Exclusive: Does Israel Have Chemical Weapons Too?

One secret CIA file may have the answer.

Syria's reported use of chemical weapons is threatening to turn the civil war there into a wider conflict. But the Bashar al-Assad government may not be the only one in the region with a nerve gas stockpile. A newly discovered CIA document indicates that Israel likely built up a chemical arsenal of its own.

It is almost universally believed in intelligence circles here in Washington that Israel possesses a stockpile of several hundred fission nuclear weapons, and perhaps even some high-yield thermonuclear weapons. Analysts believe the Israeli government built the nuclear stockpile in the 1960s and 1970s as a hedge against the remote possibility that the armies of its Arab neighbors could someday overwhelm the Israeli military. But nuclear weapons are not the only weapon of mass destruction that Israel has constructed.

Reports have circulated in arms control circles for almost 20 years that Israel secretly manufactured a stockpile of chemical and biological weapons to complement its nuclear arsenal. Much of the attention has been focused on the research and development work being conducted at the Israeli government's secretive Israel Institute for Biological Research at Ness Ziona, located 20 kilometers south of Tel Aviv.

But little, if any, hard evidence has ever been published to indicate that Israel possesses a stockpile of chemical or biological weapons. This secret 1983 CIA intelligence estimate may be the strongest indication yet.

According to the document, American spy satellites uncovered in 1982 "a probable CW [chemical weapon] nerve agent production facility and a storage facility... at the Dimona Sensitive Storage Area in the Negev Desert. Other CW production is believed to exist within a well-developed Israeli chemical industry."

"While we cannot confirm whether the Israelis possess lethal chemical agents," the document adds, "several indicators lead us to believe that they have available to them at least persistent and nonpersistent nerve agents, a mustard agent, and several riot-control agents, marched with suitable delivery systems."

Whether Israel still maintains this alleged stockpile is unknown. In 1992, the Israeli government signed but never ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans such arms. (The Israeli embassy in Washington did not respond to requests to comment on this article.) The CIA estimate, a copy of which was sent to the White House, also shows that the U.S. intelligence community had suspicions about this stockpile for decades, and that the U.S. government kept mum about Israel's suspected possession of chemical weapons just as long.

These facts were recently discovered by a researcher -- a friend of mine who wishes to remain anonymous -- at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California. He had found, stapled to an innocuous unclassified report, a single page that someone in the White House had apparently removed from his or her copy of a secret September 15, 1983 CIA Special National Intelligence Estimate entitled Implications of Soviet Use of Chemical and Toxin Weapons for US Security Interests.

Ordinarily this 30-year-old intelligence estimate would have attracted only passing interest from researchers because much of the report, which dealt primarily with unproven allegations of Soviet use of chemical and biological weapons in Afghanistan and Southeast Asia, had been largely declassified in 2009 and can now be found in the CREST database of declassified CIA documents at the College Park, Maryland research facility of the National Archives. But while the CIA was willing to declassify those portions of the report that deal with the U.S.S.R. and some of its client states -- including Syria -- it was far less willing to release any information about the chemical weapons activities of countries outside the Soviet Bloc. The censors at the CIA deleted from the version of the document that was released to the National Archives almost all information related to the Middle East, including long-declassified material about Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons program in Iraq.

But what makes the single page found at the Reagan Library so explosive is that it contains the complete and unredacted portion of the intelligence estimate that details what the CIA thought it knew back in 1983 about Israel's work on chemical weapons, which the CIA's censors had carefully excised from the version released to the National Archives in 2009.

The estimate shows that in 1983 the CIA had hard evidence that Israel possessed a chemical weapons stockpile of indeterminate size, including, according to the report, "persistent and non-persistent nerve agents." The persistent nerve agent referred to in the document is not known, but the non-persistent nerve agent in question was almost certainly sarin. That is believed to be the Assad regime's chemical weapon of choice -- and the agent used on the morning of August 21, 2013 to strike rebel-controlled or contested neighborhoods in the eastern suburbs of Damascus. The Obama administration says that attack killed over 1,400 innocent civilians, mostly women and children. On Sunday, the Israeli defense minister, Moshe Ya'alon, blasted Assad for "crudely us[ing] chemical weapons against his own citizens."

