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Revisiting the 1979 VELA Mystery: A Report on a Critical Oral History Conference

On 22 September 1979, the US VELA 6911 satellite spotted a double flash optic signal somewhere in the vast area of the South Atlantic/Indian Ocean. Although originally presumed to be a nuclear detonation, US government agencies never arrived at a consensus as to the cause of the double flash. Avner Cohen and William Burr capture what we know – and what we still do not know – about this still unsolved mystery in nuclear history in this report on a November 2019 critical oral history conference that brought together many leading US officials to reexamine the VELA incident.

Vela 5-B Satellite
An illustration of the Vela 5-B Satellite.

This is the report of an oral history conference on the 22 September 1979 VELA incident or “South Atlantic event.” The conference – jointly organized by the Wilson Center’s Nuclear Proliferation International History Project, the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, and the National Security Archive – took place at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars on 22 November 2019.

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Over 40 years ago, on the dawn of 22 September 1979, the US VELA 6911 satellite, designed to detect nuclear explosions, spotted from its high-altitude orbit a double flash optic signal originating somewhere in the vast area of the South Atlantic/Indian Ocean. Normally characteristic of nuclear detonations, the double flash created real anxiety in the US national security apparatus and urgent interest in answering the questions it raised. What was the source of the signal? Had a nation secretly detonated a nuclear weapon and likely violated the Limited Test Ban Treaty? If so, who had done it? Or was it simply a technical malfunction, or even a reflection of a natural celestial phenomenon?

During the months that followed, US government agencies launched a series of classified investigations to determine what really happened, but the results were varied. Initially, the signal was interpreted as most likely an indication of a low-yield nuclear explosion in the far South Atlantic, possibly by South Africa or Israel or both. Later, however, a high-level White House scientific panel, chaired by MIT electrical engineering professor Jack Ruina, concluded that the signal was more probably the result of a non-nuclear unexplained “zoo” event (e.g., a striking meteoroid) on or around the satellite.

In the end, US government agencies never arrived at a consensus, nor produced a public statement, although the findings of the Ruina Panel became the semi-official White House position. However, that view was strongly contested by experts from both the intelligence and scientific communities within the United States government. By late 1980, it was publicly known that the intra-governmental controversy over the VELA incident had become acrimonious. Yet the studies that had inspired the debate remained classified, trapped behind the walls of government secrecy.

In the intervening years, bits and pieces on the VELA incident controversy were declassified and/or leaked out. For example, we know now that the CIA had “assessed the probability of a nuclear test as 90% plus.”[1] The Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) conducted its own highly classified study on the subject, using the data of the Navy’s global hydro-acoustic sensor system (and other US classified systems), that appeared not only to corroborate, but also to pinpoint the location of a presumed low-yield nuclear detonation.

In 2010, President Jimmy Carter published his White House Diaries, a source that makes evident that by 27 February 1980 – in strong contrast to the White House Ruina panel’s preliminary classified findings issued only a month earlier – he believed it was a test. He wrote: “We have a growing belief among our scientists that the Israelis did indeed conduct a nuclear test explosion in the ocean near the southern end of South Africa.”[2] Carter’s opinion may have relied on the preliminary NRL report.[3]His national security advisor, the late Zbigniew Brzezinski, expressed a similar view in an interview with Carter biographer Kai Bird, in 2016.

For decades, the VELA 1979 incident has been viewed as an unresolved mystery of the nuclear age; one of those historical events that demand long-term efforts to seek declassification of key documents on the incident and the ensuing controversy. At present, the public debate remains open, lacking a “smoking gun,” although new information and scientific analysis has emerged supporting the view that the VELA data originated from a test. Nevertheless many – possibly most – of the relevant documents for the VELA incident are still classified.

Memories of VELA

While much written information about the VELA incident remains buried in classifiedvaults, some valuable information can be found in the living memory of those individualswho participated in the US government policy process. Furthermore, some of that living knowledge may never have been written down. That living memory must be sought, recorded, and preserved.

This recognition generated our interest in convening an oral history conference on the VELA incident. The purpose was straightforward: to collect, save, and ultimately make available unique personal recollections that may not be found in any document, classified or otherwise. We knew that no oral history on the VELA incident had ever been recorded in the past. So, we thought that the 40th anniversary created a unique opportunity to do just that: if not now, on this special anniversary, then when?

By the summer of 2019, we began to identify and approach key individuals who might be candidates to participate in a small oral history conference. We soon discovered, sadly, that a number of those key individuals we had in mind had either passed away or were no longer in a condition allowing them to attend such an event. We even approached President Jimmy Carter (via an intermediary) to discover that he, too, was no longer in a position even to record a brief statement. We were urged instead to use his published diary.

