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.