Richard Smyth, indicted in May 1985 for illegally exporting nuclear trigger devices to Israel, is now a fugitive. In August 1985, two days before he was scheduled to appear in court, Smyth and his wife sailed his boat to Catalina Island, off the coast of southern California, and disappeared, forfeiting his $100,000 bail. Some US intelligence agents believe Smyth was murdered. Other reports now place him in Israel. “There was no way Israel could afford an appearance by Smyth in court,” said one US operative.

For more than a decade, Smyth was a principal link in Israeli efforts to obtain critical American nuclear components and technology. A number of US government and industry officials place Smyth at the center of efforts on Israel’s behalf to evade US export control laws over the course of a decade.

In 1972, Smyth was working for North American Rockwell, a major US military contractor, on the company’s advanced research programs. One day that year, a Rockwell vice president walked into Smyth’s office. Smyth was on the phone and the official let his eye stray over the papers on Smyth’s desk.

“I can read upside down as well as any reporter,” says the executive who, like most sources interviewed for this story, preferred to remain anonymous. One document, he says, indicated that Smyth was planning to export to Israel a butyl rubber compound that is on the list of prohibited exports maintained by the State Department’s Office of Munitions Control. The compound can be used as a binder in solid propellant rocket fuel of the type Israel was developing for its Jericho missiles. Smyth was sending the prohibited material to a Houston company he controlled. From there it was shipped to a third company in Israel. Both the Houston company and the Israel company were owned by arms dealer Arnon Milchan. Another Milchan company received the nuclear trigger devices (krytrons) which Smyth had smuggled out years later, and for which he was indicted in 1985.

(Milchan had started his career with a small agricultural chemical company inherited from his father. He moved into arms dealing in the early 1970s, and became the Israeli representative for Raytheon, Magnavox, Bell Helicopters and North American Rockwell, as well as other companies. In 1975, the Pentagon refused to let Raytheon pay Milchan a commission of $300,000 for his role in arranging the sale of Hawk anti-aircraft missile batteries to Israel.)

“When Smyth got off the phone, I asked him what that stuff on his desk had to do with what we were supposed to be doing,” recalled the Rockwell executive, who himself had been involved for years in highly classified US “black curtain” military programs. “He told me it was for Israel, which had need of certain components and he was going to get them. I thought ‘What the hell,’ and just went on and talked to him about something else.”

The butyl compound was an important ingredient in Israel’s efforts to perfect the propulsion and guidance systems of its Jericho intermediate range ballistic missile. The Jericho program had been started in the late 1950s under Shimon Peres, then director general of Israel’s defense ministry, in cooperation with France’s Dassault aerospace company. Back in the early 1960s, Parker T. Hart was deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs. The range and size of the Dassault missile, he recalls, “led us to conclude that it was capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. And after the discovery of Dimona we believed that they also had the capability to build a [nuclear] bomb.”

The Jericho system was characterized by one Defense Intelligence Agency official as “the ultimate retaliatory weapon.” On October 8, 1973, Israel’s commander of the northern front, Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Hoffl, informed Defense Minister Moshe Dayan that he could not hold out much longer against Syria’s armored offensive across the Golan Heights. After midnight that evening, Dayan received permission from Prime Minister Golda Meir to arm 13 Jerichos with nuclear warheads. These were assembled in underground tunnels over the next 78 hours. “We weren’t sure whether or not the deployment in 1973 was a bluff,” said one US intelligence official. “We had heard that the Jericho’s guidance system was highly unreliable. The important thing was that the Egyptians and the Soviets believed that Israel had the weapon.”

Today’s more accurate and longer-range Jericho II is deployed at Beersheva air base and at other sites in the Negev. US satellite photos show large blast doors; the missiles themselves are lodged in caves cut out of the rock. Railroad tracks are visible in the bedrock. The Jericho carries a warhead derived from the US XW-58 warhead, about 20 to 24 inches long and 18 to 20 inches in diameter and weighing about 200 pounds. With an accuracy of between 500 and 1,000 meters, it is a weapon “designed for air bursts above city populations or above massed armor formations,” according to one US expert.

