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It has been seventeen and a half years since his fateful meeting in Sydney, Australia, but Peter Hounam remembers it as clearly as yesterday. Since that day, the British journalist has been asking himself if anything could have been done differently - if Mordechai Vanunu's story could have been handled in a way that did not expose him as the information source about Israel's nuclear weapons; if he could have been protected better; if his capture by Mossad could have been prevented.

Peter Hounam was in Israel last week. He has stopped counting the number of visits he has made since November 1986 when he heard the announcement by Elyakim Rubinstein, then the cabinet secretary, that Vanunu was under arrest in Israel.

Hounam, 59, no longer writes for the Sunday Times. From his country home in Scotland, he works on television productions. But the Vanunu story is still coursing through his veins. Perhaps it is feelings of guilt, or maybe just a journalist's curiosity that refuses to fade away. He considers himself to be directly responsible, for better or for worse, for what happened to Vanunu.

Hounam has continued a written correspondence over the years with Vanunu. He speaks with members of the family, and keeps abreast of events. He also makes an effort to remind the British weekly not to let down its guard on the story.

If not for him, it is doubtful if the Sunday Times would have shown the same commitment to the affair. Now too it is he who came to Israel as a correspondent of the Sunday Times to write an article about preparations being made in Israel for Vanunu's coming release from prison. "Just two weeks ago I received a letter from him in prison," Hounam told Haaretz in an exclusive interview. "He hopes we will meet soon and renew our friendship."

He does not doubt that defense establishment officials, who go through every piece of mail sent or received by Vanunu, read this letter as well. But this time, for a change, no pieces of paper were cut out of the letter, containing sentences that might not have been to the liking of the censors.

"Perhaps this is also something that reinforces my sense that the public in Israel is showing more tolerance about his case," he says.

"On the other hand, when I read and hear what the security authorities in Israel are planning for him after his release, then maybe it's just my wishful thinking."

No rights

Vanunu is due to be released April 21, after serving 18 years in prison, after being convicted on counts of espionage and treason. He will still be subject to certain restrictions on his freedom of movement. In the first two-and-a-half years of his imprisonment , Vanunu was held in harsh solitary confinement conditions in a 2x3 meter cell.

He was deprived of the basic rights of every prisoner - access to newspapers, radio and television. He was permitted a short walk every day, alone, so that he would not come into contact with the other prisoners. The number of visitors he was allowed was reduced to a handful of family members and his lawyers (at first Amnon Zichroni and later on Avigdor Feldman).

Some of the restrictions imposed on him were subsequently removed, but he is still considered a prisoner who must be watched vigilantly. Throughout his imprisonment, and especially in the period leading to his impending release, Vanunu has been approached by emissaries of Yehiel Horev - the chief security officer for the Defense Establishment, known as Malmab, who is also responsible for securing the reactor in Dimona and preventing leaks of information about it.

These officials would like to reach an "understanding" with Vanunu. Horev had hoped to replicate the deal he made with Professor Marcus Klingberg, a former deputy director of the Biological Institute in Nes Tziona, another top-secret facility in his jurisdiction.

Despite Horev's years-long opposition to the early release of Klingberg, who in 1983 was sentenced to 20 years in prison for spying on behalf of the Soviet Union, the court decided in favor of an early release. But Klingberg was closely watched by guards from a private security firm, at his own expense.

A camera was installed in his apartment, which was hooked up to the Malmab offices in the Kirya, in Tel Aviv. His telephones were wiretapped, with his knowledge. Klingberg also signed a commitment not to speak about his work. His cooperation made it possible for him to move to Paris last year to be near his daughter Sylvia, having completed his 20-year sentence.

Vanunu, however, refuses to sign any such commitment. Moreover, there is little similarity between his case and that of Klingberg's. The latter spied for the Soviet Union, while Vanunu gave his information to the Sunday Times. Klingberg received an early release and was free to walk the streets of Tel Aviv for about six years - with certain restrictions - while Vanunu will be completing his entire sentence. In any event, in the letters sent to family and friends Vanunu does not conceal the fact that he considers himself a man of principles, who aims to continue placing Israel's nuclear policy on the international agenda.

