Tonight I am sitting in a sealed room in Haifa, Israel, thinking about the Department of Commerce in Washington. I hope the plastic sheets that cover the windows and the masking tape that seals the door of my room will hold back the as-yet-to-materialize clouds of never gas and toxins that Iraq's President Saddam Hussein has promised to send us.
This evening I heard the roar of Patriot missiles followed by a wall-shaking blast as a Scud disintegrated over a nearby wadi. The Scuds are not too accurate--plus or minus a couple of miles is considered fine. Not that the Iraqis lack high technology. They might even have access to a Cray supercomputer, something my university does not have--and why I am now mulling the Commerce Department.
Despite our attempts to purchase one, no Israeli university has a Cray supercomputer, a common resource in American and European universities.
Two years age, the Technion Institute ordered from Cray Research Inc. a lower-range supercomputer, an extremely fast computer for use in unclassified academic research. The United States has so far refused to give Cray an export license.
In September 1989, in search of enlightenment, I traveled to Washington to find out what was holding up the process. I walked the corridors of power--the State Department, the Department of Defense, the Department of Commerce and finally the Pentagon. Everyone, I must say, was very nice.
`Can the Technion buy a Cray?' I would ask. No one said, `Yes.' No one said, `No.'
One exchange at the Department of Commerce stands out in my mind: I said to a senior official that I could explain why it would not be a danger to the United States if Technion owned a Cray. `Can you give me 10 minutes?' I asked.
`That's the time it takes for a Jericho missile to get from Israel to Baghdad,' the senior official said, referring to a surface-to-surface missile designed and built in Israel.
Perhaps it is. But only now can I savor the full answer I gave: `The return journey takes about the same time.' The content of this conversation was significant, and becomes more so with each Scud attack.
I am not sure that I can estimate what mixture of political and technological considerations lie behind America's refusal to sell Israel a technology that is advanced--but not that advanced. My overall impression is of a rambling bureaucracy in which the decision-making process has--either deliberately or mistakenly--become divorced from the real world.
After all, the international community was prepared to create a $50 billion Iraqi war machine. But a lower-range Cray for Israel? Heaven forbid! That might be a threat to world peace.
The subliminal message I received in Washington was that someone in Israel--sometime--could tap into a Cray and design a doomsday weapon, or, at the very least, a more accurate guided missile. And all this with a computer only three or four times more powerful than the one we have on our campus.
Until recently, only the United States and Japan built supercomputers, and they have had a very cosy agreement: If the United States doesn't sell to a given country, neither does Japan.
But this duopoly is coming apart. A new kind of computer is taking over. While a Cray has just a few very complicated and very powerful central processing units, the newer computers, called parallel-processing computers, have as many as a thousand very simple processors. The Cray is difficult to construct, the parallel-processing computer is far easier. The idea behind parallel machines is that seven 70-pound weaklings can lift more than one Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Parallel-processing technology is already being used by companies around the world. The main difficulties involved in building these computers fall within the areas of computer science where Technion has real expertise. Some of the world's best minds working on these problems work at Technion. The nation that got a rescue force to Entebbe and back can build parallel computers as good as any--if it has to.
Israel doesn't need a supercomputer at Technion to defend itself. Nor would owning a supercomputer turn Israel into a superpower. We want a supercomputer for unclassified research. The atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima was built in precomputer times. If we have a nuclear bomb, we built it without a supercomputer. If we haven't got one, we don't need a supercomputer to make one.
It has been suggested by a certain authority in the United States--a Senator--that we could make more accurate missiles if we had a Cray. Indeed, would they be more accurate than the ones we used 10 years ago to destroy an Iraqi nuclear reactor? Or is it ground-to-ground missiles that worry the Senator? He should come to Tel Aviv. Then I can tell him that if a hundred Scuds land there, their inaccuracy won't matter one bit.
The time is long overdue for the United States to review its policy regarding the export of technology, especially to friendly, technologically advanced countries like Israel. The restrictive policies are clearly the product of faulty thinking which in the case of the Cray may well push Israel--and some other countries--into building their own supercomputers. The policy is not only bad for Israel, it is bad for the United States.
