How Israel helped apartheid South Africa build nuclear weapons

Derek Leebaert writes: There have been rumors since the late 1970s of Israeli cooperation in South Africa’s effort to become a nuclear power. A double flash over the Indian Ocean detected by a U.S. satellite in 1979, for example, was suspected (but never confirmed) to be a joint, low-yield Israeli-South African nuclear test.

South African documents that appeared to show Israel offering to sell nuclear weapons were refuted by Israeli President Shimon Peres, in 2010, as “selective interpretation.” Here we show what really occurred — and how.

According to new CIA evidence, Israel proved “absolutely vital” to South Africa’s apartheid regime 30 years ago in building six Hiroshima-size bombs. New details about this collaboration arose in a series of interviews I conducted with Tyler Drumheller, the former chief of CIA covert operations in Europe and, at the time of the events described here, a clandestine officer serving in Pretoria, South Africa. The interviews were conducted in Washington, D.C., in 2010.

Drumheller is an unusually credible and outspoken man. In his book, On the Brink: An Insider’s Account of How the White House Compromised American Intelligence and in interviews with the CBS News program “60 Minutes,” he was the most senior of former CIA officials to tell the truth about faulty intelligence in the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

He showed how the Bush-Cheney White House had promoted intelligence it liked on Iraq — and specifically on Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction — while ignoring intelligence it didn’t like.

Having begun his career in the unusually risky role of “NOC” (non-official cover) in Asia, Drumheller’s operational abilities remain legendary within the CIA’s Clandestine Service.

During our interviews, he reflected on earlier experiences in his career. In 1980, “we had 11 case officers in South Africa, four of them with deep cover.” They had penetrated the apartheid regime’s “Project Circle,” which was already within reach of perfecting a usable, deliverable atomic bomb.

“We were regularly able to obtain swipe samples from its enrichment facilities. We could monitor progress,” Drumheller told me.

They also monitored the deep cover “black station” of Israel’s intelligence agency, the Mossad. Drumheller said this was a front company called TamCo. The Israelis had no idea they were under such close U.S. scrutiny.

Washington had tried to impede Pretoria’s effort by embargoing the shipment of a VAX computer from Massachusetts-based Digital Equipment Corporation. “Project Circle needed that VAX” to complete the project, Drumheller said.

The CIA station in Pretoria learned that South Africa was able to get around the embargo by having the computer — the same powerful VAX model — transshipped from the United States. “It came via the Israelis and TamCo,” Drumheller said.

Israel contributed another vital piece to Project Circle’s success by supplying the tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen that is manufactured in nuclear reactors, for the bombs’ triggering mechanisms. In addition, Israel provided Pretoria with an essential avionics package that would allow the bombs to be dropped by South African Air Force jets.

The CIA was able to obtain these and other details about the Israeli-South African collusion, Drumheller explained, from a stellar agent that the CIA had placed within Project Circle.

The CIA station in Pretoria was tracking full-scale government-to-government collaboration that was taking place despite a UN Security Council resolution that had imposed a mandatory arms embargo against the white supremacist state in 1977.

Washington, meanwhile, had enough on its hands with Israel during this period. Strains in relations included Israel’s 1982 Operation Peace for Galilee invasion of Lebanon. The extent of the invasion’s civilian carnage led President Ronald Reagan (choosing his words carefully, as is known from his diary) to denounce the bombing and shelling of civilians to Israel’s prime minister as “a holocaust.”

In any event, Pretoria finally took it upon itself to dismantle its jointly developed bombs in 1989, two years before signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. All of this happened in the apartheid regime’s dying days, before its complete collapse in 1994.

Are these collusions historical bygones? Too long ago to matter today? Certainly not, given what’s now underway with regard to U.S policy on Iran.

The key question now is how Washington will act, or react, regarding the Iranian nuclear challenge. To judge from comments by figures in leading U.S. foreign policy circles outside the government, no one in Washington has a clue as to what Tehran intends to do with its nuclear program.

What is apparent, however, is the influence of Israeli fears, or bluster: If Washington doesn’t prevent Iran from getting the bomb, it is assumed, then Israel will.

Even so, Israel’s own nuclear capabilities are almost never discussed. And, quite conveniently, Israel’s record of proliferation is barely known or, rather, swept under the carpet. [Continue reading…]

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2 thoughts on “How Israel helped apartheid South Africa build nuclear weapons

  1. Norman

    The question that needs asking; is why hasn’t the U.S. sanctioned Israel for the transgressions they continually pull off? Are the Israelis that powerful, that the U.S. is nurtured in being able to do anything? It seems to me that the so-called empire/cop on the world beat concerning terrorism is nothing more than a facade.

  2. Norman

    The word used in the above statement; “nurtured”, should have been “neutered”. Sorry, mind wondered.

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