In the end, out of about two dozen potential participants that we tried to contact, we ended up with about a dozen individuals with direct involvement and knowledge of the affair. Among the invitees were two of the surviving members (and, as of July 2020, the only two surviving members) of the Ruina Panel (Richard Garwin and Richard Muller), two senior members of Carter’s National Security Council staff (David Aaron and Jessica Mathews), a National Intelligence Officer for Nonproliferation at the CIA (John Despres), two State Department officials (Robert Gallucci and Assistant Secretary Thomas Pickering), the Undersecretary of Energy (John Deutch), two Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory proliferation analysts (Dr. Alden “Jerry“ Mullins and Dr. Steve Aoki), a senior Senate staffer (Leonard Weiss), and finally, the CBS correspondent who broke the story in 1980, reporting about Israel's direct involvement in the VELA incident (Dan Raviv).

Participants at the November 2019 Critical Oral History Conference on the 1979 VELA Incident

David Aaron, Steve Aoki, John Deutch, Robert Gallucci, Richard Garwin, Jessica Mathews, Richard Muller, Alden Mullins, Thomas Pickering, and Dan Raviv were among the “eyewitnesses” in the room, while John Despres, Victor Gilinsky, and Leonard Weiss participated over the phone. Scholarly experts on the VELA incident in attendance, either in person or via phone, included Avner Cohen, Lars-Erik De Geer, James Hershberg, Anna Mart van Wyk, and Christopher Wright.

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We also invited the Swedish and Australian scientists, Lars-Erik De Geer and Christopher Wright, who co-authored two comprehensive scientific papers on the VELA incident;[4] Victor Gilinsky, a former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and Professor Anna-Mart Van Wyk, a nuclear historian from South Africa, were invited as well. The last three, along with Leonard Weiss, participated in the discussions remotely via telephone.

Dr. Alan Berman, the director of the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) at the time of VELA, was unable to participate but provided a detailed statement discussing his memories on the creation of the NRL report. In his statement he elaborated why the hydro-acoustic data persuaded him that a nuclear detonation most likely had occurred near the Prince Edward Islands in the sub Antarctic Indian Ocean (that are part of South Africa).  

In preparation for the conference, we followed the methodology (and practice) known as “Critical Oral History” (COH), which the Wilson Center and the National Security Archive have employed in the past. The COH methodology was developed by political scientists Jim Blight and janet Lang in the 1980s when they organized a series of oral history conferences with former senior officials on the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Following that approach, we prepared a detailed chronology based on declassified documents and also a set of key documents to refresh sometimes fragile memories. These materials were sent to the participants ahead of the meeting.

The purpose of this report is not to settle who was right or who had the most cogent interpretation of the 22nd September 1979 event. The authors have their own opinions about what happened, but as in the oral history session itself, no point of view could be privileged. Thus, the report is designed to represent as fairly as possible the range of memories and views expressedby the participants. Historians and social scientists, of course, can draw freely upon this report and the full transcript, once it is published, to support their interpretations and conclusions about the VELA event.

It should be noted that most of the participants are former – and at least one is presently – US government officials who held security clearances at the time of the events; some still do. While most of the participants spoke freely, a few were constrained in offering unfettered opinions about the VELA incident and what degrees of uncertainty persist about the significance of the event. Official secrecy still limits what can be known.

The oral history conference was dedicated to the memory of Dr. Jeffrey T. Richelson, a pioneer in the field of the history of nuclear intelligence. Richelson, who was affiliated for years with the National Security Archive, was the first to publish online key documents on the VELA event. He also discussed the VELA event at length in his book, Spying on the Bomb (2006). Jeffrey Richelson passed away in November 2017, at the young age of 68.

Lessons and Insights

The day-long conference was held on Friday, November 22, 2019, at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. From the start, it was exciting to watch the invitees arriving and gathering; we noticed their own excitement at meeting each other (in some cases they had not seen each other for a long time). We were overwhelmed by the fact that by the time we started, the conference room was filled with hundreds of years of national security service at the highest level. We took note of this in our introductory comments.

While the transcript of the discussion will be published in due time, here is a summary of some of the fresh and stimulating insight yielded by the conference.

The Bureaucratic Maze

The meeting elicited lively recollections of the complex bureaucratic maze through which government officials interacted on the VELA incident. As Bob Gallucci, at the time the chief of the nuclear and scientific section at the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) at the State Department, put it, “I had more bosses on non-proliferation then the Pope has Cardinals.”  

