August 31, 2012

Readers periodically ask me some variation on this question: “Why does the press follow every jot and tittle of Iran’s nuclear program, but we never see any stories about Israel’s nuclear weapons capability?”

It’s a fair question. Going back 10 years into Post archives, I could not find any in-depth reporting on Israeli nuclear capabilities, although national security writer Walter Pincus has touched on it many times in his articles and columns.

I spoke with several experts in the nuclear and nonproliferation fields , and they say that the lack of reporting on Israel’s nuclear weapons is real — and frustrating. There are some obvious reasons for this, and others that are not so obvious.

First, Israel refuses to acknowledge publicly that it has nuclear weapons. The U.S. government also officially does not acknowledge the existence of such a program. Israel’s official position, as reiterated by Aaron Sagui, spokesman for the Israeli Embassy here, is that “Israel will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East. Israel supports a Middle East free of all weapons of mass destruction following the attainment of peace.” The “introduce” language is purposefully vague, but experts say it means that Israel will not openly test a weapon or declare publicly that it has one.

According to Avner Cohen, a professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California who has written two books about this subject, this formulation was born in the mid-1960s in Israel and was the foundation of a still-secret 1969 agreement between Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and President Richard Nixon, reached when the United States became sure that Israel possessed nuclear bombs.

President John Kennedy vigorously tried to prevent Israel from obtaining the bomb; President Lyndon Johnson did so to a much lesser extent. But once it was a done deal, Nixon and every president since has not pressed Israel to officially disclose its capabilities or to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty. In return, Israel agrees to keep its nuclear weapons unacknowledged and low-profile.

Because Israel has not signed the treaty, it is under no legal obligation to submit its major nuclear facility at Dimona to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections. Iran, in contrast, did sign the treaty and thus agrees to periodic inspections. IAEA inspectors are regularly in Iran, but the core of the current dispute is that Tehran is not letting them have unfettered access to all of the country’s nuclear installations.

Furthermore, although Israel has an aggressive media, it still has military censors that can and do prevent publication of material on Israel’s nuclear forces. Censorship applies to foreign correspondents working there, too.

Another problem, Cohen said, is that relatively few people have overall knowledge of the Israeli program and no one leaks. Those in the program certainly do not leak; it is a crime to do so. The last time an Israeli insider leaked, in 1986, nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu was kidnapped by Israeli agents in Italy, taken home to trial, convicted and served 18 years in jail, much of it in solitary confinement.

And perhaps most important, Americans don’t leak about the Israeli nuclear program either. Cohen said information about Israeli nuclear capabilities is some of the most compartmentalized and secret information the U.S. government holds, far more secret than information about Iran, for example. U.S. nuclear researchers, Cohen said, have been reprimanded by their agencies for talking about it openly.

George Perkovich, director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said there are benign and not-so-benign reasons that U.S. officials are so tight-lipped. The United States and Israel are allies and friends. “Do you ‘out’ your friends?” he asked.

And not being open about Israel’s nuclear weapons serves both U.S. and Israeli interests, Perkovich noted. If Israel were public about its nukes, or brandished its program recklessly — as North Korea does every time it wants something — it would put more pressure on Arab states to obtain their own bomb.

Among the less benign reasons U.S. sources don’t leak is that it can hurt your career. Said Perkovich: “It’s like all things having to do with Israel and the United States. If you want to get ahead, you don’t talk about it; you don’t criticize Israel, you protect Israel. You don’t talk about illegal settlements on the West Bank even though everyone knows they are there.”

I don’t think many people fault Israel for having nuclear weapons. If I were a child of the Holocaust, I, too, would want such a deterrent to annihilation. But that doesn’t mean the media shouldn’t write about how Israel’s doomsday weapons affect the Middle East equation. Just because a story is hard to do doesn’t mean The Post, and the U.S. press more generally, shouldn’t do it.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.