U.S. Covered Up an Israeli Nuclear Test in 1979, Foreign Policy Says

Exactly 40 years ago, an American spy satellite recorded a double flash over the South Atlantic, which the Carter administration blamed on a satellite glitch

President Jimmy Carter after signing a law in the White House Rose Garden, April 1978.
Harvey Georges / AP

Forty years after a mysterious explosion over the Atlantic that researchers say was an Israeli nuclear test, Foreign Policy has published a series of articles detailing the U.S. government’s alleged efforts to cover up the affair.

On September 22, 1979, an American reconnaissance satellite recorded a double flash over the South Atlantic.

“Now, 40 years later, there is a scientific and historical consensus that it was a nuclear test and that it had to be Israeli,” said Avner Cohen, a professor and senior fellow at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and a global fellow at the Wilson Center.

Cohen also cites a consensus among researchers that there was a cover-up originating in the United States.

One theory is that the Carter administration did not want proof coming out that Israel was behind a test. “Had they said that it was Israel, it might have been necessary to impose sanctions on it, and that’s the last thing the Americans wanted to do,” the Israeli-born Cohen told Haaretz.

A few months after Israel and Egypt signed the Camp David Accords, mediated by President Jimmy Carter, the exposure of possible Israeli involvement in a nuclear test could have been very embarrassing for the United States. Cohen says he does not know if Carter was involved in a cover-up.

“We don’t know if they really decided deliberately to fudge the issue, or if a few people manipulated the facts and the others accepted their opinions,” he said, adding that he did not think evidence of a cover-up would be found in writing. “Things were probably said orally and not written down in documents.”

A U.S. panel of experts established by Carter that year reached the surprising conclusion that this was not a nuclear test; instead it blamed a satellite malfunction. But Cohen says the panel examined the subject based on “probability, not definite” terms.

According to Cohen, it is now clear that there was a cover-up, as there are “at least three independent scientific pieces of evidence unrelated to a satellite that confirm the existence of the explosion.” In his 2010 book “White House Diary,” Carter states the belief that the blast was caused by Israel.

According to Cohen, “In the decades since then, this has been one of the mysteries of the nuclear era,” but despite those 40 years, “a great deal of material remains classified and only very little has been released.” Among the Foreign Policy articles is one by Cohen and William Burr, the director of the Nuclear Documentation Project at the National Security Archive at George Washington University. Their piece is headlined “Politicians May Lie. The Archives Don’t.”

In the article, Cohen and Burr list several arguments they say confirm the theory that Israel was responsible for the nuclear test, even though “no public smoking gun has surfaced that conclusively ties Israel to the Vela [satellite] event, and no credible and identifiable Israeli source has ever openly confirmed an Israeli test.”

To lend credence to the assertion that it was Israel, the authors note that after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, “top [Israeli] leaders and their nuclear advisors recognized that the country’s small nuclear arsenal ... was inappropriate and perhaps even irrelevant to the military situation in which Israel found itself during the early stages of the Yom Kippur War.”

Thus, they say, Israel conducted a nuclear test.

Cohen and Burr also point to the 1976 dismissal of scientist Shalhevet Freier, director general of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, as possible proof of an Israeli test, because he opposed such a trial. According to Cohen, Freier was proud that his firing was due to a high-level professional dispute between him and his superiors.

Israeli journalist Dan Raviv reported on the Vela event in 1980 and said one of his sources was an Israeli politician. Cohen and Burr write that this was Eliyahu Speiser, an Alignment (a forerunner of Labor) legislator who was close to Shimon Peres.