‘No view on it’

Paul Foot

  • Nuclear Ambiguity: The Vanunu Affair by Yoel Cohen
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 297 pp, £10.99, July 1992, ISBN 1 85619 150 8

Mordecai Vanunu is starting his seventh year in solitary confinement in an Israeli jail. He is convicted of treason and espionage and his sentence is 18 years. The few members of his family who are allowed to see him have doubts about whether his mind will last that long. Already there are signs that the remarkable coherence and determination which he showed during the first years of his ordeal are on the wane. If he does go mad, the authorities in Israel will be delighted. They have always presented Vanunu to the world as a misfit, a wayward semi-loon who, in the interests of his country, is best kept locked up.

Vanunu’s loyalty to his country started to dissolve during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, an exercise in international piracy which even Margaret Thatcher felt obliged to condemn. Vanunu couldn’t understand why his new country – the country to which his parents had voluntarily emigrated from Morocco – should engage in such monstrous and gratuitous slaughter. This led him to ask more questions about the relationship of the Israeli state to the Palestinians and about the relationship between people of property and people, like so many of the Moroccan Jews who had joined the migration to Israel, who had little or no property. In 1985, after three years of increasingly radical thinking, demonstrating and protesting, he applied to join the Communist Party. He was thirty years old. He was not a misfit. There was nothing remotely irrational about him. He was a rational rebel.

His rebelliousness naturally led him to question the job he was doing. Since 1976, he had been employed as a junior technician at a secret plant at Dimona. Vanunu knew perfectly well that the plant was making nuclear weapons. He also knew that most people in Israel, and the world, did not realise that Israel was a nuclear power. His worries about Israel’s foreign policy, and the maniacal raid on the Lebanon, led him to reflect on the likelihood that Israel might one day soon use these monstrous weapons. The argument of the ‘deterrent’, deployed so effectively to take the sting from the disarmament movement in countries like Britain and the United States, hardly applied to Israel. The governments of the other nuclear powers could assure their people that they would not use the bomb, and that no one would use the bomb, because one side’s nuclear arsenal deterred the other. But Israel’s enemies had no bomb. As soon as one of them, Iraq, started to develop a nuclear potential, Israel, in a ‘first strike’ which breached both the letter and the spirit of the United Nations Charter, knocked out the Iraqi plant. If there was no deterrent, and if Israel was capable of behaving as it had done in the Lebanon, why could they not use their nuclear bombs if they ever felt seriously threatened? Vanunu did not know at the time what is now generally known, and horrifyingly set out in this book: that Israel had already come very close to using its secret bombs. In October 1973, the Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, without consulting anyone else, gave permission to her Defence Minister, Moshe Dayan, to use nuclear weapons against the Egyptian armies which had pushed the Israelis back from the Suez Canal and at one stage looked set for an overwhelming victory. Only a lucky turn in the tide of battle prevented a worse catastrophe than Hiroshima.

In March 1985, Vanunu took his camera into the Dimona plant and systematically photographed it. How he was able to do so remains an important question for Israeli state security, celebrated so often (with the help of its own propaganda machine) as ruthlessly efficient. At any rate, by the time he was made redundant from the plant nine months later, Vanunu had in his possession certain proof that Israel was making nuclear weapons.

Did he realise what valuable and inflammatory material he had? His behaviour suggests the opposite. He decided to use his redundancy money to travel round the world, in the hope of finding an answer to some of the political questions which were worrying him, and perhaps getting a more useful and rewarding job. He gravitated gently to Sydney, Australia, where he became a friend of the Rev. John McKnight, a rector in a slum area. Under McKnight’s influence, he moved towards Christian ideas. He liked the way McKnight applied his religion to the real world, and shared the rector’s horror of nuclear weapons. ‘Christians,’ said McKnight, ‘ought to take an active role in working against nuclear weapons.’ Vanunu agreed and even showed off his Dimona photos in a church lecture.

