By William Tucker
Contributor, In Homeland Security
Forty years ago this week, a U.S. satellite named Vela 6911 recorded a “double flash” in the South Atlantic near South Africa. Vela satellites were used for surveillance, which included ensuring compliance with certain bans on nuclear testing.
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Now known as the ”Vela event,” the infamous double flash was, by all indications, a nuclear detonation. At the time the flash was recorded, the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) was the predominant treaty limiting nuclear weapons testing. The PTBT included a ban on testing in the atmosphere, underwater and in space. In other words, the Vela satellite caught someone in violation of the ban.
US and Soviet Union Were Keen to Limit Weapons Testing and Nuclear Proliferation
Comprehensive test ban treaties had not yet been drafted, but the two superpowers – the Soviet Union and the United States – were keen to limit weapons testing and nuclear proliferation beyond the five established nuclear powers. Naturally, other nations were looking to gain a nuclear weapons arsenal, thus threatening the Cold War balance.
At the time of the Vela event in 1979, Israel would have been the sixth nuclear power. But the tiny, young nation refused to acknowledge its nuclear capability, opting to follow a doctrine of strategic ambiguity.
Washington knew that Israel had developed a nuclear arsenal, but likewise did not publicly acknowledge it for fear of harming U.S. interests. It was a delicate game. After all, how could the U.S. claim to want to prevent nuclear proliferation on the one hand, while ignoring the Israeli program on the other? The short answer is that the U.S. really didn’t have a choice. Israel was so tightly integrated into the French nuclear program that once France reached its nuclear breakout, so too did Israel. It was not to last, however.
Break in Israeli-French Relations Ended Their Nuclear Cooperation
A break in Israeli-French relations ended their nuclear cooperation. However, Britain and then Argentina stepped in to fill the void by providing fuel and nuclear technology to Israel.
As a result, Israel ran a successful clandestine nuclear program and wanted to keep it that way. The U.S., forced to accept the Israeli nuclear program as a fait accompli, chose to keep silent about it for fear of undermining the non-proliferation drive. In any case, the Vela event putthe Carter administration in an awkward position.
Writing in his journal on September 22, 1979, President Jimmy Carter noted: “There was indication of a nuclear explosion in the region of South Africa—either South Africa, Israel using a ship at sea, or nothing.” The “nothing” reference in the President’s diary would become the administration’s official position: What the satellite captured was merely a natural phenomenon. That position, however, ran contrary to the science available at the time and studies in the ensuing years have all but confirmed the nuclear test.
Articles published this week in Foreign Policy magazine blatantly accuse the Carter administration of a cover-up and argue that the former President (who just turned 95 to become our oldest former Chief Executive) to finally come clean about the event.
Carter’s Likely Rationale Involved Middle East Instability
By all credible accounts, the Vela event was indeed a nuclear test. But there had to be something beyond the President’s reelection campaign that persuaded Carter to suggest otherwise. Another motivating factor was the instability in the Middle East and the claim by some Arab states that an acknowledged Israeli nuclear program would force them to pursue their own nuclear arsenals.
In a declassified Special National Intelligence Estimate from 1974, the U.S. intelligence community expressed concern about the nuclear pursuits of several nations, Pakistan among the alleged rogues.
The U.S. concern was that since India had conducted a successful nuclear test in the early 1970s, Pakistan would follow suit to maintain some sort of strategic parity – or for use in a cross-border war. Indeed, almost occurred in the 1990s when Pakistan and India nearly came to blows. Today, Saudi Arabia has threatened to reach out to Pakistan for a nuclear capacity to deter the Saudis’ main foe, Iran.
During Carter’s presidency the Iran-Iraq war broke out, the Iran hostage crisis led to attacks on U.S. embassies in Iran, Pakistan and Libya, and Saudi Arabia grappled with internal instability. Furthermore, the congressional Church Committee restricted CIA operations so severely that the U.S. was nearly relying on allied nations to provide intelligence in the region.
Had the President stated publicly that Israel had conducted an illicit nuclear test off South Africa, the possibility of the region descending further into chaos would have undermined U.S. gains in the region. The Camp David Accords of 1978 and the strategic reorientation of Egypt are one such example. President Carter was dealt a very weak hand and the Israeli nuclear test further complicated matters. It would seem that – even today –burying the test was the only possible play.