WASHINGTON — Rafael Eitan, the Israeli named recently in an alleged espionage ring in the United States, traveled in 1968 to a nuclear plant in Apollo, Pa., where large amounts of weapons-grade uranium disappeared and was allegedly diverted to Israel, documents showed today.
Eitan, a former chief of operations for the Mossad, the Israeli CIA, was one of four Israelis who received U.S. clearance to meet with officials at the NUMEC plant in Apollo on Sept. 10, 1968, according to declassified FBI documents.
Two reports on that meeting, included in thousands of pages of documents released recently under the Freedom of Information Act, listed Eitan as a chemist with the Ministry of Defense in Israel.
Anthony Cordesman, a former Pentagon official now director of an Arlington, Va., defense "think tank," said Eitan's participation in the 1968 meeting was "extremely hard evidence" that he has long been operating with Israeli intelligence in the United States.
At the time, Eitan was a member of a select Israeli intelligence unit, traditionally associated with Ariel Sharon, a leader in the hard-line Israeli Likud Party, that actively sought U.S. defense capabilities, Cordesman said.
"There is no conceivable reason for Eitan to have gone (to the Apollo plant) but for the nuclear material."
Eitan is a legendary Israeli intelligence figure who was a member of a team that snatched Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann off a Buenos Aires street in 1960 and brought him to trial in Israel.
U.S. prosecutors earlier this month said Eitan directed the Israeli operation that recruited Navy analyst Jonathan Pollard, who pleaded guilty to selling secret American documents to Israel. Pollard's wife, Anne Henderson-Pollard, also pleaded guilty to lesser charges in the espionage ring, which dated from at least June, 1984.
An FBI spokesman said that the NUMEC investigation was closed but that he could not comment because the Pollard case is still pending. Justice Department spokesmen also declined immediate comment.
Since the Pollard affair broke with Pollard's arrest last November, straining U.S.-Israeli relations, Eitan has been given the post of chairman of a government-owned chemical conglomerate.
His participation in the alleged ring, as well as that of Aviem (Avi) Sella, an Israeli air force brigadier general identified as Pollard's first "handler," has prompted U.S. concern about whether the ring was a "renegade" operation as the Israelis have claimed and whether that government has cooperated fully in the U.S. investigation.
The small Apollo processing plant was the subject of a decades-long U.S. investigation into the alleged diversion of hundreds of pounds of enriched uranium to Israel. Code-named project "Divert," the probe was first launched in 1966 when the government found that 206 pounds of enriched uranium vanished from the plant without a trace.
The documents show that the FBI, the CIA and the now-defunct Atomic Energy Commission spent 15 years trying to discover what happened to the uranium, investigating allegations that it was somehow passed to Israel by Zalman Shapiro, a Jewish scientist who headed the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. Later inquiries also examined whether U.S. officials may have known about the diversion and let it happen.
During the time Shapiro headed NUMEC, 267 kilograms, or 587 pounds of uranium turned up missing.