No more secrets
Ha'aretz weekend magazine
Next week, a civilian spy satellite will photograph some of Israel's most closely guarded nuclear secrets. The sharp and clear photos will be published for all to see on the web site maintained by the Federation of American Scientists. Project initiator Steven Aftergood, who is Jewish and has spent time in Israel, contends that the time has come for Israel to get used to the new rules of the game - everything is open to observation
By Ronen Bergman
"You ain't seen nothing yet," laughs John Pike, coordinator of the Federation of American Scientists' (FAS) satellite photo project in Washington. Last month, Pike caused quite a few eyebrows in Israel to be raised when he got hold of hitherto highly classified CIA pictures of an Israel Air Force base called "Kanaf 2," in which (according to foreign sources, of course) Jericho missiles armed with nuclear warheads are located. The photos were then published on the FAS web site. This is not the first time that photos of the base have been published, but the CIA pictures were much sharper and offered a closer view than anything seen previously. And, as Pike promises, this is just the beginning. Pike runs the FAS's "Public Eye" program, which is one of the most popular sections of the organization's web site. During the week when the CIA photos were published, the site registered 2.1 million hits - a huge number, especially considering that it's not a pornography site. The e-mail addresses of 46,000 of those who visited the site ended in the letters "il," indicating that they were surfing the Web from Israel. Incidentally, another extraordinary web site to which surfers were directed from the Kanaf 2 pictures on the FAS site included particularly intimate details about the Israel Air Force; this second site suddenly disappeared two days after the photos were published.
Pike appended the coordinates for the base to the Kanaf 2 photos, along with a map of Israel showing its precise location, so that anyone who wishes to find the place can do so easily. Pike also reports that Kanaf 2 is home base to three missile squadrons: Squadron 150, Squadron 199, and Squadron 248.
"Our experts' analysis of the photos indicates that this is definitely a site with all the characteristics of a base for strategic missiles," says Pike. "The shafts, the hangars for storing the trucks that carry the missiles, the approach roads and other facilities all indicate that the information previously published about the base near Moshav Zecharia is accurate. The pictures also confirm that the [American] government already knew about Israel's nuclear capacity back in the 1970s."
Like most of the information published on the FAS web site, the Kanaf 2 photos were only acquired after a protracted battle with the American authorities and the federation's insistent use of the United States' Freedom of Information Act. These particular photos, as well as those of the nuclear reactor in Dimona, were taken in 1972 as part of a highly secret project carried out by the CIA to launch "Corona" spy satellites. The photos may be new to the wider public, but in terms of the technological developments that have occurred in the past three decades, they are seriously outdated.
The American intelligence agencies release only old material for publication; but not long ago, a new source for the most up-to-date photos was introduced. Late last year, the Lockheed Martin company launched the "Ikonos" satellite (designed by the Space Imaging Satellite Company). The launch constituted a highly significant step toward a world without secrets. Ikonos very closely approximates the capacities of the secret spy satellites used by the major powers. It can distinguish and photograph items as small as one meter. Its big advantage, as far as organizations like the FAS are concerned, lies in the fact that it was launched by a private company seeking to profit from its operation. The FAS thus decided to put it to use for its own purposes.
At first, Ikonos was sent to detect nuclear sites in India and Pakistan. Now it has changed direction and objective. Next week, it is due to fly above Israel and to photograph - for the FAS - Dimona and Kanaf 2. The FAS is planning to hold a big press conference at its Washington headquarters in which the photos will be exhibited. John Pike: "As with India and Pakistan, the pictures from Israel will be very sharp and clear and provide us with a lot of information. Moreover, we'll be able to compare the CIA photos from the 1970s with the new pictures and to see what changes and improvements Israel has made at these sites in the last 25 years. We'll also be able to cross-check this with other information published about these places, such as the information given by Mordechai Vanunu."
A senior defense official said last week that the possibility that sensitive bases will be photographed from space is nothing new, and that it has been taken into account for many years. "We're not afraid of the photographs, and, of course, we've heard about the Ikonos and are suitably prepared," says the official. "Of course, there are things that can't be hidden underground - the dome of the nuclear reactor in Dimona, for example - and the shape of the roof can be indicative of what's underneath. The main effect that publication of the photographs will have is on world public opinion. Up to now, the intelligence services of the major powers have kept secrets, even if these were someone else's secrets. Now everyone will be exposed to this information. Exposure like this could pose a new challenge to Israel's obfuscation policy [regarding its nuclear arms]."