Robert Galluci speaks at the November 2019 critical oral history conference on the Vela event

Robert Gallucci describes his experiences working on nuclear issues in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the State Department in 1979.

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If a Test, Who Did It?

Deputy National Security Advisor David Aaron and others noted that initially the VELA signal was taken by officials as a nuclear event, either a South African test, an Israeli, or possibly a collaboration between the two countries. He recalled that “at the special coordinating committee of the NSC, held the day after the initial VELA report, it was generally thought that a nuclear test occurred and South Africa was the culprit, but [there was] little talk about Israel. All agreed that we needed to confirm that it was a nuclear test and determine who was responsible.” These memories fit well with what President Jimmy Carter wrote in his diary on September 22, 1979, which became publicly available in 2010: “There was indication of a nuclear explosion in the region of South Africa—either South Africa, Israel using a ship at sea, or nothing.”[5]

This led the discussion to the question of whether South Africa could have had enough fissile material to stage a nuclear test (there was no doubt that Israel did), which triggered an interesting exchange between Professor Anna-Mart van Wyk and John Despres. Van Wyk acknowledged that South Africa did not have at the time a complete device/bomb that was testable, hence, if the VELA incident involved the South Africans, it would have been in collaboration with someone else. However, Van Wyk argued that “we [SA] had enough fissile material (95% enriched) to test in 1979, and had enough material to have assembled a bomb (Hiroshima type) by the end of 1979, though may not have had enough for [both] a test and a bomb.” She also suggested that, if it was a test, “it was probably a tactical bomb test.” Despres sharply disagreed with van Wyk’s assessment of the state of the South African nuclear program, about which he elaborated during his subsequent presentation.

John Despres recalled the weekend day (Saturday) of September 22, when he received an urgent call from the CIA’s operations center to come immediately to headquarters for some unknown reason. A report was hurriedly written in response to an NSC request. It did not have much information and “in retrospect, I don’t think we got it quite right, but that’s based on information that I’ve learned since then.” That initial report, Despres added, “over-weighted a likelihood of direct South African involvement in the nuclear event, although it’s participation in the logistical support for the event was probably correct.”

Despres noted that he himself “remain[ed] agnostic on this [the initial VELA report], and the bottom line at the time, was at least in my mind, an Israeli test with South African logistical support.” Like others, he saw South Africa as an unlikely candidate “because of the doubt that the South African enrichment program had been successful [enough] to produce the highly enriched uranium needed for a successful test.”

Elaborating why he saw the South African possibility as “overrated at the time,” Despres replied that it was inconsistent with his knowledge of where the South African nuclear program was at the time. “We had been following the South African nuclear program very closely even before the Kalahari test [site was discovered]…We focused particularly on how the enrichment program was doing…South Africa did not really have enough material for the device that they had designed for the Kalahari [site] and was the only device that was available in September [1979].”[6]

No Additional Evidence of a Test was Immediately Found

Former officials such as Undersecretary of Energy John Deutch described the efforts to find additional evidence of a test in the weeks after 22 September. Deutch recalled that an effort took place to find supporting evidence, including a review of communications intercepts and radiological evidence, but nothing relevant emerged. That it took several days for the Air Force to send aircraft to the Indian Ocean and elsewhere to collect fallout was “chillingly bad” handling of the task. Both Deutch and Tom Pickering recalled tasking the National Security Agency with sifting through intercepts, but nothing turned up. As John Deutch put it, “Bob Inman had little respect for me, but a lot for [Secretary of Defense] Harold Brown.” Deutch recalled Inman saying the following: “We’ve been looking all the way through the frequency spectrum absolutely from DC, direct current, no frequency, all the way to light frequencies, and we see no information in NSA on whether this was happening.” (Incidentally, Inman confirmed this in a phone conversation with one of us [Avner Cohen] prior to the conference, i.e., denying firmly the existence of any intercept relevant to a possible test). Deutch eventually concluded that “We may be wrong, but at that time, our judgment, and it remains my judgment [that a test], couldn’t happened, didn’t happen.”

