In the depths of the Cold War, a legendary Israeli spy made a visit to a Pennsylvania plant that processed government-supplied U-235 uranium into fuel for the U.S. Navy. Around the same time, hundreds of kilograms of uranium disappeared from the plant.
Traces of uranium were found outside Israel's Dimona nuclear facility in the 1960's and later revealed to carry the unique signature of uranium from the Pennsylvania plant.
The mystery of how the uranium traveled from one place to the other is what a Washington-based researcher is trying to unravel through a federal court complaint filed Friday.
The complaint asks for CIA files regarding "the unlawful diversion of U.S. government-owned weapons-grade uranium from the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation (NUMEC) into the clandestine Israeli nuclear weapons program."
Filed by Grant Smith, who directs the Washington D.C. based Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy, the complaint follows Smith's victory earlier this month winning release of a 1987 Defense Department report titled "Critical Technology Assessment in Israel and NATO Countries."
The report catalogues extensive cooperation between the U.S. and Israel in that nation's clandestine development of a hydrogen bomb.
In Friday's complaint, Smith says, "Through 1968 more than 330 kilograms of highly enriched uranium disappeared from NUMEC. In 1968, Israel's top spy Rafael Eitan visited the plant with his team of Israeli intelligence operatives under false pretenses at the invitation of the plant's president, Zalman Shapiro."
The complaint describes a later scene, based on statements to the FBI by an eyewitness, where the plant owner and a set of accomplices were stuffing kilos of uranium into irradiators, often used for commercial applications, for rush shipment to Israel.
In the action, Smith cites John Hadden, the CIA's Tel Aviv station chief from 1963 to 1967, who told congressional investigators that "NUMEC had been an Israeli operation from the beginning." In a 1978 BBC interview Hadden said that Eitan had been involved in the theft of the material from NUMEC. "They are pretty good at removing things," he observed.
Eitan also was the handler of Jonathan Jay Pollard, the American naval intelligence officer currently serving a life sentence for spying for Israel.
Traces of enriched uranium found outside Israel's Dimona nuclear facility in the mid-1960s were identified as having a signature unique to NUMEC. "The CIA was initially compelled by President Lyndon B. Johnson to suppress its findings about...Israel's possession of nuclear weapons built with material diverted from NUMEC," the complaint states.
"The CIA has long taken the position that none of its 'source' files about NUMEC or derivative equity content can ever be made public," Smith notes in his complaint. "It has issued blanket denials of Freedom of Information Act requests from the late 1970's onward."
According to the complaint, "Some of CIA's improperly retained records are almost certainly about internal investigations, particularly whether the agency or any of its operatives abetted the diversion of uranium from NUMEC."
Smith notes that under "mandatory document destruction guidelines," the documents he seeks could be lost forever if they are not released now. Moreover, he writes, "U.S. taxpayers are being maneuvered into position to pay for a massive clean-up of the contaminated environs" of the defunct NUMEC plant, located in Apollo, Pennsylvania.
"In January of 2015 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated the NUMEC cleanup will cost just under half a billion dollars over the next decade," he said.
The complaint was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. and assigned to Judge Tanya Chutkan.
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