Finally, a question which to some may seem irrelevant, but to me, wearing my gas mask, sitting in my sealed room, seems worth an answer: Which country in the Middle East has turned out to be the United States's best friend in the Gulf crisis? Who exactly, is threatening whom?
In 1985, my son Jonathan Pollard pleaded guilty to providing Israel with information about the military capabilities of Arab states, including Iraq. Today he sits in a basement cell, in isolation 23 hours a day, serving a life sentence.
Jonathan was never accused of or indicted for treason, because he did not commit treason. He was indicted on one count--giving information to an ally, Israel. Abdel Kader Helmy, in Egyptian-American rocket scientist, participated in a scheme to illegally ship ballistic missile technology to Egypt--technology later used to help increase the range of Iraq's Scud-B missiles. Mr. Helmy got less than a four-year sentence. Jonathan, who warned Israel about Iraq's capabilities, got life.
America is now fighting a war with Iraq, while the one person who tried to warn Israel about Iraqi threats sits in jail. In a 1989 letter excerpted below, Jonathan wrote to an American rabbi from his cell that America would have to go to war against Iraq if we failed to prevent the completion of chemical facilities that we knew were under construction. How right he was.
My name is Jonathan Pollard and I am currently serving a life sentence due to my activities on behalf of Israel.
Lest you labor under a false impression, Rabbi, I want to state quite categorically that I do not consider myself to be above the law. I fully appreciate the fact that I must be punished for my activities, however justified I may have felt them to be. That being said, I do not believe that the draconian sentence meted out to me was in any way commensurate with the crime which I committed. Nowhere in my indictment . . . was I ever described as a `traitor,' which is hardly a surprise given the fact that the operation with which I was associated actually served to strengthen America's long-term security interests in the Middle East.
Notwithstanding [then Defense Secretary Casper] Weinberger's disingenuous opinion, any objective examination of the record will show that no American agent, facility or program was compromised as a result of my actions--not one. But this salient fact was conveniently overlooked by Mr. Weinberger, who felt that I deserved the death penalty for having had the audacity to make Israel `too strong.'
In retrospect, perhaps one of the worst things the Reagan Administration did to Israel during the course of our trial was that it purposely distorted the nature of my activities in such a way so as to leave the impression that Israel had somehow become a threat to the national security of this country. So by intent the subsequent sentence I received was an arrow aimed directly at the heart of the U.S.-Israel `special relationship.'
The case of Mr. and Mrs. Abdel Kader Helmy appears to be yet another instance where the political aspects of an espionage trial have been of paramount concern to the government. As you'll recall, the Helmys are the Egyptian-born U.S. citizens who were accused last year of funneling highly sensitive ballistic missile technology to their native land. At the time of his arrest on June 24, 1988, [Mr.] Helmy was a senior propulsion engineer who held a `secret' level security clearance from the U.S. Department of Defense. According to a 36-page affidavit filed by the Customs Service . . . U.S. customs agents searching . . . notes outlining how to work with carbon-carbon fiber material, used in rocket nose cones and `stealth' aircraft . . .; instructions on building rocket exhaust nozzles; a description of an extremely sensitive microwave telemetry antenna; and a complete package needed to build or upgrade a tactical missile system.
Although there is no public evidence linking [Mr.] Helmy directly with the Iraqis, intelligence sources have indicated that the Egyptians used [Mr.] Helmy's expertise to help Baghdad modify its stockpile of Soviet-supplied Scud-B ballistic rockets. His principal responsibility, however, was to ensure the success of an Egyptian-Iraqi missile program which had encountered some developmental problems. Code named BADR 2000 by the Egyptians and SAAD-16 by the Iraqis, this Argentine-designed weapon has an estimated range of 500-1,000 miles, and, from what I've been told, figures prominently in Arab strategic planning against Israel.
If one compares the way in which the government responded to my affair with that of its soft-pedalling of the Helmy case, the existence of a double standard becomes apparent. Firstly, at the insistence of the State and Defense Departments, all espionage-related charges against Mr. and Mrs. Helmy have been quietly dropped. . . . [T]he administration has done everything it can to reduce the notoriety of the Helmy affair.
