from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
March 12, 2001


Nuclear weapons are a sensitive topic the world over, nowhere moreso than in the volatile Middle East. While there is room for debate about the proper limits of disclosure on nuclear matters, it seems clear that the Government of Israel has overreacted to the writings of Avner Cohen, an Israeli researcher who has specialized in the history of Israel's nuclear weapons program.

Cohen, lately a senior fellow at the National Security Archive in Washington, DC, is the author of the well-received book "Israel and the Bomb" (Columbia University Press, 1998), a political history of the Israeli nuclear program up to 1970.

For his efforts, says Cohen, he has been subjected to a campaign of intimidation at the hands of the office of the Chief of Security at the Israeli Ministry of Defense (MALMAB), a little-known but powerful security unit headed by Mr. Yehiel Horev. Upon his return to Israel, Cohen has been advised, it is possible that he could be arrested on unspecified charges.

Avner Cohen is not a whistleblower or even an opponent of Israel's nuclear program. His research is based entirely on open sources, including declassified documents and interviews with program participants.

As such, his story exemplifies the ongoing erosion of traditional secrecy worldwide, as well as the anxiety that this erosion provokes among those who would preserve the increasingly untenable status quo.

Today Cohen returns to Israel for the first time since 1998, to present the keynote speech to the annual meeting of the Israel Society for the History and Philosophy of Science on March 14. Interestingly, the respondent to his speech will be Yuval Ne'eman, who is the Israeli equivalent, roughly speaking, of Edward Teller, i.e., a nuclear pioneer on the political far right -- and a defender of Cohen's historical research.

"When all factual discourse regarding nuclear issues is simply not allowed publicly, citizens cannot have even a semblance of an informed discussion. And informed discussion is the essence of democracy," Cohen wrote in a March 8 letter to colleagues. "I am convinced that the time has come to update the unwritten contract that Israelis signed with nuclear secrecy some two generations ago." See his letter here:

Cohen's case was described in the Washington Post yesterday in an article by Jonathan Broder here:

Cohen took exception to parts of Broder's account in a letter to the editor today:


The Central Intelligence Agency on Friday released hundreds of declassified reports totaling some 19,000 pages, reflecting CIA analysis of the Soviet Union from 1947 to 1991.

Depending on point of view, the release either demonstrated the Agency's commitment to declassification and scholarly research, or it was a rather cynical exercise in orchestrating public access to documents that were unilaterally selected, declassified and packaged by the Agency. Or some combination of the two.

At least a couple of the newly released documents are pertinent to larger issues of classification and declassification policy.

A partially declassified October 1991 report on "The Soviet Space Nuclear Power Program" shows the CIA's difficulty, even today, in moving beyond cold war secrecy. Remarkably, the heavily redacted report provides less information about Soviet space nuclear power programs than is available in the public domain. In fact, more unclassified information was publicly available even before the CIA report was written, following a 1991 technical conference on space nuclear power hosted by the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy in Obninsk, which also offered tours of space reactor development and test facilities. The aggressive censorship of the CIA report suggests either reflexive secrecy, bad faith or simple ignorance of the information publicly disclosed by the Russians.

Another declassified report on "US Stealth Programs and Technology: Soviet Exploitation of the Western Press" (1988) provides a rare assessment of the damage that may be caused by news media reports on national security matters, including "leaks" of classified information. While the Soviets did apparently benefit from the Western press, news reports on Stealth also included plenty of errors and "perpetuate[d] false rumors about Stealth technology," thereby "complicat[ing] the job faced by those Soviet analysts struggling to determine the capabilities of US Stealth systems." This is an important observation because it implies that prosecuting those who leak classified information to the press -- a measure supported by some in Congress -- could have the unintended effect of officially validating genuine leaks and distinguishing them from errors or fabrications.

A list of the CIA documents that were released last week is posted here:

The text of the documents may be accessed, with some difficulty, by searching for the document title under "A Full Text Search" here:


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