200 million pages a year
The Federation of American Scientists was founded in 1945 by a group of senior scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project, which led to the production of the first atomic bomb. The impetus for the organization was the scientists' deep concern about the political use being made of the terrible weapon that they themselves had developed. The group's initial and primary goals were to remove the veil of secrecy surrounding the development of the bomb, to further develop nuclear capacity, and, eventually, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The many battles waged by the FAS against the authorities over the decades made it one of the most important groups - if not the most important group - involved in the ongoing debate concerning freedom of information and expression in the United States. Today, more than 50 Nobel Prize winners are counted among its members.
Steven Aftergood, a 43-year-old American Jew, is the director of the FAS's "Government Secrecy" project. He is also the one who promoted the organization's activity aimed at uncovering Israel's nuclear secrets. An electronics engineer, Aftergood worked in Israel in the early 1980s as a research assistant in the Physics Department at the Technion, where he helped to develop solar cells from silicon. After studying at Berkeley, Aftergood sought a way to incorporate his technical knowledge with political activity, or as he puts it, "I felt that I could contribute more than others in contending with the authorities from within the FAS."
Over the years, the FAS has had great success in getting vast amounts of information previously classified by the 14 American intelligence agencies released. The organization fights on both the media and political fronts to have the freedom of information laws interpreted more liberally. In addition, it has disclosed government information on projects related to unconventional weapons. When the American government decided it needed more ICBMs, the FAS argued that this would constitute a serious violation of the 1972 agreement signed between the United States and the Soviet Union limiting the distribution of strategic nuclear weapons. It also waged a campaign against President Ronald Reagan's government over the Star Wars project. American analysts now say that the FAS campaign largely contributed to that project being frozen when it was still at the conceptual stage.
The United States has several laws obligating the government to disclose information. These laws, even in their old form, have a much broader effect than the law that went on Israel's books a year ago, which anyway applies only in a limited way to the IDF and does not apply to the intelligence services and the Atomic Energy Commission. According to the American laws, the authorities must release all documents whose publication would not harm the national security of the United States. The interpretation of what constitutes damage to national security is, of course, debatable and depends on who's doing the interpreting.
In 1995, President Bill Clinton decided to set clear rules for the handling of state secrets and to set a period of time after which documents could be released. Thanks to a leak from a senior White House official, the FAS managed to obtain the draft of this presidential directive, which called for a secrecy period of 40 years. The early publication of this information, together with the criticism voiced by the FAS (headed by Aftergood), led Clinton to shorten the secrecy period to 25 years.
This amended presidential order surprised the American intelligence agencies. On the day it was published, their archives held about a billion pages that were more than 25 years old. Within a short time, they would have to comb through this vast amount of information, decide which parts must remain secret, and hope that their explanations would convince the courts should anyone petition them over it. Up until 1995, about 10 million pages were released to the public per year; since 1996, the yearly average has been around 200 million. Last year, Clinton was informed that the government invests about $150 million a year in sorting through classified information, adapting it, and preparing it for public release.
800,000 satellite photos
Along with the mountains of paperwork released for publication, the FAS's "Public Eye" project has also managed to get about 800,000 secret satellite photos from the American intelligence agencies released. The photos pertain to sensitive sites throughout the world. In his Washington office, Aftergood says: "I think that a democracy can be measured by the amount of classified documents that it releases for publication. The original Freedom of Information Act went into effect in 1966, but several important changes have happened since then. Unfortunately, it always takes some scandal to push the legislators and the courts to make these changes. For example, the 1974 decision to make Defense Department judgments subject to court oversight would not have happened if it weren't for Watergate."
