Mordechai Vanunu: Israel's Whistle Test

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Paul Foot hails the 'whistleblower' who exposed Israel's nuclear programme.

I have been a journalist for the last 40 years or so, and most of that time I have been exceedingly fortunate in that I have been able to decide what to investigate and what to write about. All that time I have been struck by the ingenious and comprehensive methods by which capitalist society protects itself from the circulation of information. The essence of that society is exploitation, and the facts and figures of that exploitation are wherever possible kept secret from the exploited. This is not to say that there is nothing to discover. Especially in parliamentary democracies like ours, the published documents and broadcast statements provide a wealth of information about what is really going on, but all this is on the surface and therefore not very illuminating.

There are however two sides to exploitation - and two sides to the information about it. On one side, the exploiters want to keep things quiet. On the other, from time to time the exploited have the guts to broadcast what they know. The most combustible information comes from the inside, from people who know what is really going on but for various reasons usually keep quiet about it. From the journalist's point of view, the richest information comes from people contemptuously known as 'whistleblowers'. The sporting metaphor is typical of the way society sees these champions. They look on them as referees who 'blow the whistle' on something they identify as wrong. But they are much more crucial than that. In almost every case they are people who have experienced something monstrous in their workplace and who do their best to bring the monstrosity into public view.

The sporting metaphor pretends that because the 'whistleblower' is doing the right thing he or she should, and probably will, be protected by society. Hence, for instance, the new act of parliament that protects people from victimisation if they split on their bosses. This act is a great improvement. But it cannot begin to compensate for the fury of employers and important people when their secrets are divulged. The reality of power in our society means that the first duty of the journalist who gets secret information is to protect the source. The sources, and the fact that they are putting themselves at risk, become more important than the information itself.

No source in modern times proved this more dramatically than Mordechai Vanunu. He worked for some years at the Dimona plant in Israel, where nuclear weapons were being manufactured. He was shocked by the fact that no one in Israel or anywhere else seemed to know about it. At a time when weapons of mass destruction were very much in the news, and the conflicts in the Middle East constantly covered in the media, no one knew that the most powerful military force in the area was arming itself with nuclear weapons. He took pictures of the plant, and of the nuclear processes, and left his job. In 1986 he came to London and gave his information and his photographs to the Sunday Times.

Since the mid-1960s the Sunday Times had established a reputation as a newspaper that printed information wherever it came from and however much damage it did to the government. The 'Insight' team operated independently and published the results of several vital investigations. By 1986, however, this tradition was withering. The paper's new proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, detested the investigative traditions of the newspaper and appointed a new editor, Andrew Neil, to put a stop to them. Neil duly sacked the editor of 'Insight' and dispensed with the journalism for which it was renowned. At the beginning of 1986 Murdoch had moved his premises to Fortress Wapping and smashed the unions. But even Andrew Neil, the sworn enemy of investigative journalism, could see the significance of the story that Mordechai brought him. No one knew that Israel had nuclear weapons, and the impact of that information on a world where the nuclear powers were striving to maintain their nuclear dominance was incalculable. The information and the photographs were thoroughly checked. The Israeli embassy was bombarded with requests for confirmation, which was refused, and the story was published on the front page.

In all the excitement surrounding the publication of the scoop, the Sunday Times managed to lose its precious source. Mordechai was consigned to the loose charge of a couple of journalists who had no instructions as to how they were to keep him safe, and no means to do so. Wandering around disconsolate and lonely, he was approached in Leicester Square by an attractive young woman who befriended him and persuaded him to fly with her to Rome. The woman was an agent of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service. In Rome the unsuspecting Mordechai was attacked, knocked unconscious, drugged, bound hand and foot, and taken by boat to Israel, where he was convicted of high treason and sentenced to prison for 18 years. That sentence has now been served in full, much of it in solitary confinement, and Mordechai is due to be released this month. The Israeli government, which never stops boasting about its commitment to the rule of law, is threatening either not to release him or to commit him to house arrest. Meanwhile the whole world outside debates whether or not there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, while the fact that there are such weapons in the most powerful nation in the region is conveniently forgotten.

For journalists in particular, but for anyone interested in the free flow of information, Mordechai Vanunu is a hero. He risked his free existence in the interests of circulating free and vital information. He never asked for nor received a penny for his story. The British government and the Sunday Times are both responsible for his appalling treatment, and both should campaign relentlessly for his release, and for his right to spend the rest of his life in freedom.