The CIA report is vague as to why Israel decided to secretly build its own stockpile of chemical weapons given that Israel was widely suspected at the time of having a small but potentially lethal stockpile of nuclear weapons. Israeli historian Avner Cohen, in his 1988 book Israel and the Bomb, wrote that Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion secretly ordered that a stockpile of chemical weapons be built at about the time of the 1956 war between Israel and Egypt. The CIA, on the other hand, believed that Israel did not begin work on chemical weapons until either the late 1960s or the early 1970s.

According to the 1983 intelligence estimate, "Israel, finding itself surrounded by frontline Arab states with budding CW [chemical weapons] capabilities, became increasingly conscious of its vulnerability to chemical attack. Its sensitivities were galvanized by the capture of large quantities of Soviet CW-related equipment during both the 1967 Arab-Israeli and the 1973 Yom Kippur wars. As a result, Israel undertook a program of chemical warfare preparations in both offensive and protective areas."

Israeli concerns about Egypt and other Arab states possessing chemical weapons were legitimate. Documents discovered at the National Archives confirm that the Egyptian military had possessed a large stockpile of mustard gas since the early 1960s and had demonstrated that it was not afraid to use these weapons. A declassified May 23, 1967 intelligence assessment found at the National Archives reveals that Egyptian forces first began using mustard gas bombs against Saudi-backed royalist rebel forces in what was then known as North Yemen as early as 1963. According to a January 15, 1968 CIA report, U.S. intelligence learned in early 1967 that Egyptian Soviet-made Tu-16 bombers had dropped bombs filled with nerve agents on rebel positions in Yemen, marking the first time that nerve agents had ever been used in combat. And according to a May 20, 1967 top secret White House memorandum found at the National Archives, the Israelis sent Washington an intelligence report stating that Israeli intelligence had observed "canisters of [poison] gas" with Egyptian troops stationed along the Israeli border in the Sinai Peninsula.

The 1983 CIA estimate reveals that U.S. intelligence first became aware of Israeli chemical weapons-testing activities in the early 1970s, when intelligence sources reported the existence of chemical weapons test grids, which are specially instrumented testing grounds used to measure the range and effectiveness of different chemical agents, particularly nerve agents, in simulated situations and in varying climatic conditions. It is almost certain that these testing grids were located in the arid and sparsely populated Negev Desert, in southern Israel.

But the CIA assessment suggests that the Israelis accelerated their research and development work on chemical weapons following the end of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. According to the report, U.S. intelligence detected "possible tests" of Israeli chemical weapons in January 1976, which, again, almost certainly took place somewhere in the Negev Desert. A former U.S. Air Force intelligence officer whom I interviewed recalled that at about this time, the National Security Agency captured communications showing that Israeli air force fighter-bombers operating from Hatzerim Air Base outside the city of Beersheba in southern Israel had been detected conducting simulated low-level chemical weapons delivery missions at a bombing range in the Negev Desert.

The U.S. intelligence community was paying an extraordinary amount of attention to Israel in the 1970s, according to a retired CIA analyst I spoke with who studied the region at the time. The possible January 1976 Israeli chemical weapons test occurred a little more than two years after the end of the 1973 war, an event that had shocked the Israeli political and military establishment because it demonstrated for the first time that the Arab armies were now capable of going toe-to-toe on the battlefield with the Israeli military.

To complicate things further, in January 1976 the long-simmering civil war in Lebanon was beginning to heat up. And the CIA was increasingly concerned about the growing volume of evidence, much of it coming from human intelligence sources inside Israel, indicating that the Israeli nuclear weapons stockpile was growing both in size and raw megatonnage. At the same time that all this was happening, the Israeli "chemical weapons" test mentioned in CIA document occurred. It increased the already-heightened level of concern within the U.S. intelligence community about what the Israelis were up to.

In March 1976, two months after the Israeli test in question, a number of newspapers in the U.S. published stories which quoted CIA officials to the effect that Israel possessed a number of nuclear weapons. The leak was based on an authorized off-the-record briefing of newspaper reporters by a senior CIA official in Washington, who intimated to the reporters that Israel was also involved in other activities involving weapons of mass destruction, but refused to say anything further on the subject. The CIA official was likely referring to the agency's belief that the Israelis may have conducted a chemical weapons test in January 1976. According to a declassified State Department cable, Israeli foreign minister Yigal Allon called in the U.S. ambassador to Israel and registered a strong protest about the story, reiterating the official Israeli government position that Israel did not possess nuclear weapons. After the protest, all further public mention of Israeli WMD activities ceased and the whole subject was quickly and quietly forgotten. 