The problem . . . lay in the fact that many of the photos I turned over to the Israelis were of a number of Iraqi chemical weapons manufacturing plants which the Reagan administration did not want to admit existed. Why? Well, if no one knew about these facilities then the State and Defense Departments would have been spared the embarrassing task of confronting Iraq over its violation of the Geneva Protocol of 1925, which banned the use of chemical weapons in war. You have to remember . . . that at the time of my sentencing the massacre of Kurdish civilians in Halabja had not yet occurred, and what little public concern was being voiced over Iraq's apparent use of poison gas was largely ignored by the administration, which did not want to anger the Arab world by criticizing the employment of such barbaric weapons against Iran. The photos I gave Israel, though, if `compromised,' would have jeopardized the administration's policy of callous indifference towards this issue, in that they constituted hard, irrefutable proof that Iraq was indeed engaged in the production and wide-scale use of chemical weapons. What the administration was really concerned about was being placed in a position where it would have to admit that it had tacitly condoned the creation of an Iraqi chemical weapons manufacturing capability.
Once the atrocity at Halabja had occurred, though, the White House was placed in a rather awkward position. On the one hand, the U.S. intelligence community did not want to be accused of having failed to keep an eye on Iraq's burgeoning chemical weapons arsenal. Then again, the CIA . . . could not very well confirm the existence of the Iraqi poison gas plants without running the risk of compromising the Reagan administration's policy towards these facilities.
After a few days of `soul searching,' the State Department finally admitted that the U.S. had intercepted some Iraqi military communications which indicated that lethal gas had, in fact, been employed against unarmed Kurdish civilians. The Iranians had astutely outmaneuvered them, though, and the issue had to be `contained' before it caused a rift in U.S.-Arab relations. Certainly, confirming the undeniable operational employment of chemical munitions by the Iraqis was far perferable to describing the exact dimension of their poison gas plants, which would have raised some uncomfortable questions on Capitol Hill . . .
Thus, in an attempt to recapture the moral `high ground,' so to speak, from Iran, the White House evidently decided that it would be better for the U.S. to be seen as leading the public denunciation of Iraq rather than the Ayatollah Khomeini. As it was, though, the administration still managed to salvage its standing in the Arab world by preventing Congress from imposing any punitive sanctions against Iraq. In essence, then, what I did by passing satellite photos of the Iraqi poison gas plants to Israel was endanger the Reagan administration's pro-Saudi political agenda, not the intelligence community's `sources and methods.'
According to the prosecution, there were two reasons why the government refused to tell Israel about Iraq's poison gas plants: 1) fear of compromising the KH-11 [Intelligence] system, and 2) concern over the Israeli's probable reaction once they recognized the threat these facilities posed to their survival.
What the Israelis would actually have considered was a preventive attack on the Iraqi chemical-arms factories before they had become fully operational. Once they had come on-line, you see, and the Iraqis had been able to disperse their arsenal of chemical munitions, these plants, like the ones in Syria, would only have been attacked either in war time, where the idea of a preemptive strike is valid, or in a clandestine sabotage campaign aimed at slowing their production of poisons. This was the same reasoning, by the way, that lay behind the Reagan administration's desire to bomb the Rabta industrial complex before the Libyans had had the opportunity to complete its construction.
The crisis over the Rabta plant does beg the question, though: If the Reagan administration felt justified in its desire to eliminate what it perceived to be an impending Libyan chemical threat to our national security, why was it so unwilling to grant Israel the same right of preventive self-defense with regard to Iraq's poison gas manufacturing facilities?
So what was I supposed to do? Let Israel fend for herself? If you think that is what I should have done, then how can we condemn all those . . . who during the Second World War consciously participated in the abandonment of European Jewry? Seriously, Rabbi, what would be the difference between what they did and a decision on my part to have kept silent about the Iraqi poison gas threat to Israel? I'd rather be rotting in prison than sitting shiva for the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who could have died because of my cowardice.