The Jericho was just one of the Israeli military projects that Richard Smyth assisted from the late 1960s until his indictment in 1985. He facilitated a steady flow of illegally exported US technology through a network of US and Israeli military and civilian aerospace and defense experts. Smyth’s address book reads like a who’s who of Israeli military and intelligence personalities. A key contact at the Ministry of Defense was Gen. Zvi Tzur. In the 1970s Tzur worked with Rockwell to export the top-secret Ibex radar system to Iran. Another was Gen. Shlomo Inbar, who once boasted during a visit to the Pentagon that if the US did not release certain technologies, Israel would steal them. Inbar subsequently returned to Washington in July 1977 as military attache.

Smyth also maintained contact with several Israeli intelligence operatives stationed at the Israeli Defense Purchasing Mission in New York, among them Shmuel Dror, Dov Eden, Avram Marder, Menashi Simchi, E. Makleff and M. Daron. Smyth numbered among his friends Gen. (ret.) Meir Amit, chairman of Koor Industries and former head of Mossad, along with top executives from Tadiran, Israel Electro-Optics and other weapons firms. Smyth had a reputation as a very capable engineer who shared the Israeli military knack for adapting weapons systems and components to their own specifications and use. At the time of his indictment, he had just returned from a NATO meeting in the Hague, where he served on AGARD (Advisory Group for Aerospace Research and Development, especially inertial guidance and flight control systems for tactical missiles).

One US intelligence source described Israel’s top defense priority in the period before 1973 as acquiring “an operational intermediate range nuclear missile,” i.e., the Jericho. “State had prohibited export of the aluminum extrusions, which are basically rocket shells. Well, Smyth got the extrusions, he got aluminum rings and castings — I know that because I helped — and he got the most important element, the inertial gyro system.” Another US specialist believes that Smyth’s collections from his work at Rockwell on aircraft guidance systems found their way into Israel’s Kfir fighter bomber. “I knew Smyth and I myself participated in illegal transport of technology to Israel,” said a vice president of Hughes Space Division, “I had no qualms about it. Here was our ally, a beleaguered ally, if you will, and I knew that unauthorized activities were occurring. There are a lot of Smyths.” After resigning from Rockwell in 1974, Richard Smyth worked for a number of companies owned by Arnon Milchan. “What Smyth did was pass on to Israel virtually hundreds of millions of dollars of advanced US technology,” said one former undersecretary of state. “You used a series of front companies, you mislabeled contents, you massaged the system.”

According to US intelligence specialists we spoke with, the Israelis are masters at massaging the US export controls system. Israeli intelligence operatives are attached to the Purchasing Mission in New York, and the offices of Science and Technology (S&T) at the embassy and consulates also conduct important intelligence functions. S&T offices report directly back to Israel, independent of the embassy. Convicted American spy Jonathan Pollard’s handlers were attached to S&T. S&T offices are staffed by scientists and technical experts responsible for monitoring new technological developments and maintaining liaison with US experts, contractors and defense installations.

When Smyth was arrested, Arnon Milchan dismissed the charges as “silly,” the result of an oversight in filing proper export requests. Israeli government officials trivialized the krytrons as simple devices used for turning on lights. One US missile specialist responded flatly that “Kn 26s are nuclear switches. That’s all they’re good for.” Another official described the switches as “buried in a bunch of harmless devices — typical intelligence tradecraft.”

Krytrons have more than nuclear applications, but the reason exports were “controlled” is because they serve as super accurate timing devices in nuclear warheads. Besides Israel, Pakistan had also been trying to circumvent export controls to import the devices. Pakistan is the only other state in the Middle East with the capacity to manufacture a nuclear warhead. The Pakistani involved in that incident was nabbed by US officials before any of the krytrons left the United States.