But in the years that followed the CIA and the rest of the U.S. intelligence community kept their eyes and ears focused on what the Israelis were secretly up to in the Negev Desert.

It was not until 1982, according to the CIA estimate, that U.S. intelligence got its first big break. On June 6, 1982, 20,000 Israeli troops invaded Lebanon in an effort to destroy the guerrilla forces loyal to Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat. The Israeli troops swept northwards against weak resistance from PLO and Syrian forces, capturing a large portion of the Lebanese capital of Beirut and cutting off what was left of Arafat's forces inside the besieged city by mid-June. As of the end of the year, there were still an estimated 15,000 Israeli troops occupying all of southern Lebanon.

At some point in late 1982, as the Reagan administration strove with minimal success to get the Israeli government to withdraw its forces from Lebanon, American spy satellites discovered what the 1983 CIA intelligence described as "a probable CW nerve agent production facility and a storage facility ... at the Dimona Sensitive Storage Area in the Negev Desert."

The CIA report, however, provides no further elucidation about the size or production capacity of the newly discovered Israeli nerve agent production facility near Dimona, or even where the so-called "Dimona Sensitive Storage Area" was located.

At my request, a friend of mine who retired years ago from the U.S. intelligence community began systematically scanning the available cache of commercial satellite imagery found on the Google Maps website, looking for the mysterious and elusive Israeli nerve agent production facility and weapons storage bunker complex near the city of Dimona where Israel stores its stockpile of chemical weapons.

It took a little while, but the imagery search found what I believe is the location of the Israeli nerve agent production facility and its associated chemical weapons storage area in a desolate and virtually uninhabited area of the Negev Desert just east of the village of al-Kilab, which is only 10 miles west of the outskirts of the city of Dimona. The satellite imagery shows that the heavily protected weapons storage area at al-Kilab currently consists of almost 50 buried bunkers surrounded by a double barbed-wire-topped fence and facilities for a large permanent security force. I believe this extensive bunker complex is the location of what the 1983 CIA intelligence estimate referred to as the Dimona Sensitive Storage Area.

If you drive two miles to the northeast past the weapons storage area, the satellite imagery shows that you run into another heavily guarded complex of about 40 or 50 acres. Surrounded again by a double chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, the complex appears to consist of an administrative and support area on the western side of facility. The eastern side of the base, which is surrounded by its own security fence, appears to consist of three large storage bunkers and a buried production and/or maintenance facility. Although not confirmed, the author believes that this may, in fact, be the location of the Israeli nerve agent production facility mentioned in the 1983 CIA report.

This all may be a tempest in a teacup. It is possible that at some point over the past 30 years the Israelis may have disposed of their stockpile of mustard gas and nerve agents. These weapons need constant maintenance, they require massive amounts of security, and the cost for the upkeep of this stockpile must be extraordinarily high. Still, the Israeli government has a well-known penchant for preserving any asset thought to be needed for the defense of the state of Israel, regardless of the cost or possible diplomatic ramifications.

1NIE on Israeli Chemical Weapons by JDStuster

2Sanitized NIE by JDStuster

3Warning on Egypt by JDStuster

4Report on Egypt Using Chemical Weapons by JDStuster

5CIA Assessment of Israeli and Egyptian Capabilities by JDStuster

6CIA Report That Israel is Known to Produce Chemical Weapons by JDStuster

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images


Russia's War on Foreigners

First the Kremlin went after the gays. Now it's the "blacks."

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — At the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg this week, President Barack Obama will meet with gay and lesbian activists in what amounts to a rebuke of Russia's recent adoption of draconian anti-gay legislation. But the Russian government has instituted another campaign of mass discrimination -- this one targeted at illegal foreign nationals -- that won't be on the agenda. Thousands of immigrants from countries such as Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam have been detained across Russia over the past several weeks as part of a broader effort to weed out illegal immigrants living and working in the country.

