On September 22, 1979, exactly forty years ago today, an American satellite detected two flashes of light in the Atlantic Ocean south of South Africa.
US military analysts at the Patrick Air Force Base in Florida who examined the data from satellite Vela 6911 quickly concluded the flashes were the unmistakable telltale sign of a nuclear detonation, and promptly notified the military chain of command.
Then-president Jimmy Carter was briefed on the apparent nuclear test on the same day, and convened top advisers and national security officials in the White House Situation Room the following morning.
A lengthy and detailed report published in Foreign Policy magazine on Sunday, the test’s 40th anniversary, argues that Carter then made a conscious decision to ignore the believed test, not wanting it to overshadow his foreign policy successes in an election year, and out of fear it could undermine the US backing — including massive military and financial support — that enabled the forging of the new Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty signed that year.
If Israel conducted a test that day in 1979, it could constitute a violation of the 1963 Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which Israel had signed and ratified and which prohibited such tests above ground.
It could also mean, according to US nonproliferation laws, the almost automatic cancellation of US military and financial aid for the violating state, though a US president is allowed to waive the punishment.
In order to avoid the many problems raised by an Israeli nuclear test, the FP report argues, Carter decided to cover it up.
An eight-member scientific panel formed by the White House concluded in May 1980, after meeting three times, that “it is our collective judgment that the September 22 signal was probably not from a nuclear explosion.”
FP explains that the panel of distinguished scientists and engineers “dismissed all evidence that suggested otherwise. This included the Naval Research Laboratory’s analysis that had located the blast’s ground zero near the Prince Edward Islands, about 1,000 miles from South Africa’s southern coast, using hydroacoustic (underwater sound) data, and claims regarding possible detection of radioactive iodine-131 in thyroids of Australian sheep, which if established could only have come from a bomb test.”
Foreign Policy doesn’t beat around the bush about its views of the US government’s ambiguity over purported Israeli nukes, then or now.
The Sunday report cites a June 2018 New Yorker article that said Israel had been given “secret letters” from a string of US presidents “which Israeli leaders interpreted as a US promise to protect their nuclear weapons. And indeed, these US presidents did protect Israel’s nuclear weapons from scrutiny and criticism in the United Nations and other international forums.”
That protection, one of the FP report’s authors, physicist Victor Gilinsky, writes, “is part of a pattern that has destroyed America’s credibility on nonproliferation. What Israel says — or doesn’t say — about its nuclear weapons is its own affair. But the United States should not agree to muzzle itself. It was always a humiliating role that opened the United States to the charge of hypocrisy. Now, in the face of strong confirmation of Israel’s violation of the Partial Test Ban Treaty, it has become an insupportable one.”
source: Foreign Policy, Times of Israel