Fighting to preserve the tattered veil of secrecy


August 6, 2000

The publication of Dr. Avner Cohen's book and of the Vanunu trial transcripts set off alarm bells for the Defense Ministry's chief of security, who is striving to protect the traditional opacity regarding Israel's nuclear affairs

By Ronen Bergman

The matter of Dr. Avner Cohen, a senior research fellow of the University of Maryland, has been the subject of recent classified discussions among security officials, headed by the Defense Ministry's chief of security, Yehiel Horev, and members of the State Prosecutor's Office, headed by Edna Arbel. The parties are trying to decide what steps to take in reaction to the publication of Cohen's book, "Israel and the Bomb.".Some in the defense establishment believe that the information that could be exposed if Cohen were to stand trial would be enough to convict him of espionage. On the other hand, lying on State Prosecutor Arbel's desk is a letter from Cohen that was also handed to Israel's Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein in Washington last week. In his letter, Cohen demands to know if he is wanted for questioning in Israel and what would happen to him if he came here. Cohen also accuses Horev of "ruthless and insensitive behavior," insisting that an independent inquiry be conducted into the chief of security's handling of the matter.

Cohen was supposed to have come to Israel last month for the release of the Hebrew version of his book. Shortly before leaving the United States, Cohen got wind that his welcoming committee at Ben-Gurion Airport would include more than just the representatives of the publishing house handling his book; in all likelihood, upon his arrival in Israel, he was to be questioned and arrested, at Horev's instructions. Horev faces another, similar, problem. Within the next few days, the chief of security, together with Arbel, must decide whether to continue to oppose handing over the court transcripts from the trial of convicted nuclear spy Mordechai Vanunu to the "Israeli committee for Mordechai Vanunu and for a Middle East free of atomic, biological and chemical weapons." In the past and at Vanunu's request, the transcripts were made available to the Yedioth Ahronoth daily newspaper, and the committee has petitioned the Jerusalem District Court asking why the state refuses to hand over something that has already been exposed to the public anyway.

The Atomic Energy Commission views these two matters as the greatest challenge facing Horev, who has been responsible for preserving Israel's nuclear opacity ever since the Vanunu affair made the headlines in 1986. The defense establishment regards the two cases with such importance that it believes, perhaps exaggeratedly so, the entire future of this opacity depends on their outcome.

Last week, Horev appeared before a highly classified sub-committee of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that deals with "special measures" and presented his reasons for waging a war of destruction against Cohen. The discussion was originally on the agenda of the Sub-committee on Secret Services, but according to sources in the Knesset, Horev chose not to appear before a forum of lawmakers that includes some, such as MK Naomi Chazan (Meretz), who are thought to have close ties with Cohen.

Recently, a member of another committee, MK Zahava Galon (Meretz), who is working in support of Cohen, received a letter from Arbel with the following vague statement: "The matter of Dr. Avner Cohen is currently under reconsideration. Naturally, we cannot guarantee what steps would be taken if and when he were to come to Israel." Cohen is considering the possibility of putting Horev to the test and coming to Israel. He believes that if it were to come down to a trial, he would have the support of his research colleagues in the U.S. Furthermore, Cohen is convinced that the affair would embarrass Israel's defense establishment and prejudice the very thing that Horev is trying to protect. Cohen would oppose an in-camera hearing and would try to center the trial on what he defines as "the democratic status of opacity in Israel."

Cohen's actions have been closely followed by the Defense Ministry's security department and the Shin Bet security services since 1992. At that time, the two organizations began receiving reports that Cohen, together with the American researcher Marvin Miller, was trying to put together an academic, scientific study on nuclear arms in the Middle East. Despite the numerous publications on the subject all around the world, up until that time, no one had made a serious attempt of this sort outside of Israel. Books written by Israelis have undergone censorship prior to their publication and some, like those of Eli Teicher and Ami Dor-On, have got stuck in the Censor's Office or have been rejected completely.

Only today do we realize just how much Cohen's work has worried Israel's security system. Numerous steps have been taken to find out how much he knows and the defense establishment, with the assistance of other bodies, has kept a close watch on the progress in his research. Cohen was convinced that his phone in Boston was being tapped. "The fact is," he says, "no one else knew I was coming to Israel in 1995. At least that's what I thought before I stepped away from passport control and encountered the stern face of Police Brigadier General Shimon Sharvit, who 'suggested' that I sort out my affairs with Horev - the sooner, the better."

The defense establishment wanted to know to whom Cohen was talking, about what and what exactly was the period that his study was covering. The depth and far-reaching scope of the book, together with the use of footnotes that add an apparent sense of credibility, are what most concern the security services. In many closed forums, Horev likens the opacity surrounding Israel's nuclear affairs, of which he is the supreme keeper, to a glass of water. He sees himself as the last bastion, the keeper of the keys to Israel's most closely guarded secrets. "It is my duty," Horev said at one of these forums, "to ensure that the water does not spill over the brim of the glass. Before the Vanunu affair, the water was at a very low level. The affair led to a sharp rise in the level and caused much damage to Israel, but still, the water did not spill over. Now, Cohen has thrown a spanner into the works. I fear that if we allow him to get away with it, it would lead to a flood of publications - the water would rise to the edge and endanger the opacity."

