Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April/May 1999, page 44
Defense & Intelligence
U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency Report Accuses Israel of Laser Technology Transfer to China
By Shawn L. Twing
Despite the mushrooming scandal over reports that a Chinese-American citizen turned over to China sensitive American nuclear weapons technology from the Los Alamos defense research laboratory, a report from the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) accusing Israel of transferring American laser technology to China has been almost totally ignored by mainstream American media.
An exception was The Washington Times, which on Jan. 27 carried an article headlined “Israel Suspected of Transferring U.S. Laser Weapon Data to China.” In the article, staff writer Bill Gertz cited a recent DIA report not only accusing Israel of selling U.S. laser technology to China, but also of pressuring American defense contractors to make restricted software codes related to classified laser research available to Israeli defense companies.
The weapons program in question is the Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL), formerly known as Nautilus. THEL was provided to Israel as part of a 1996 defense agreement between the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and President Bill Clinton. The stated goal for the U.S.-Israel joint program—so far funded by the United States with more than $130 million from the Pentagon’s budget—is to enable Israel to shoot down short-range Katyusha rockets fired at them by Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. (For more on the 1996 agreement providing THEL to Israel, see “Clinton Promises Israel Additional Aid, Including Nautilus Laser System,” Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 1996, p. 37.)
U.S. DIA officials believe that Israel not only surreptitiously obtained restricted U.S. technology in the THEL program, but also transferred that technology to China. Of particular concern to DIA have been reports from U.S. contract employees working in Israel who saw Chinese technicians “working secretly with one of the Israeli companies involved in the laser weapon program,” an unnamed U.S. official told The Washington Times.
According to the DIA report, Chinese officials were seen at the Israel Aircraft Industries Space Technology Division facility in Tel Aviv twice in 1997. “The U.S. employees were told the ”˜Chinese presence’ was supposed to be kept secret from the United States,” according to the Times report. The DIA report also charged that U.S. employees were “rushed out” of the Israeli facility after seeing Chinese workers there for a third time.
The DIA report also stated that an Israeli armaments company, Rafael, obtained restricted American technology from a U.S. firm, TRW Inc., in 1996.
This prompted TRW’s Space and Electronics Group to stop additional data transfers to Israel, the DIA said. When denied access to that information by TRW, an Israeli representative “demanded further software transfers from the U.S. subcontractor, and also tried to ”˜pressure’ TRW into having the State Department grant an export license,” the Times reported.
Other Israeli efforts to steal U.S. technology related to the THEL program, according to the DIA report, were carried out by an Israeli program manager and an Israeli electronics engineer who tried to obtain software codes and other information about the THEL’s main computer system, and an Israeli Defense Ministry consultant who tried to acquire sensitive information about the laser’s tracking focal plane array.
Pentagon sources said Israel wants this technology for a variety of reasons, virtually all of which are harmful to U.S. interests. The Nautilus laser was given to Israel to protect against Katyusha rockets, which are short-range, relatively crude weapons. The laser system’s source code, not made available to the Israelis as part of the original agreement, contains mission-limiting restrictions on the laser’s range and strength.
The laser itself, however, could be made more powerful and have a much greater range if the Israelis were given access to that software, which would allow the Israelis to develop a laser effective against longer range missiles, aircraft, and possibly other applications. Citing this danger, the DIA report said that Israel’s acquisition of the restricted software codes used to target the laser would allow Israel to “fire at targets other than those permitted by the [U.S.-Israel] Memorandum of Agreement,” and would allow “a controlled technology to proliferate.”
Israel also wants this technology, as the DIA report implicitly warns, to resell illegally to third parties. For years Israel has been accused of reselling American aircraft, avionics, missile and other weapons technology to countries which are banned by the U.S. government for political reasons from purchasing the weaponry directly from U.S. manufacturers.
The first public U.S. government confirmation of such illicit Israeli behavior was in a 1996 report by the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI). The 36-page report, entitled “Worldwide Challenges to Naval Strike Warfare,” said that “U.S. technology has been acquired [by China] through Israel in the form of the Lavi fighter and possibly [surface-to-air] missile technology.”
The Office of Naval Intelligence repeated the charge in its 1997 report, despite widespread rumors that ONI was under enormous pressure from Israel and its supporters in the United States not to repeat those allegations. Israel, which has access to more sensitive American defense technology than any other U.S. ally, is by far the worst offender for reselling that technology, according to U.S. officials and others familiar with this subject.
It is interesting to note the dissimilarities between congressional and media reactions to revelations about Chinese spying on U.S. nuclear technology in the 1980s, and the recent DIA report about Israel transferring American laser technology to China. China’s nuclear spying has been front-paged by virtually every major newspaper in the United States for weeks, and also has been featured on almost every major news program in the country. Congress, for its part, also has focused on these allegations and has ordered a full review of safeguards and security at defense research facilities across the United States.
The revelations about Israel, however, have received no such media coverage or congressional interest. Aside from The Washington Times, not one major American newspaper has had an article about this subject, there have been no television news reports about it, and not one member of Congress has called for a review of U.S.-Israel technology-sharing agreements (of which there are many). This surely is what is meant by a “deafening silence.”