VELA and the Earlier NUMEC Investigation

One of the participants, Jessica Mathews, noted that only now, 40 years later, she can see the relevance of her earlier investigative work on the NUMEC Affair in 1977-78 in shaping suspicions about possible Israeli involvement in the VELA matter.[7] Shortly after President Carter took office, he asked the NSC to conduct a quiet investigation for him to find whether Israel had obtained 100-200 kilogram of highly enriched (weapons-grade) uranium from the NUMEC plant in Apollo, PA, a private company whose owner, Dr. Zalman Shapiro, was a supporter of Israel. Carter’s request referred to a series of investigations whether NUMEC diverted significant quantities of highly enriched uranium to Israel in the mid-1960s. Those investigations took years, without leading to any indictments.[8] Mathews had trouble getting access to the records at CIA and FBI until I “had a handwritten note literally from [the] president…So I carried this note around, my hall pass, and this time they did talk, and the first thing that was most clear was that neither agency had spoken to the other, and they were principally concerned about keeping what they knew from the other. I mean, it was extraordinary. But I came back with some pretty clear, conclusions from it. My conclusion was that the material did come from the Apollo Plant in Pennsylvania and that we had pretty good evidence.” In retrospect, Mathews noted, “it really was very relevant when…VELA happened, because it had semi-leaked, not the report that I brought back, but the whole subject.” Despres noted, however, that he“thought that the focus on NUMEC was…unproductive” because “the Dimona reactor had the more significant stores of fissile material [Plutonium] for the weapons program.”

Jessica Mathews discusses the NUMEC affar

Dr. Jessica Mathews, then working for the National Security Council, investigated whether Israel had obtained 100-200 kilogram of highly enriched (weapons-grade) uranium from the NUMEC plant in Apollo, PA, in 1977-1978.

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Press, Ruina, and the Question of Political Pressure

At the heart of the conference was the Ruina Panel and its findings, in particular the nagging question of whether political pressure was exerted on the Ruina Panel. Bob Gallucci recalled his real-time concern that “this [panel] would have to be politically influenced.” Thomas Pickering also recalled that “we began to [be] worried that [it] was politically influenced.” The Panel’s youngest member, Richard Muller, defended vehemently the integrity of its work. While Muller was not privy to the communication between Frank Press and Jack Ruina (let alone between Brzezinski and Press) about forming the panel, he maintained that he saw no political pressure exerted on the panel work or its findings. Indeed, Muller took it as an insult to even suggest that the members of the panel could be subject to political pressure: “People who know these scientists find the concept of political pressure laughable.” 

Ambassador Thomas Pickering speaks about the 1979 VELA incident

Ambassador Thomas Pickering reflects on the September 1979 VELA incident.

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John Despres, however, saw things quite differently: “I can’t help but mention that the concept of political pressure is not well-defined, and it is not easily measurable, as we might witness from the controversy over the Ukrainian affair.” Despres noted that the Ruina Panel’s mandate was exclusively technical and all members were scientists – in itself evidence of certain tacit pressure or bias. He noted that pressure was irrelevant because “the standard of proof for the threshold for action was much higher than the intelligence would support at the time, and this was generally convenient, both politically and diplomatically, and therefore there was no need for pressure.”

Another piece of information that is obscure in the documentary record became apparent during the discussion. It involves the so-called “MIT mafia”: the long friendship between Jack Ruina, Frank Press, and John Deutch born out of their time at MIT. As Deutch put it, “the first point I want to make is before the Carter administration, Jack Ruina was the vice president for research at MIT. Frank Press was the chair of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences. And I was chair of the Department of Chemistry. So we were people who had worked closely together and were very good friends. And that remained true when this event happened.”

Later in the conference, Jerry Mullins told a personal anecdote that raised questions about the matter of political pressure and the panel’s mandate. Jerry described a meeting he had with Ruina a few years later, in February 1985, while he was visiting MIT for a job interview. During the interview, Ruina brought up the VELA panel issue. Ruina noted that “well, we thought this meteorite thing is unlikely, but we [also] thought the nuclear weapon was unlikely.” In response, Mullins asked why the panel “didn’t make any attempt to come up with a list of probabilities that sum to one,” to which Ruina responded, “No. My job was to see if there was any other explanation than a nuclear explosion.” To this story Muller dissented, noting that Ruina’s “glib statement” did not speak for the rest of the committee.

The Ruina Panel: The Insiders

Richard (Dick) Garwin, who joined the conference after lunch, mostly read a personal statement he had prepared (his written statement is attached as an appendix to this report). By his memory, he heard for the first time about the VELA event a day or two after the fact, when he was summoned to CIA headquarters, along with Harold Agnew (former director of Los Alamos) and Stephen Lukasik (former DARPA director) to provide a technical judgement on the VELA signal, in essence, to help to determine whether it was a nuclear event or not. “But, you know, none of us was really specialized in this.” Garwin thought it was “too soon to tell” but “[if] I had to bet [it was two to one in favor of the hypothesis]” of a test. But he also believed it was necessary to have “more confirming or disproving information.” The CIA people said “‘We [have] to tell the president something.’ And so I understood that and [silence].”