But for a chance encounter, the story might have ended there, with Vanunu spending the rest of his life in charitable Christian social work. The encounter was with a Colombian who happened to be painting the church as part of a Commonwealth re-employment scheme. Oscar Guerrero told Vanunu he was a world-famous freelance journalist and produced a number of pictures of himself with international personalities to prove it. He said he knew famous journalists all over the world, and encouraged Mordecai, in the interests of international peace and Christian brotherhood, to tell the world about the Israeli nuclear bomb. Eventually, after discussions with other fellow-residents at the church mission, Vanunu decided to do so.

Guerrero was not a famous journalist at all, but a hustler. He contacted the Sunday Times in London, and offered them Vanunu’s story for £250,000, to be paid, apparently, exclusively to himself. Vanunu does not seem to have been part of that deal, and indeed from first to last never showed any great interest in financial reward. ‘What motivates me,’ he wrote to his brother Meir from Australia before leaving for Britain, ‘are primarily political reasons.’

The Sunday Times understandably greeted Guerrero with extreme caution. The paper had been chosen by the hustler because of the reputation it had acquired for its forthright investigations in the Sixties and Seventies, but the Sunday Times, as Yoel Cohen points out, was a very different newspaper in 1986 from the one which fought for thalidomide children. When Andrew Neil became Rupert Murdoch’s surprise appointment as Sunday Times editor in 1983, almost his first act was to sack the editor of Insight, the centre of the paper’s investigative work in the previous two decades, and disband the team. The Insight rubric occasionally appeared after that, but always over the work of what Neil called ‘ad hoc teams’. The first effect of this was to cut down the experience, weight and credibility of the paper’s investigative reporting. Indeed, Neil made it clear that he didn’t really favour inquiring journalism any longer. The second effect was to increase still further the power of the editor. The disbandment of a team of highly-qualified journalists with the independence and self-confidence to carry out inquiries which might damage powerful people made Sunday Times staff still more subservient to the editor.

Yoel Cohen shows in detail how, man for man and woman for woman, the investigative journalists on the Sunday Times in 1986 were pale shadows of the old Insight team. The best of the bunch was Peter Hounam, who had trained as a physicist and was therefore sent to Australia to ‘taste’ Vanunu’s credibility. His report was favourable, and in early September 1986, Vanunu was flown to London. He was grilled there by Hounam, Robin Morgan and Peter Wilsher, a former City editor. His photographs and his evidence were subjected to careful inspection by nuclear experts who confirmed that Dimona was indeed a nuclear plant and that it was capable of producing nuclear weapons in far greater numbers than anyone had ever imagined was possible in Israel. The paper had got a mighty scoop.

At first, security was tight. During the early days of intense questioning, Vanunu was kept in a guest house outside London under a false name. Later, when the main questions had been answered, and the photos were being subjected to detailed tests, Vanunu was allowed to come to London and move from hotel to hotel. Security seemed to slip. A trainee reporter, Wendy Robbins, was often left to look after Vanunu on her own, an assignment which became increasingly embarrassing for her, and for which, obviously, she was quite unsuited. She never even entertained the idea that anything awful might happen to this rather shy and awkward man. In an interview with Cohen she described the treatment of Vanunu like this:

During the day it was milk, milk, milk. At night: find anyone to take care of him. Hounam took him out. So did Peter Wilsher, for dinner. But increasingly the better I got on with Mordecai, the more he wanted to spend time with me. In the evening it was left to whoever was sitting in the office. On at least one occasion, Vanunu was left sitting in the office, all the reporters having left.

The office was at Wapping where the Sunday Times had just moved to facilitate Rupert Murdoch’s spectacular union-busting. There were still pickets outside the gate, including, Cohen tells us, a film crew from Israeli Intelligence.

