In Rafi Eitan Obit, New York Times Casts Unproven Uranium Allegation As Fact

March 27 UPDATE:

New York Times Corrects

In response to CAMERA's communication with editors, The New York Times commendably corrected Rafi Eitan's obituary, making clear "that allegation was never proved." See below for a detailed update.

The New York Times' obituary for Rafi Eitan states as fact that the just deceased Israeli spymaster played a key role in the theft of highly enriched uranium from an American company, though the allegation has never been proven and the disappearance remains an unsolved mystery. Referring to enriched uranium missing decades ago from the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation (NUMEC) in Apollo, Pa., the March 23 obituary states that Eitan, who died Saturday: 

played important roles in the surgical strike on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, the theft in the late 1960s of at least 100 pounds of highly enriched uranium from a nuclear fuel plan in the Pittsburgh area that helped Israel's atomic bomb program . . . . (Emphasis added.)
But the facts on this story are hardly clear. As the The New York Times reported on June 17, 1986 about Jonathan Pollard's handler ("Spy Once Regained Access to Secrets," Philip Shenon):
Also today, a Justice Department official confirmed that Rafael Eitan, an Israeli who has been described in Government papers as the leader of the spy ring, traveled in 1968 to a nuclear processing plant in Pennsylvania from which more than 200 pounds of highly enriched uranium disappeared.
In recent years, intelligence sources have said they believed that Israel diverted the uranium for use in nuclear weapons. The Federal Bureau of Investigation closed its investigation of the case without making charges.
Writing in Foreign Policy in March 2015, Scott Johnson says of the enriched uranium missing from the Apollo, Pa., facility ("What Lies Beneath"):
Fifty years after investigations began—they have involved, at various times, the AEC and its successors, Congress, the FBI, the CIA, and other government agencies—NUMEC remains one of the most confounding puzzles of the nuclear era.

Johnson quotes Steven Aftergood, who directs the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists: "It is one of the most interesting and important Cold War mysteries out there."

He is not the only well-informed scientist who doubts that NUMEC's uranium was diverted to Israel. Nobel Prize winner Glenn Seaborg, the co-discoverer of plutonium and all transuranium elements through element 102 and a former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, also firmly rejected the theory. The Valley News-Dispatch (Tarentum, Pa.) reported June 4, 2017 ("Reports of missing uranium dogged NUMEC owner Zalman Shapiro for life"):

One of the few government documents referencing enriched uranium from the United States found in Israel was a diary entry from Glenn Seaborg, a Nobel Prize winner and a former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, which controlled the use of atomic energy for commercial and military use in the 1960s.

Seaborg wrote that two government investigators, sent to interview him on June 21, 1978, told him enriched uranium, identified as coming from one of NUMEC's suppliers, was found in Israel.

" … Such enriched material has been sold on an official basis to Israel, and this could be the source of the clandestine sample," wrote Seaborg, who devoted an entire chapter to Shapiro's innocence in his book "Adventures in the Atomic Age."

Foreign Policy's Johnson also noted Seaborg's dismissal of the diversion theory, noting that loose governmental regulations at the time meant that keeping accurate tabs on uranium was an impossible task.

NUMEC’s founder, Zalman Shapiro, an accomplished American chemist, addressed the concern in 1978, telling Arizona Congressman Morris Udall that the uranium simply escaped through the facility’s air ducts, cement, and wastewater. Others, such as the late Glenn Seaborg, the AEC’s chairman in the 1960s—who had previously helped discover plutonium and made key contributions to the Manhattan Project—have suggested that the sloppy accounting and government regulations of the mid-20th century meant that keeping track of losses in America’s newborn nuclear industry was well near impossible. Today, some people in Apollo think that at least a portion of the uranium might be buried in Parks, contaminating the earth and, ultimately, human beings.

The Foreign Policy piece details a great deal of circumstantial evidence suggesting the involvement of NUMEC founder Zalman Shapiro in a diversion of his company's enriched uranium to Israel, but concludes that even those who believe there was a diversion concede that there is no proof:

Today, many people in the nuclear and intelligence communities are still convinced that a diversion occurred. “I tend to think it happened,” [Peter] Stockton [a former senior investigator for the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee] told me. “In fact, I’m damn sure it happened.” But the believers also concede that the evidence against Shapiro remains largely circumstantial; the nail in the coffin, they say, would be a confession from the aging founder of NUMEC or the release of a yet-to-be-identified document that would show definitive proof. Neither, however, appears forthcoming. Sensitive documents are generally declassified in the United States within 50 years (though this timeframe is up to the president’s discretion). The 1954 Atomic Energy Act, however, provides for an exemption concerning anything related to “atomic information” and gives government agencies broad leeway to keep information classified indefinitely if it could potentially harm U.S national security.

Others argue that Shapiro has been unfairly maligned. “Shapiro would like to have rehabilitation,” said [Avner Cohen, an expert on Israel’s nuclear history and a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey]. “A lot of people believe a great deal of injustice was done to him. I don’t think there’s any definitive, clear smoking gun.”

Times readers who wade another 15 paragraphs deeper into Eitan's obituary may pick up on the mild suggestion that the case is not as exactly cut and dry as the prominent fourth paragraph – which sets out the unproven story as fact -- claims:
Over the next few decades he served as operations chief at Shin Bet, Israel’s equivalent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and as Mossad’s deputy operations chief. In 1965, posing as an Israeli government chemist, he visited a nuclear fuel plant in Apollo, Pa., outside Pittsburgh. It was later discovered that a large quantity of enriched uranium had vanished. Some American analysts concluded that it was more than a coincidence that Mr. Eitan’s visit had occurred around the time of the theft. (Emphasis added.)
Given that a top scientist dubbed the story a "mystery," and even the diversion theory proponents acknowledge there is no proof, then on what basis does The New York Times state as fact that Rafi Eitan played an important role in the theft of the uranium?      

Update: New York Times Corrects

In response to communication from CAMERA, editors commendably amended the digital article on March 25, making clear that Eitan had been suspected of diverting the enriched uranium from the Pennsylvania. The amended article no longer states as fact that he did it.

He was also suspected of being involved in the late-1960s disappearance of at least 100 pounds of highly enriched uranium from a nuclear fuel plant in the Pittsburgh area; many believed that the uranium was diverted to Israel to help its atomic bomb program.

In addition, editors appended the following correction to the bottom of the article:

An earlier version of this obituary referred incorrectly to the disappearance in the late 1960s of enriched uranium from a nuclear fuel plant in the Pittsburgh area. Though many believed that Israeli agents had stolen the material and diverted it to their country to help its nuclear weapons program, that allegation was never proved. And though Mr. Eitan visited the plant around the time of the disappearance, it was never shown conclusively that he had had an important role in it.

Today (March 27), The Times ran a correction in the print edition as well.

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