically speaking, never. .
But what exactly is the CIA concealing?
As noted above, much of the story obscured by the redactions has been public for a long time now, including in the Israeli press: In January 2021, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz published a long report from nuclear scholar Avner Cohen and diplomatic historian William Burr of the non-profit Nation Security Archive in Washington, with the no-nonsense headline, “How Israel Built a Nuclear Program Right Under the Americans’ Noses.” The piece recounted how, through inspection delays and deception throughout the 1960s, the Israelis had hidden evidence from the Americans that they were intent on building nuclear weapons. It wasn’t until Aug. 23, 1974, Cohen and Burr wrote, that the CIA reported that Israel had succeeded. Almost exactly four months later, Angleton was forced to resign over the domestic spying scandal (although CIA Director Colby retained him as a “consultant” through early 1975.)
Angleton’s contribution to the American-Israeli strategic alliance is hardly a secret now. Indeed, the Zionists’ gratitude to their American benefactor can be found in a public park overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem, where the visiting American spymaster often came to contemplate the conundrums of his trade. An unobtrusive engraved stone on a garden path, laid by Israeli intelligence veterans, pays tribute to Angleton as a “dear friend.” Like the CIA’s knowledge of Israel’s nuclear program, Angleton’s role in the Israeli nuclear program lies hidden in plain view. ###
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