Media Beat, May 26, 1993
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon

U.S. Press Ignores Israeli Prisoner

Six months have passed since a leading British newspaper launched its campaign to free a news source, who remains imprisoned under conditions that Amnesty International describes as "cruel" and "inhuman."

The newspaper is the Sunday Times of London. The source is a man named Mordechai Vanunu, now in his seventh year of solitary confinement inside a 7-by-10-foot cell in Israel.

So far the newspaper's campaign to free him - announced Nov. 29 - has gone unreported in major American news media.

Israel's government, which kidnapped Vanunu from Italy in September 1986, considers the former Israeli nuclear worker to be a treasonous spy. But, as the Sunday Times has editorialized, "the Vanunu case is unique in one crucial respect: He was not a paid agent of a foreign power. Vanunu's 'crime' was to leak information to a newspaper - this newspaper. Should he remain alone in his cell until September 2004 for that?"

The Vanunu case continues to make headlines in Britain and elsewhere. But not here. With the exception of a CBS "60 Minutes" segment early in this decade, the 1990s have been virtually Vanunu-free in the U.S. mass media.

For nine years, Mordechai Vanunu worked as a technician at the Dimona complex in the Negev desert - where Israel has been producing nuclear warheads since the 1960s. To this day, however, the Israeli government sticks to the standard line that it "will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the region."

The fiction of a nuclear-arms-free Israel is abetted by American officialdom, mindful that U.S. law calls for a cutoff of aid to a country that acquires nuclear weapons. Two years ago, then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney used typical doubletalk: "As far as I know, Israel has never announced that it has any nuclear capability."

Meanwhile, Israel has proceeded with nuclear deployments. For instance, Seymour Hersh reports in his recent book, "The Samson Option," that the Israeli military placed nuclear land mines along the Golan Heights in the early 1980s.

Washington regularly lectures - and threatens - countries such as Iraq and North Korea about the necessity of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. But, winking at Israel's stockpile of sophisticated nuclear weaponry, the U.S. government turns a blind eye to the Vanunu case.

Mordechai Vanunu, who immigrated to Israel from Morocco as a child, began working at the Dimona nuclear plant in 1976, after three years in the Israeli army.

In 1985, shortly before his employment ended at the nuclear facility, Vanunu secretly took photos inside Dimona, which has always been closed to international inspection. Using severance pay to travel abroad in 1986, he contacted the famed Insight investigative unit of Britain's Sunday Times and flew to London.

Although the newspaper agreed to pay Vanunu for serialization or a book based on his information, staffers say he didn't seem to be after money. The main reporter on the story, Peter Hounam, says he sensed that Vanunu "had a genuine desire to tell the world of something that was going on which he felt was genuinely wrong for Israel to do."

On Oct. 5, 1986 - under the front-page headline "Revealed: The secrets of Israel's nuclear arsenal" - the Sunday Times broke the story. But several days earlier, Vanunu had been kidnapped by Israel's intelligence service, the Mossad.

The newspaper later reported that Vanunu was lured by a female Mossad agent to Rome, "where he was attacked by two men and held down while she injected him with a powerful anesthetic. He was chained and smuggled out of Italy in a cargo ship."

Charging Vanunu with treason and espionage, Israel claimed he had returned to his country voluntarily. But Vanunu wrote a contrary message on his palm, which he pressed to the window of a police van taking him to a court hearing in Jerusalem. His palm told the story: "Vanunu was hijacked in Rome, Italy, the 30th of September, 1986, 21:00 hours."

The press was barred from Vanunu's secret trial before an Israeli military court, which resulted in an 18-year prison sentence - his punishment for shedding light on Israel's arsenal of between 100 and 200 nuclear bombs.

Today, Vanunu remains in solitary confinement. "The longer he is kept in prison," the Sunday Times declared in a recent editorial, "the more he will become a martyr to the causes of press freedom and nuclear de-escalation."

In the United States, however, Vanunu stands little chance of becoming a martyr to the cause of press freedom. That's because the press keeps using its freedom to suppress his story.

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