Richard Garwin describes the work of the Ruina Panel on the 1979 VELA incident

Richard Garwin was a member of the Ruina Panel, a high-level White House scientific panel that concluded that the signal detected by the VELA satellite was more probably the result of a non-nuclear unexplained “zoo” event (e.g., a striking meteoroid) on or around the satellite.

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Garwin corroborates what John Despres had said earlier, i.e., that the CIA had no additional information to provide them, and that deficit colored his judgement in terms of “betting.” The available documents suggest that it was the problem of finding corroborating technical information that persuaded Spurgeon Keeny [ACDA Deputy Director] and Frank Press to form a high-level technical panel to assess the signal. “I was later asked by Frank Press or maybe Jack Ruina to join the Ruina Panel and participated fully in its meetings and in the preparation of its report.”

On the VELA signal, Garwin recounted his early finding that it was “clearly an outlier.” The bhangmeters “gave different results, and [that] the light source that was being detected was not in the far field on the Earth’s surface, any place on the Earth’s surface,” but something “nearby the satellite.” While the Panel did not claim that the VELA “alert was not the signal of a nuclear explosion,” it did find it “was unlikely to be; that it was more likely to be a local phenomenon on the satellite from a micro meteor liberating some material that reflected sunlight.”

Some discussion focused on whether the Ruina Panel had actually seen the highly classified 300-page report that NRL issued. Both Garwin and Muller did not think so because the NRL study was finalized and distributed in June 1980, after the Ruina report had already been completed. In a response to the Berman’s written statement for the meeting, Garwin said “I would have loved to have had the data from the 300-page technical report because this is just the sort of thing that you can analyze.” Muller recalled that at the final meeting of the Ruina Panel, on December 3-4, 1980, “Berman and his team did come and brief us and I believe the [Ruina Panel] supplementary report that was written after that addresses these issues. Unfortunately, that is still classified.” Muller urged historians to seek declassification of the supplementary report.

Richard Muller recounted how the Ruina Panel modified its initial views as it took a “hard look at the data that was available.” When the panel had its first briefings, the members took an “absolutely unanimous” view that “this had been a nuclear test.” But the panelists found they had “nagging questions” about the evidence. For example, “It’s only when we got answers to those questions, did we learn that double hump pulses were common.” Muller recounted that as they looked more closely at the VELA signature, the panelists became more skeptical, especially given the lack of radiological and other supporting data.

Richard Muller speaking about the Ruina Panel

Richard Muller defended the work and conclusions of the Ruina Panel.

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In light of the VELA satellite’s “discordant behavior” Muller believed that the likelihood of a nuclear event was “as close to zero as it gets.” The actual view of the panel, according to Muller, was “zero” but that the panelists thought it better to use more diplomatic language (“scientific politeness”). Looking back at the criticism from the intelligence agencies and elsewhere, he argued that it exemplified “confirmation bias”— when there is a strong predisposition to believe that something happened even though there was no conclusive evidence (radiological, acoustic, or other) for a detonation.

Both Lars-Erik De Geer and Chris Wright sharply disagreed with Muller’s facts and reasoning. Rejecting the idea of thousands of false signals, De Geer argued that the number of such cases is about one hundred, maximum. He cited a report from Los Alamos, which states that “prior to the VELA event, they had found only one non-nuclear event.” “So, what I read from these things is that there was really no case where there was a true good double pulse, which was not a nuclear explosion.” Wright agreed, noting that “[there] weren't too many zoo-ons that were double humps at least as was presented in the Ruina Panel’s report.” De Geer and Wright also strongly disagreed with Muller’s dismissal of the NRL hydro-acoustic evidence. Given that those were scientific disagreements, and not historical recollections, we do not elaborate here on these scientific issues.

Lars-Erik De Geer speaks at the November 2019 conference on the Vela incident

Lars-Erik De Geer, along with co-author Christopher Wright (not pictured), wrote two comprehensive scientific papers on the VELA incident that contradict the findings of the Ruina Panel.

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Controversy over the VELA Incident

A session on the continued internal US government controversy over VELA incident began with comments by Richard Muller, who reiterated the importance of getting the supplemental Ruina report declassified because it covered issues not discussed in the first report, such as acoustic evidence. Jerry Mullins, in September 1979 having recently joined the staff of Livermore National Laboratory as a South Africa analyst, had reviewed data and collected information on the South African nuclear program in the months after the VELA incident. Based on the available data, he ruled out a South African test; as to Israel, there was “no reliable data.” For a briefing to senior intelligence officials, Mullins reached a “Scotch verdict”: “it was not proven” that a nuclear event had occurred. He later observed that “it’s a different world if this was a nuclear test and somebody got certain data out of it,” perhaps an “attempt to understand a [weapon’s] performance at a fairly sophisticated level.”