Vanunu did not want to be kept under lock and key. He was openly contemptuous of some of the more careful plans for his safety – and particularly disliked their persistent use of a pseudonym. When he picked up a young woman in Leicester Square and started taking her out, at least one Sunday Times journalist warned him against her. Vanunu saw this as yet another unnecessary interference with his freedom. But his reluctance to be kept secure does not let the Sunday Times off the hook. They knew that the information he was giving them was dangerous. If that information was published, the source of it, already known to the Israelis from the Sunday Times’s own questions, was in mortal danger. This was a clear case for the strongest possible legally enforceable contract which bound the source to the strictest security.

The second measure of the Sunday Times’s sloppiness was their treatment of Guerrero. The Colombian hustler had become increasingly disturbed at the way he was being cut out of the deal. He had been promised money if the story was published, but as September slipped by without anything being published, he became anxious. He took his story to the Sunday Mirror, where journalists soon decided that Guerrero and Vanunu were fakes. On 28 September 1986 that paper published a huge double-page story entitled ‘The Strange Case of Israel and the Nuclear Conman’. The article must have delighted the Sunday Mirror’s owner, the fervent Zionist, now resting on the Mount of Olives, Robert Maxwell. But it was quite false. The following Sunday, the Sunday Times published a six-thousand-word exclusive, starting on the front page. It was an excellent piece of journalism, awakening the world community for the first time to the fact that Israel was beyond all doubt a major nuclear power. The article again and again named Vanunu as its source. But where was he? No one knew. The Sunday Times had lost all touch with him. We now know that on the previous Wednesday he had flown from Heathrow to Rome with his Leicester Square girlfriend. Once in Rome, she had taken him to a flat where he was pounced on by goons from Mossad, knocked out with an injection, bundled into a van to La Spezia and carried in a stinking hold to Israel. It was six weeks before the Israeli Government admitted that Vanunu was being held and would stand trial for treason. The trial took place the following year in total secrecy.

Thus the Sunday Times got their scoop and their source lost at least a quarter of his life in captivity of the most unspeakable wretchedness. How has the newspaper responded? Peter Hounam has struggled to keep Vanunu’s plight before his public. He spoke for Vanunu at his trial, and courageously discovered and exposed the female Mossad agent who lured him from London to his kidnap in Rome. Backed by these powerful articles, Andrew Neil’s response has been to shrug his shoulders and ask: ‘What else could we do?’

Of course the newspaper could have done a great deal more to protect their source, not just in ensuring his security in London but also in trying to establish for him, afterwards, a new life which would put him out of Mossad’s reach. Deputy Editor Ivan Fallon admits in this book that he and his colleagues were ‘naive’. But naivety was not all. Fallon goes on: ‘To Israel, Vanunu was a traitor, and we took no view on it. We didn’t feel very easy that Israel, under its own law, had prosecuted Vanunu, or even the fact that they kidnapped him. To us that was a very interesting story too but we weren’t very morally indignant about it.’

‘No view on it’. That appears to sum up the Sunday Times approach. Vanunu had approached the Sunday Times out of burning indignation that his government should be making nuclear weapons without informing its own people, who, he considered, had a right to make up their minds whether their government should play the nuclear game. The information was, as so often, inseparable from its source. If the Sunday Times was to publish the information, they were not entitled to cast aside the source. Their duty was to protect their source with every means at their disposal, without the least concern for the embarrassment such protection might cause to any government. Like Sarah Tisdall, Mordecai Vanunu is a constant deterrent to all the other potential informants who could enrich and democratise the world by passing on secrets which should not be secret at all.

Mordecai Vanunu did the world an enormous service by telling the truth about his country’s nuclear arsenal. It is intolerable that he should be locked up while the politicians, generals and corporations who dice with the deaths of millions are not even brought to account. The British Government is reluctant even to press for better prison treatment for a man whom they, like their counterparts in Israel, regard as a traitor. Yet in recent months more and more journalists, joined recently by Bernard Levin of the Times, have been demanding Vanunu’s immediate release. If this courageous and gentle man is allowed to go crazy in prison, then that will be as sure a sign as ever that the authorities which imprisoned him are crazier than ever.