According to Smyth’s indictment, he smuggled 810 of the triggers over a period of several years. The Israeli Ministry of Defense has returned only 500 of them. Ironically, from December 1984 until recently, Smyth or anyone else could export krytrons almost without restriction. While some parts of the nuclear export controls bureaucracy were closely scrutinizing the export of krytrons, others inexplicably promulgated regulations which facilitated their export.

Until December 1984, krytrons were “called out” as a separate line item in the International Trade in Arms Regulations (ITARS) and placed under the jurisdiction of the State Department’s Office of Munitions Control. The export of even a single krytron required an OMC license. Smyth’s failure to secure licenses forms the basis of the indictment against him.

On December 6, 1984, six months before Smyth’s indictment, krytrons suddenly disappeared as a separate ITARS line, effectively removing them from export controls. This move apparently originated with COCOM, the Paris-based coordinating committee where representatives of major Western arms and technology exporting countries and Japan promulgate export control regulations. “You can count the number of people that noticed this change on your fingers and toes,” said Don Michel, general manager of EG&G, the Salem, Massachusetts, electronics firm that manufactures krytrons. EG&G was not aware of the change until the summer of 1985. It seems that Richard Smyth and Arnon Milchan were much more attentive. They evidently knew of these arcane developments as they happened.

Krytron exports remained unregulated until September 11, 1985. Then new directives were published in the Federal Register which enabled most countries to import up to $1,000 worth of the timers (they sell for between $90 and $200 apiece) without an export license, and shifted licensing responsibility to the more export promotion-minded Commerce Department.

Despite the new regulations, the manufacturer, EG&G, and the Office of Munitions Control have agreed on an ad hoc basis to maintain the more restrictive former procedures. According to one company source, OMC told them that “if you don’t license with us we will tell Customs to seize the krytrons.” Land-Seas Corporation, a New York export firm that deals only with Israel, suddenly began ordering large numbers of krytrons in the fall of 1985, apparently stepping into the breach left by Smyth’s indictment. EG&G notified OMC which refused to grant Land-Seas a license.

One official in favor of tighter controls on krytrons is Stephen Bryen, deputy undersecretary of defense for trade security policy. Bryen himself was once under Justice Department investigation for passing classified information to Israeli military intelligence while employed as a Senate staff aide. Bryen says his office supports maintaining the tougher export restrictions, though he characterizes krytrons as “a trivial technology at this point” and considers it “a debatable point whether it is worth controlling something that small and that old.” (Krytron technology dates from the 1930s.)

Our inquiries prompted an inter-agency meeting in July 1986 held at the State Department and attended by representatives from the Departments of Energy, Commerce, Defense and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Officials from the manufacturer, EG&G were also there, hoping for some clarification of export procedures. “None of them had anything to say,” remarked an EG&G representative after the meeting.

Soon afterward a notice in the Federal Register reinstated the requirement to license all krytron exports, although authority remained vested with the Commerce Department. According to one industry source, “people [in Commerce] screening licenses” were not aware of this change. In one case, the People’s Republic of China successfully applied for an export license from Commerce for krytrons. EG&G informed the Office of Munitions Control, which prevailed upon Commerce to revoke the license.

Meanwhile, Richard Smyth’s fate remains a mystery. Some US analysts said flatly that they believe Smyth has been killed. Others, more skeptical, refer to Justice Department reports which claim sightings of Smyth in Israel and London. In their view, Smyth is still collecting intelligence, this time not for Israel but for the United States. They are convinced that Smyth’s krytron indictment was a ploy by US intelligence to insert Smyth into the Israeli defense establishment. His task: to obtain knowledge of Israeli work in developing an anti-theater ballistic missile (ATBM) system.

Officials at the Pentagon’s Strategic Defense Initiative Organization recently told Israel that the US might be willing to award a $100 million “Star Wars” contract to assist the development of such an ATBM system. Some US experts say the Israelis could have “the first such system to be deployed.” Said one US analyst, “The US has a great need to know in this area, and if anyone would be perfect it would be Smyth.”

How to cite this article:

Geoffrey Aronson, Richard Sale "Exporting Nuclear Triggers," Middle East Report 146 (May/June 1987).

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