Steve Aoki, who was also at the Z Division of Livermore National Laboratory at the time, also found the picture ambiguous. Although the bhangmeter signal was “suggestive” of “something that crosses the threshold,” there was an “absence of both really strong corroboration from other technical sources” and an absence of the “kinds of observables” that people have in mind when they think about what a nuclear test “would look like.” Moreover, given the political consequences of being able to prove that there was an Israeli or a South African hand, this was not an issue where you could “make a judgement based on a poorly articulated case.” The circumstances were such that it was “not an uncomfortable position to reach a verdict of not proven.” The result was a “somewhat unsatisfying conclusion… but not necessarily the wrong one.”

Working in the US Senate, Len Weiss, who was Staff Director of the Senate Subcommittee on Energy and Nuclear Proliferation, recalled that he found himself under pressure to not discuss the VELA incident with the media. Speaking of the Ruina Panel, he argued that the Carter White House “wanted to muddy the waters so that those who thought there was a nuclear test would not be able to say that there’s proof positive, because there really isn’t at this point.” Whatever motives the Ruina panelists may have had, “they were actually providing a political cover for the administration to say, “we don’t have to deal with whether it’s Israel or South Africa committed this act, because it’s all kind of ambiguous.” Concluding otherwise, Weiss found his Senate job at risk if he agreed to a TV interview in which he would say that there had been a nuclear test. (More of Dr. Weiss’ recollections is in the written statement that he prepared for the conference that is attached as appendix to this report.)[9]

Aftermath

The last panel brought out the personal experiences of Dan Raviv, Leonard Weiss, and Avner Cohen, experiences that persuaded them that a nuclear event had occurred. Raviv recounted how in 1980 while serving in Tel Aviv he wrote a story, based on inside sources, about an Israeli nuclear test for CBS News, which caused him to lose his press credentials in Israel for several years.[10] Leonard Weiss spoke about an encounter at Gerard C. Smith’s retirement party in late 1980. During a conversation with Sen. John Glenn, Smith observed that compared to India, the Israelis were the “bad guys,” which Weiss took as a reference to the secret nuclear test. Cohen’s remarks concerned several interactions he had with the late Israel’s Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, which persuaded him strongly that there had been a nuclear event. For example, at one time, in a one on one meeting, when Cohen mentioned the VELA incident Weizman “pretended not to hear me” rather than acknowledge what had been said.

The discussion turned to recollections concerning Dr. Anselm Yaron, the Israeli missile specialist, who had been at MIT in 1980. Yaron had hinted about a test during one of Jack Ruina’s seminar presentations on the VELA issue at MIT, word of which was passed to two officials in Washington, DC. Both, Spurgeon Keeney of ACDA and John Marcum, Frank Press’ deputy, decided that the story was not credible enough to be worth pursuing.[11] Cohen also took issue with earlier statements about the failure of communications intelligence to pick up evidence of a nuclear test. The nuclear issue has been so secretive in Israel and the numbers of people involved in such a test would have been so small that it was very unlikely that there were incriminating communication that foreign intelligence could have gleaned.

The State of Knowledge

The purpose of this critical oral history conference was both modest and concrete. We did not seek or hope to settle the four-decade controversy over what VELA event was. Rather, we aimed to retrieve historical knowledge about how the controversy came about. Specifically, we hoped that the workshop would help to shed new light on a few specific issues on which the present available declassified record is still lacking or obscure. Here are these specific issues where we think the meeting shed some new light or otherwise left unsettled.

The Intel “Smoking Gun” Issue: Was there a “Smoking Gun” in the form of a Communication Intercept?

For decades,rumors circulated that the US government had collected critically important intelligence, perhaps an NSA intercept, that linked some state (Israel, South Africa, or both) to the VELA event. It was obvious that if such intelligence existed, a potential “smoking gun,” it would be classified beyond top secret. Based on the testimony in the meeting, it appears almost certainly that such a “smoking gun” does not exist. Both Undersecretary of Energy (and former CIA director) John Deutch and NSA Director Admiral Bobby Inman have firmly denied the existence of such an intercept. This information is both new and significant.  

The Political Context: Was the Ruina Panel Established to provide Political Cover?