With more than 4,600 immigrants detained in the Moscow region alone and existing immigrant detention centers overflowing, hundreds of immigrants were sent to a makeshift camp in the capital's Golyanovo district last month to await deportation proceedings (though the government later pledged to close the camp, after critics compared it to the infamous Soviet-era Gulag). Nonetheless, Russia currently has 21 detention centers, according to the Guardian, and authorities have drafted legislation that would establish another 83 across the country. Meanwhile, on Aug. 29, Russian lawmakers introduced a bill that would make the deportation of illegal immigrants mandatory.

Russia's immigrant population is second only to that of the United States, with an estimated 11 million immigrants living within its borders. The large annual influx of laborers (known as gastarbeiters) has intensified the fear that ethnic Russians are being overtaken in their own country -- a fear that has been inflamed by state officials and media outlets that frequently depict immigrants as lawless threats to public health and safety. Public opinion polls published by the independent Levada Center in July indicate that immigration is now the greatest concern for 55 percent of Muscovites (up from 37 percent in 2007). Nationwide, fully 69 percent of Russians thought that the presence of migrants in their city or region was "excessive," according to another recent Levada poll.

Against this backdrop, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin -- who has close ties with President Vladimir Putin -- launched an explicit program of ethnic profiling in which police have targeted non-white individuals, demanding to see their identification documents. The raids quickly spread beyond the capital; those unable to produce documentation up-front -- including at least several asylum seekers and others with legal residence permits -- have been detained and are awaiting deportation after token court hearings.

It all started on July 27, when a police officer was injured outside Moscow's Matveyevsky market while trying to detain Magomed Magomedov, a suspected rapist who hailed from Russia's North Caucasus republic of Dagestan. As police officers were detaining Magomedov, two of his relatives -- both of whom insisted that the man was mentally handicapped and innocent -- intervened and attacked one of the officers, fracturing his skull. The immigration raids began several days later.

The irony of the current raids, of course, is that immigrants had nothing to do with the original incident that sparked them. But while they may not technically be immigrants, Russians tend to group Dagestanis, as well as Chechens, together with Tajik, Uzbek, and Kyrgyz nationals in the context of the country's flourishing Slavic nationalism, which pits ethnic Russians against non-Slavic races. This hostility is made all the more fraught by the demographic decline of Russia's Slavic population, which has suffered from low birth rates and low life expectancy since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

High profile incidents of violence propagated by "blacks" -- as North Caucasians and immigrants are sometimes derogatorily called -- have seeped into the public consciousness and fueled the anti-immigrant fury. One such incident occurred 2006, when a brawl broke out at a restaurant in the northern Russian town of Kondopoga between a group of ethnic Russians and a gang of Chechens, allegedly called to the restaurant by its Azeri owner to settle a dispute. The Chechens arrived brandishing baseball bats and knives, and by the end of the night two Russians had been killed and dozens gruesomely injured. In the aftermath of the incident, riots broke out in Kondopoga, as ethnic Russians stormed the streets to avenge the killings.

Not long after the Kondopoga riots, in 2007, the Russian government passed a package of immigration reforms, which instituted the first quotas for immigrant workers in the country's post-Soviet history.

But while incidents like the Kondopoga restaurant brawl assist officials in fomenting public fears with talk of immigrants' rising crime rates (the vast majority of these crimes, by the way, are non-violent crimes like forging documents), the country's neo-Nazi and radical nationalist movements have flourished, making the lives of Russian immigrants ever more dangerous. In addition to labor exploitation and human trafficking, attacks on non-white minorities have become commonplace and often go unpunished. In 2011, for example, the mortality rate of Tajik laborers in Russia was about one in 1,000. In other words, it was as dangerous to be a Tajik immigrant in Russia in 2011 as it was to be an African American in the U.S. South in 1930. Meanwhile, the frequent refusal to rent apartments to immigrant laborers has meant that living conditions are often hardly better than those in the criticized Golyanovo camp. In some cases, landlords illegally register dozens -- sometimes hundreds -- of immigrants to a single apartment, forcing them to sleep in shifts.

While a kind of hierarchy of immigrants exists -- Kyrgyz nationals, for example, tend to speak better Russian and are more respected by locals than Tajiks or Uzbeks -- insults and intimidation are common, and "ponayekhali tut," an idiom that roughly translates to "the hoards have come," is common parlance. On some occasions -- like on April 20, Hitler's birthday -- abuse can escalate into outright violence and many migrants stay home for fear of being attacked on the streets.