Man of principle

"In terms of that," Hounam says, "Vanunu remains the same man of principle, the person who believes in the justice of his path, that I met in Sydney. Already then he emphasized that it was his objective to sound a warning against what he saw as Israel's mistaken nuclear policy. He was concerned by the lack of adequate supervision, not by the Knesset and not by the public, of what was going on in Dimona. He thought that Israel was producing more weapons than it needed for its self-defense, and felt that nuclear development was harming the chances to reach a settlement in the Middle East."

In October 1985, Vanunu was dismissed from his work at the reactor, where he was a technician and served as a shift supervisor in the control room who specialized in supervising plutonium-production processes. He was paid severance fees for the nine years that he was employed in Dimona.

Vanunu left Israel two months later. Two rolls of film that he secretly filmed with his own camera were among his belongings. He had taken these photographs while on duty at night, in his capacity as control-room technician.

Vanunu went to the Far East, vacillated over whether to convert to Buddhism or not, and in late May 1986 arrived in Sydney. There he met John McKnight, an Anglican priest who ran a small church. After intense conversations with McKnight and several of the members of the church, Vanunu decided to convert, and became Anglican.

In the church he met Oscar Guerrero, a Colombian who claimed to be a freelance journalist. When Guerrero heard about the films, he grew excited and made contact between Vanunu and the Sunday Times. Times editor Andrew Neil assigned the job of exploring the lead to "Insight," the newspaper's award-winning team of investigative journalists.

The task was assigned to Peter Hounam, then a member of the team. He flew to Sydney and began a series of meetings with Vanunu. The meetings were held over an 11-day period, at the end of which Vanunu and Hounam flew to London for continued questioning and interviews. These meetings were held at different hotels, and went on for another three weeks. The Insight team brought in nuclear experts, including Dr. Frank Barnaby. "We gathered from Vanunu every scrap of technical information about Dimona that he could remember," says Hounam.

Limited expertise

"He spoke candidly about everything he knew. And he didn't know everything. You mustn't forget that his knowledge in the nuclear field is not that extensive. After all, he is not a physicist or a chemist by training, and he only underwent a few months of training before being accepted for work. The only thing he wasn't willing to speak about was security arrangements in Dimona or about names of the people who worked there.

"We tried to convince him that we needed the names in order to corroborate his version. But Mordechai was insistent: `I won't give you names. You don't need them to write the article, and it could endanger people if their names would be mentioned.' I got the impression that his objective was to reveal what was happening in the reactor in Dimona. He knew that he had to persuade us that he truly worked there, and therefore furnished us with as much technical information as he understood and was able to provide, but he was not willing to hurt the people working there."

Maybe since being in prison he has changed his mind, and he now intends to disclose new secrets, as Yehiel Horev claims?

"I've been corresponding with him since we went to prison. In his letters, he has always made it clear that when he is released, he does not intend to act in any illegal fashion against Israel. That is why this allegation that is being lodged against him is in my opinion untenable. He doesn't possess new secrets. He told us everything he knows, and we published in the article, which was several pages long.

"We sketched the structure of the reactor, we described the rooms where they produce fissionable materials, we showed the photos he took of models of nuclear bombs and hydrogen bombs that Israel produced, we calculated the amounts of plutonium that Israel had produced and the numbers of bombs - between 100 and 200 - that could be produced from it. Dr. Barnaby also wrote a book in which he detailed what he'd heard from Vanunu. I assume that immediately after our article's publication big changes were made at Dimona, and new security measures were adopted. So what other secrets can he reveal?"

Maybe he kept some written material somewhere?

"In his letters to me, he writes that he doesn't know any other secrets. And I know for certain that he doesn't have any written material that might be hidden someplace. He didn't come to me back then in Sydney with any written material, only with the know-how and the memory and the two rolls of film."

So why, in your opinion, is Horev trying to impose new restrictions on him when he is released?

"I think that some people are afraid that Israel might be mortified if Vanunu told how he was kidnapped. Even though here, too, the story of his kidnapping, even if not all the exact details, has already been published several times."

Vanunu was kidnapped in Rome, to which he had been lured from London by "Cindy," a Mossad agent. It was later revealed that "Cindy" was in fact a young American woman named Cheryl Hanin, who had immigrated to Israel and worked for the Mossad. A few years ago, it turned out that she is living in Orlando, Florida with her Israeli husband.