This is a most intriguing question that has been raised in various accounts, such as Seymour Hersh’s. Nevertheless, primary sources that could clarify the matter are scant. Virtually all the written communication between National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and the president’s Science Advisor, Frank Press, as well as communication between Press and Ruina is classified; some communication was likely made orally (e.g., in meetings, by phone, etc.). This gap has left a cloud of suspicion floating over the Ruina Panel. For example, we have not seen the original proposal made by Gerard C. Smith and Henry Owen, much less the formal mandate that Press assigned to Ruina, let alone Zbigniew Brzezinski’s role in the matter or what was said, understood and agreed upon between Press and Ruina. In The Samson Option, Seymour Hersh argued (mostly based on unnamed human sources) that the very reason the Ruina Panel was set up was to exclude, on scientific grounds, the possibility that the VELA satellite had positively identified a nuclear event.  All three principals - Brzezinski, Ruina, and Press - are now deceased. Apart from Muller and Garwin who resisted the possibility of political pressure, other participants expressed some concerns or even suspicions that the Ruina Panel was politically compromised in some way.

Jerry Mullins’ memory of Ruina telling him in a 1985 meeting that “my job was to see if there was any other explanation than a nuclear explosion” strongly supports that view. John Deutch’ s reference to the triad – Ruina, Press and himself – as “the MIT Mafia” highlights the old friendship and informality among them. It is incomprehensible that they did not understand the political sensitivity of the VELA flash. At the end, while the meeting did not settle this matter, it certainly fed the suspicions factor.

The NRL Classified Report and Dr. Alan Berman’s Testimony

While Dr. Berman could not attend the conference due to health reasons, we are very pleased that he prepared a seven page statement for the meeting (which is attached to this report). In his statement, Dr. Berman reveals that the 300 page classified NRL report concluded that the hydroacoustic evidence strongly suggests that a nuclear test took place at the very time of the VELA incident at the Prince Edward Islands vicinity. While Dr. Berman clearly believed that the VELA incident was a low-yield nuclear test, he presented the NRL report not as a proof but rather as a most probable hypothesis. He noted that the NRL report, which he presented orally to the Ruina Panel (the full report came out a little later), was not treated seriously by the panel. Forty years later, Garwin seems to take Berman’s testimony more seriously than at the time.

The NRL report remains classified, but the US Navy seems to have located it and has initiated a declassification review at the request of the National Security Archive.

The Israeli/South African Connection: Will the Story Ever be Confirmed?

So far, no identifiable and credible official source from Israel or South Africa has ever acknowledged or confirmed the VELA incident. As noted earlier, former CBS radio reporter, Dan Raviv, told the meeting participants the tale of his 1980 scoop that the VELA event was indeed an Israeli test in collaboration with South Africa, based on a tip he received from an unnamed Israeli senior political source. His story was dismissed at the time and Raviv was penalized for transmitting his report from Rome; he lost his Israeli governmental press credentials. Another reference emerged in the conference about an Israeli visitor to MIT – someone who was not named in the US documents but subsequently identified as a senior missile engineer, Anselm Yaron – who apparently was talking loosely about the VELA event as an Israeli nuclear test. For whatever reason, US officials refused to treat his information seriously. In parallel, South African historian Professor Anna-Mart van Wyk alluded in her remarks to South African sources who have acknowledged the VELA event as related to South African-Israeli naval collaboration involving a nuclear test in the vicinity of the Prince Edward Islands. The problem with all of this hearsay claims is that it is difficult to corroborate them and, so far, they do not meet standards of historical knowledge.

The difficulty in corroborating these hearsay accounts highlights the fundamental fact that the governments of both Israel and South Africa have kept a thick veil of official silence on the matter. Israel has maintained a long-standing policy of deep secrecy on all its nuclear-related activities. South Africa, which abandoned its nuclear weapons program nearly thirty years ago, has not acknowledged a past nuclear collaboration with Israel.

A Potential Source of New Information

The discussions shed light on the existence of a source that was previously unknown to the conference organizers. During his remarks, Richard Muller mentioned the existence of a “rather substantial supplementary report [of the Ruina Panel] which was as I recall, it was as big as the initial report.”  Completed in early 1981, it covered “new material, including additional analysis done by NRL, including the sheep thyroids, which I believe are not in the first report.”

The National Security Archive has made attempts to locate this unquestionably important document, but its whereabouts remain obscure. The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library does not have a copy in its collections; whether a copy is in the National Security Council Institutional Files under White House control remains to be determined. Requests for the report have been made to other agencies, but the Covid-19 crisis has, for now, delayed searches for such documents.

The Carter Factor: What did President Carter Think and Know about the VELA Event?

The available official documentation tells us very little, if anything, about what President Carter knew and thought about the VELA incident. Only the publication of his White House Diary in 2010 revealed unequivocally that he did not accept the findings of the White House panel. President Carter seemed to have been persuaded by the conclusion of the NRL investigation that supported the test conclusion. As Jessica Mathews indicated, Carter had a keen interest in the Israeli nuclear program, but it remains to be seen whether he had other intelligence evidence supporting the view that it was an Israeli test.