It is widely acknowledged that the current deportation campaign is the product of populist pandering ahead of Moscow's September mayoral elections, and will likely die down once the campaign season wraps up. Politicians across the political spectrum endorse an anti-immigrant agenda, and even the opposition candidate and anti-corruption blogging star Alexey Navalny has expressed anti-immigrant nationalist sentiments.  

"The acting mayor and all of the other mayoral candidates are competing against each other on the basis of xenophobic statements and rhetoric," Sergei Reshetin, a Moscow immigration activist told me last month. But, according to Reshetin, many Muscovites understand perfectly well that authorities are reluctant to address the root causes of illegal migration.

Indeed, despite its nationalist rhetoric, the government faces several major hurdles in actually following through with its threats in the long term. For one, this rhetoric directly contradicts the needs of the Russian labor market. In an unfortunate catch-22, the same demographic crisis that has elevated the country's existential angst has also created a situation in which there are not enough people to staff Russia's hydrocarbon-financed construction boom. The World Bank projects that Russia's working-age population will decrease by as many as 17 million people by 2030, contracting the country's indigenous labor force by close to 20 percent.

Because of Russia's high demand for labor, government-led efforts to stem the flow of migrants into the country have made little headway. The 2007 immigration policy reforms, for example, technically banned immigrants from working in the retail sector. Yet a walk through any of Moscow's main markets will immediately confirm that foreign laborers haven't been squeezed out of the trade. Immigrants continue to work in the sector, with many finding loopholes in the work permit registration process or by working illegally. Estimates of the number of illegal immigrants living in the country vary widely, but fall somewhere in the range of three to six million people. It is likely that around 30 percent of Moscow's immigrant population is illegal.

But while officials lambast these illegal immigrants and talk of mass deportations, many within the halls of power feed off of the black market created by illegal immigrants. A vast network of intermediaries -- providing immigrants with illegal permits at inflated prices -- has developed to serve immigrants who cannot obtain legal status. According to Russia's Federal Migration Service director, Konstantin Romodanovsky, these middlemen have created a shadow economy that amounts to almost $1 billion. As with every lucrative industry in Russia, this shadow market inevitably has ties to the government.

Putin has commented frequently on the need to crack down on illegal middlemen. But if the Russian strongman's recent anti-corruption kick, which has suspiciously singled out high-profile officials affiliated with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's more liberal faction of elites, is any indication, the most that will occur is a series of symbolic and targeted attacks. In the recent anti-immigration campaign in Moscow, six illegal intermediaries have been arrested -- enough to make a point without rocking the boat too much.

Yet to prove to the world its resurgence as a superpower and to keep Russia's name in the ring with the rest of the BRIC emerging economies -- Brazil, India, and China -- the country must maintain strong economic growth, which has been slumping well below Putin's 5 percent target of late. The government, no doubt, recognizes the importance of immigration to a strong economy, and in June, Putin approved a plan outlining a migration strategy for the country through 2025. Though it offered little by way of concrete policy, the scheme did emphasize that immigration into Russia was good for the country. Since then, however, the regime's ever-active pendulum has swung back in the opposite direction as it searches for ways to reconcile its need for economic growth with the political advantages of fanning anti-foreign public sentiments.  

The cruelty that has become an all-too-common refrain in today's Russia stems, at least in part, from the ingrained belief in Russian exceptionalism -- the idea that Russian morality is unique and therefore beyond reproach. Originating in ancient Kievan Rus, this idea was propagated by the Orthodox Church in the Middle Ages, and was prominently displayed in the communist revolutionary claims of the 20th century. Today, it remains alive and well, as evidenced by Russian pole-vaulter and Olympic idol Yelena Isinbayeva's defense of her country's recent homophobic legislation. "Maybe we are different than European people, than other people from different lands," she said after winning the world title last month. Predictably, Isinbayeva's defense did not appease Western critics, who continue to call for a boycott of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

Ironically, these Olympics, like all of Russia's other recent mega-construction projects, have been built on the backs of migrant laborers, many of whom experienced exploitation at the hands of their employers. In documenting the abuses faced by migrant workers at Olympic construction sites, Human Rights Watch interviewed a Serbian construction worker who had taken part in a protest over withheld wages. When the workers approached the local labor inspectorate to make a complaint about their employer, "the officials didn't seem to care at all," said the worker. "They showed no understanding of how we were being treated. 'You can go home if you want!' was all they told us."