Following his successful campaign concerning the presidential directive, Aftergood turned the spotlight on the CIA and requested that the agency provide precise information on its budget. The CIA administration refused. Aftergood appealed to the courts and won in an unprecedented decision. In October 1997, CIA chief George Tenet was compelled to disclose that the budget for the United States intelligence agencies for that year totaled $26.6 billion. Of this, about $3 billion was budgeted to the CIA, $10 billion to the military intelligence agencies, $4 billion to wiretapping, and $6 billion to satellite operations. Even after the dismantling of the Eastern bloc, in real terms, the 1997 intelligence budget equaled the average budgets during the last decade of the Cold War.
Aftergood: "This lawsuit proved that a group of citizens can beat a powerful organization. This wasn't just any government entity - it was the CIA. And we beat them. I don't understand why the budget has to be classified. How is it going to help Saddam Hussein to know how much we spend on intelligence? On the other hand, the publication is of great importance to the public. I want to know how much money my government is spending on intelligence compared to other areas like health or education. It's also important to me to be able to look at this matter over a period of years, to see whether the budget has grown or shrunk and how it compares to expenditures in other areas. The fact that the espionage budget hasn't changed since the end of the Cold War seems to cry out for examination."
Aftergood was compelled to file suit against the CIA once again in order to receive information on the 1998 budget. Again, he won his case. In 1999, he lost, apparently because of secret material submitted to the court containing information about a significant increase in the budget due to threats like Iraq and Iran. Aftergood plans to appeal and to make use of a legal stratagem. "Currently, the CIA budget is concealed within the comprehensive Pentagon budget, even though the agency is not at all affiliated with the Defense Department," he explains. "I'm going to appeal and argue that this is a false representation that contravenes the law. I want to know how much money is really going to the Pentagon. By calculating the difference, I'll find out how much the CIA is getting."
The FAS has sometimes taken positions contrary to what might be expected. "There's no doubt that there are certain areas, like technology and covert diplomacy, that should remain secret even after the period stipulated in the presidential directive," says Aftergood. "And there's no need or reason of public importance for them to be released."
"It's a bit strange to hear you make such an argument. The millions of pages that were released to the public because of pressure from your organization also contained some extremely sensitive state secrets, the divulging of which, in the view of the intelligence agencies, caused serious harm to the United States."
"That's true. But you have to remember that those sensitive documents were released by mistake. Whoever was doing the declassifying wanted to make the task easier for himself and so he released entire groups of papers according to subject. Within these vast quantities of papers, there were some genuinely secret documents. Our fundamental position is, of course, not meant to justify mistakes."
$3,000 for a satellite photo
The Federation of American Scientists is the first, and so far the only, organization to make use of Ikonos's incredible photographic capabilities to uncover secret information. Aftergood: "The launch of this satellite completely changed the rules of the game. Now we're less dependent on the intelligence community. We can do our own analysis of what the spies tell us, and check the reliability of this information."
Early estimates of the cost of a satellite photo put the price in the neighborhood of $50,000. But as it turns out, it's not all that expensive to order a satellite photo of any site on the planet - all it takes is $3,000. The findings garnered from the first "shopping list" submitted to Ikonos by the FAS were quite astonishing.
Aftergood: "The press in America, which is fed by certain elements in the government, had painted a terrifying picture of Chinese military preparedness in regard to Taiwan. There's no doubt that those same elements harbor an ideological antipathy toward China and that they would like to see more tension in our relations with that country. But the pictures that we brought show that the Chinese army is not deploying against Taiwan, and that, in any case, the airports in the relevant area could not logistically support a major air attack against [Taiwan]."
Asked why he of all people - a Jew who spent a
number of years in Israel - would want to harm Israel's security, Aftergood
replies: "First of all, it's not just Israel. We've also ordered photos
of Syria and Iran. Apart from that, I really do not want to harm Israel,
but what can you do? Israel's nuclear program poses a real challenge to
the inspection of nuclear weapons in the world, and, therefore, to United
States foreign policy, as well. I don't mean to give Israel any suggestions
as to how to handle its weapons. On the other hand, the FAS cannot ignore
their existence, just as it cannot ignore other countries' arsenals. We
just make use of the tools at our disposal. And you can be sure that if
we know how to do this, then the Arab countries also know. Israel has to
learn how to deal with the new situation in the world, in which it's much
harder to keep information secret. Unfortunately, it seems that Israel
is not making the necessary reassessment."