Israel’s ‘Secret’ Nukes

Everyone knows that Israel has had nuclear weapons for decades. Don't tell anyone---it's a secret.


Everyone knows that Israel has had nuclear weapons for decades. Don’t tell anyone—it’s a secret.

The Atlantic (“Israel’s Worst-Kept Secret“):

Israel has a substantial arsenal of nuclear weapons.

Former CIA Director Robert Gates said so during his 2006 Senate confirmation hearings for secretary of defense, when he noted—while serving as a university president—that Iran is surrounded by “powers with nuclear weapons,” including “the Israelis to the west.” Former President Jimmy Carter said so in 2008 and again this year, in interviews and speeches in which he pegged the number of Israel’s nuclear warheads at 150 to around 300.

But due to a quirk of federal secrecy rules, such remarks generally cannot be made even now by those who work for the U.S. government and hold active security clearances. In fact, U.S. officials, even those on Capitol Hill, are routinely admonished not to mention the existence of an Israeli nuclear arsenal and occasionally punished when they do so.

The policy of never publicly confirming what a scholar once called one of the world’s “worst-kept secrets” dates from a political deal between the United States and Israel in the late 1960s. Its consequence has been to help Israel maintain a distinctive military posture in the Middle East while avoiding the scrutiny—and occasional disapprobation—applied to the world’s eight acknowledged nuclear powers.

But the U.S. policy of shielding the Israeli program has recently provoked new controversy, partly because of allegations that it played a role in the censure of a well-known national-laboratory arms researcher in July, after he published an article in which he acknowledged that Israel has nuclear arms. Some scholars and experts are also complaining that the government’s lack of candor is complicating its high-profile campaign to block the development of nuclear arms in Iran, as well as U.S.-led planning for a potential treaty prohibiting nuclear arms anywhere in the region.


While former White House or cabinet-level officers—such as Gates—have gotten away with more candor, the bureaucracy does not take honesty by junior officials lightly. James Doyle, a veteran nuclear analyst at Los Alamos National Laboratory who was recently censured, evidently left himself open to punishment by straying minutely from U.S. policy in a February 2013 article published by the British journal Survival.

“Nuclear weapons did not deter Egypt and Syria from attacking Israel in 1973, Argentina from attacking British territory in the 1982 Falklands War or Iraq from attacking Israel during the 1991 Gulf War,” Doyle said in a bitingly critical appraisal of Western nuclear policy, which angered his superiors at the nuclear-weapons lab as well as a Republican staff member of the House Armed Services Committee.

Even though three secrecy specialists at the lab concluded the article contained no secrets, more senior officials overruled them and cited an unspecified breach as justification for censuring Doyle and declaring the article classified, after its publication. They docked his pay, searched his home computer, and, eventually, fired him this summer. The lab has said his firing—as opposed to the censure and search—was not related to the article’s content, but Doyle and his lawyer have said they are convinced it was pure punishment for his skepticism about the tenets of nuclear deterrence.

I have held security clearance off and on for the past three decades including, for a few years, a Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information access. During that time, I never saw any official documents related to Israel’s nuclear program since I had no “need to know.” Yet, I’ve operated during most if not all of that time with the understanding that Israel possesses nuclear weapons. It’s just something that people with any passing familiarity with international politics, let alone those of us who study national security policy for a living, know.

To punish scientists in government employ for stating the obvious is truly silly and makes a mockery of the classification system. Indeed, it makes it far more likely that they’ll treat real secrets more cavalierly.

It’s one thing to maintain legal fictions as a matter of diplomacy.  While farcical, it’s possibly good practice for presidents, cabinet officials, and other high functionaries to maintain the illusion that Israel’s nukes are merely speculative. This allows us to pretend that the Non-proliferation Treaty is actually viable and must be observed by other states in the region. But we shouldn’t demand that scholars who happen also to be civil servants play along.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. steve says:

    Think this will surprise Walt and Mearsheimer?


  2. gVOR08 says:

    I think, James, you let me in on the secret. I’ve long been vaguely aware Israel had nukes, but I thought we were talking a dozen or two, not a couple hundred.

  3. C. Clavin says:

    I thought everyone knew this? I guess it’s like supply-side economics being a complete failure and climate change being driven by humans…not everyone is willing to admit what everyone already knows.

    …the government’s lack of candor is complicating its high-profile campaign to block the development of nuclear arms in Iran, as well as U.S.-led planning for a potential treaty prohibiting nuclear arms anywhere in the region…

    I’ve never understood how we can expect Iran to not have nukes when Israel is breathing down their necks with between 75 and 200 of them. It’s not like Israel’s behavior as a nation is rational or justifiable. Add in Pakistan and India and N. Korea to the mix….jumpin’ jimminy….it’s a f’ing miracle we’re all still here at all.
    Reagan was an idiot…but I do agree with him on this:

    “…A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The only value in our two nations possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used. But then would it not be better to do away with them entirely…”

    Iranˈs President Hassan Rouhani just yesterday:

    “…We believe the Middle East must be declared as a WMD-free, and especially a nuclear weapons-free region, and the Islamic Republic of Iran presented the related proposal to the UN many years ago…”

  4. gVOR08 says:

    James, on looking, I find only speculation as to what they have, numbers, type, or size. They may have fusion weapons, but still speculation. Do you have any insight?

  5. C. Clavin says:

    He could tell us….but then he’d have to kill us .