The same can be argued for the Vanunu affair. For a long time, Amiram Levine, former head of the special affairs division in the chief of security's office, came under severe pressure from the justice system to permit publication of the minutes of the trial. He finally gave in, without consulting with Horev, and received a reprimand. Levine's replacement, Nachum Even Tal, told the court that in retrospect, the publication of the court transcripts did indeed undermine Israel's security. In closed meetings, Horev said that the preoccupation with the Vanunu affair had brought the entire nuclear issue back to the forefront of international debate and that in order to limit the damage, the court transcripts should not be handed over to the committee. Moreover, the committee is working to eliminate the opacity.

According to the defense establishment, the main problem isn't the exposure of this or the other detail. Cohen writes about incidents from the distant past and doesn't reveal big secrets. Nevertheless, lifting the shroud of opacity surrounding the country's nuclear affairs would put Israel onto the list of countries that are involved with atomic arms; and according to U.S. law, it is forbidden to sell various items or provide economic aid to such states. Sources in the security system say the Americans deliberately turn a blind eye because according to foreign reports, in the past, Israel has undertaken to maintain this opacity. This principle is a convenient arrangement for Egypt as well. The Egyptians are indeed fighting to force Israel to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT); however, an end to the opacity would require Egypt to cool its relations with Israel even further. On a tactical level, there are already numerous products (such as certain computers) that Israel has trouble obtaining due to its refusal to sign the NPT. An end to the opacity would make it absolutely impossible.

Cohen says he wasn't connected to Israel's security system in any way and that unlike Vanunu, he made no use of classified information in his book. He relied only on documents that were released for publication and the numerous interviews he conducted with various people. In any event, Cohen says, the opacity is a thing of the past - a dead symbol. At a time when reviews of Cohen's book, as published in Israel, explicitly say that based on the book, Israel has nuclear arms, what is the point in arguing about the publication of the book itself? Cohen has announced that if he were made to stand trial, he would demand to share the dock with all the others who had published details about the alleged existence of Israel's bomb, without authorization from the Censor's Office.

After lengthy contacts between Cohen and his lawyer, Gilad Sher, and the Military Censor, beginning in 1993, there has been no compromise between the sides. Cohen did not heed the warnings that he would get into trouble with the law. He petitioned the High Court of Justice, withdrew the petition, published the book in the United States and sold the rights for its release in Israel. At the same time, the International

Investigations Unit of the Israel Police mistakenly believed that the Censor had approved publication of the Hebrew version of the book and closed its investigation into the matter. The security system could not accept this and appealed to the State Prosecutor, arguing that Cohen should not be allowed to get away free just because of a technical error. The case was reopened. Today, the defense establishment admits it has lost the first round in its war with Cohen and its fight against the release of the Vanunu court transcripts. Security sources say they are not motivated by revenge, but rather by a sober view of the future. Failure to take harsh steps against Cohen, they say, would be tantamount to condoning his actions. They add that the security system has concrete information concerning researchers who are waiting in the wings for such a moment, when they could demand to be allowed to do the same as Cohen, and this breach in the wall must be closed before the entire dam bursts. In meetings at the State Prosecutor's Office, chief of security Horev rejected the opinions of a number of legal experts who argued that a trial against Cohen would only increase the media hype surrounding his book.

The security system knows that it would not have been able to do a thing had the affair concerned a foreign researcher who decided to investigate the nuclear issue in Israel. As luck has it, Cohen was born an Israeli. If he wasn't an Israeli, security sources say, most of the interviewees would not have cooperated with him. Some of them were sure that Cohen would pass the material on to the Censor, the sources add. (Cohen denies this.)

Herein lies another complex problem with which the State Prosecutor's Office and the Defense Ministry's security department must deal. Cohen bases the sensitive parts in his book on interviews he conducted with senior members of Israel's nuclear project. On the one hand, it would be difficult to bring charges against Cohen without settling accounts with those who gave him the information; and according to current members of the Committee on Atomic Energy, they did so in order to leave their mark on history.

On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine the State Prosecutor submitting indictments against Zvi Dinstein, Yuval Ne'eman, Avraham Tamir, Shimon Peres and others, who are quoted as Cohen's sources and whose names appear in the footnotes of his book. And thirdly, who can assure Horev that a warning would be enough to discourage other "former senior members" from giving interviews the next time they are approached by a researcher. Lawyer Dvora Chen, who is handling the affair on behalf of the State Prosecutor's Office, understands that the fight over the transcripts of the Vanunu trial is a lost cause. The attempt to prevent further publication of the minutes is aimed, primarily, toward the future. Vanunu's lawyer, Avigdor Feldman, is now demanding publication of the transcripts of all the hearings and the evidence in the case. He claims the portions that were released were meticulously selected so as to portray his client in a distorted fashion. Horev and Chen will adamantly oppose Feldman's request, just as they opposed a similar request for publication of the transcripts from the trial of convicted Soviet spy Marcus Klingberg