***

At the end of a fascinating and enlightening conference, we had to conclude that 40 years after the VELA event, there is still no reliable public, non-circumstantial, information that settles the controversy. At one point during the discussion, Bob Gallucci asked bluntly whether anybody among the participants possessed any certain knowledge that could conclusively settle the VELA incident. None of the participants responded to the challenge. While a significant number of the attendees believe that it was a nuclear test, most likely an Israeli detonation, some took a “not proven” approach, but others, Richard Muller and possibly Richard Garwin and John Deutch, still believe that it was not.

All that said, scientists continue to raise important questions about acoustic and radiological evidence and the Vela flash itself that require further discussion and analysis. The issue still remains a live one. The US government needs to declassify the Naval Research Laboratory report, the various analyses by the CIA and Department of Energy laboratories, and the complete Ruina Panel report, among other documents, so that further progress can be made in determining what may have occurred on 22 September 1979. Certainly as long as the government of Israel keeps its nuclear program behind the veil of secrecy, and the South African government refuses to disclose its nuclear collaboration with Israel, questions about the VELA incident are likely to persist.

The authors are grateful to Ms. Margaret (Maggie) Rowland-Croy, a research associate with the James Martin Center for Non Proliferation Studies (CNS), for the extensive notes she took for us during the meeting.

Appendix

 


[1] Cited in a memo by Jerry Oplinger, National Security Council/Science and Technology Staff, to Ambassador Henry Owen, “South Atlantic Event,” 25 January 1980, Secret, Excised copy. The document included in “The Vela Flash: Forty Years Ago,” Electronic Briefing Book #686, edited by William Burr, Avner Cohen and Richard Wolfson, National Security Archive, posted September 22, 2019.

[2] Jimmy Carter, White House Diary(New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), 405.

[3] In the statement prepared for this conference former NRL director Dr. Alan Berman writes: “Much later, when I became the second person in the United States to be awarded the Presidential Distinguished Senior Executive Service Award, I learned that President Carter had intended it to be implicit admission of his acceptance of our conclusions. Indeed, I think that President Carter personally believed in the NRL report.”

[4] Lars-Erik De Geer and Christopher M. Wright, “The 22 September 1979 Vela Incident: The Detected Double-Flash,” Science and Global Security 25 (2017): 95-124, and “The 22 September 1979 Vela Incident: Radionuclide and Hydroacoustic Evidence for a Nuclear Explosion,” Science and Global Security 26 (2018): 20-54.

[5] Jimmy Carter, White House Diary, 357.

[6] The South African secret Kalahari test site was discovered on July 3-4, 1977, by a Soviet Cosmos 922 satellite.

[7] On the “NUMEC Affair,” see Roger J. Mattson, Avner Cohen, and William Burr, editors, “The NUMEC Affair: Did Highly Enriched Uranium from the U.S. Aid Israel's Nuclear Weapons Program?,” National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book 565, November 2, 2016.

[8] Carter decided to “look quietly” into the NUMEC problem because the Ford administration had investigated it after it was rediscovered that the CIA had concluded in the late 1960s that Israel had obtained the NUMEC weapons grade uranium. President Richard Nixon may have learned in 1969 about the CIA conclusions. There had not been a serious investigation before Ford’s Justice Department identified possible criminal violations of the Atomic Energy Act and other statutes. The Carter administration decided not to pursue the case.

[9] Leonard Weiss has written extensively on the VELA issue in recent years. See “Israel’s 1979 Nuclear Test and the U.S. Cover-up,” Middle East Policy 18, no.4 (2011); “The 1979 South Atlantic Flash: The Case for an Israeli Nuclear Test,” in Henry Sokolski, ed., Moving Beyond Pretense: Nuclear Power and Nonproliferation (Harrisburg, PA: Strategic Studies Institute and U.S. Army War College Press, 2014), 345-371; and “Flash from the Past: Why an Apparent Israeli Nuclear Test in 1979 Matters Today,” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (8 September 2015).

[10] For more on the Raviv episode, see Burr and Cohen, eds., “The Vela Incident: South Atlantic Mystery Flash in September 1979 Raised Questions about Nuclear Test,” Documents 37a-c.

[11] For more on the Anselm Yaron incident, see Burr and Cohen, eds., “The Vela Incident: South Atlantic Mystery Flash in September 1979 Raised Questions about Nuclear Test,” Documents 38a-b.


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