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Israel releases ‘atomic prisoner’

Mordechai Vanunu, who served 18 years in jail for spilling Israel's nuclear secrets, was released on Wednesday, but he faces extraordinary security restrictions for the rest of his life. NBC's Preston Mendenhall reports.
Mordechai Vanunu flashes a victory sign as he is freed from Shikma jail in Ashkelon after serving an 18-year prison term for revealing secrets that exposed Israel as one of the world's top atomic powers.Nir Elias / Reuters
/ Source: NBC News

With the country focused squarely on the threat of Hamas militants, a balding, 49-year-old Israeli walking out of prison here on Wednesday wouldn’t seem likely to attract much attention.

But as Mordechai Vanunu emerged from the blue and white gates of Shikma Prison, about 50 miles southwest of Jerusalem, Israeli security immediately clamped down.

After serving 18 years in prison, Vanunu, the man who blew the whistle on Israel’s secret nuclear weapons program, will be tailed by special police, barred from talking to foreigners and banned from leaving the country.

"I am a symbol of the will of freedom," said Vanunu, wearing a dark tie and a somber expression. "You cannot break the human spirit."

But Vanunu’s strength of mind will be tested.

Fearing Vanunu will spill more state secrets abroad, Israel’s interior minister has issued an order forbidding Vanunu from approaching seaports, airports and foreign embassies. He will not be able to join Internet chat rooms, much less meet with friends, without informing the authorities in advance.

The unprecedented security measures stem from Vanunu’s decision, in 1986, to detail Israel’s nuclear capabilities to a London paper. On the eve of publication, he was lured to Rome by a blond "honey trap" working for the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service. Vanunu was beaten, drugged, smuggled back to Israel and sentenced in a closed trial. He spent more than half his sentence in solitary confinement in a six-by-nine-foot prison cell, despite international protests.

The Israeli government, which neither confirms nor denies it has nuclear weapons, has portrayed Vanunu as a traitor, whose revelations jeopardize the security of the Jewish state.

But Israel is also finding that Vanunu’s release, and the return to the headlines of his sensational accusations, has troublesome consequences: As Washington, a key Israeli ally, draws attention to the nuclear ambitions of Middle East countries like Iran and Iraq, Vanunu’s case puts Israel’s own production of weapons of mass destruction under the international spotlight.

‘I am proud’
Vanunu, left the prison later than his 11 a.m. scheduled release, reportedly due to his refusal to go through the formality of providing authorities with his new address. His brother, Meir, drove him to an undisclosed location near Tel Aviv. As Vanunu left, about 150 human rights campaigners and anti-nuclear protestors, mostly from abroad, cheered.

Vanunu flashed the victory sign to the crowd before addressing dozens of journalists in an impromptu press conference. Speaking in English, he described "very cruel and barbaric treatment" in prison. He refused to respond to questions in Hebrew, blaming the Israeli state for his suffering.

"I am proud and happy to do what I did," he said.

Israelis protesters shouted epithets at the Vanunu supporters, among them British actress Susannah York and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire of Northern Ireland.

As Vanunu resumed his life outside prison walls, relatives and friends painted a picture of a despondent man, struggling to come to terms with the security restrictions placed on him for at least a year.

"He’s not a free man," Meir Vanunu said of his brother. Inside prison, "the isolation from human beings was the most severe. That affected him mentally and physically."

A Defense Ministry statement said the ban on Vanunu was due to "a tangible danger ... that Vanunu wishes to divulge state secrets, secrets that he has not yet divulged and which have not been previously published."

Israel's arsenal
Israel sees the nuclear option as its last line of defense against everything from another Holocaust to hostile Arab neighbors.

The brainchild of opposition leader and former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Israel’s nuclear program took form in the 1950s and 1960s. The first weapons were produced the night of Nov. 2, 1966, near Haifa. By the 1967 Middle East war, Israel had two weapons. By the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel possessed more than 20 weapons, according to U.S. officials and a former Israeli scientist speaking on condition of anonymity.

Current intelligence estimates of Israel’s nuclear weapons range from 80 to more than 200, with five different designs, a database of 80 targets and more than 50 nuclear-capable missiles in the top secret "Second Wing" of the Israeli air force. A like number of nuclear-capable fighter bombers, the so-called "Black Squadron," are believed to be parked at Tel Nof, in central Israel.

The officials also say there are nuclear weapons labs at Soreq, near Tel Aviv, a nuclear weapons manufacturing facility in the north at Yodefat, a nuclear reactor and plutonium reprocessing plant at Dimona, where Vanunu worked as a nuclear technician, and at least two weapons storage facilities at Eilabun in the north and Tirosh in the south of the country.

Despite evidence pointing to a formidable nuclear program, Israel has adopted a policy of "strategic ambiguity" around its weapons production. The release of Vanunu, however, has underscored the complexities of that approach and, by extension, of the U.S.-Israeli relationship.

U.S. law prevents Washington from supporting nations that produce weapons of mass destruction. Last year, Israel received a record $2.8 billion in U.S. aid.

The United States has also threatened Israel’s arch-foe Iran with sanctions if it does not allow U.N. inspections of its nuclear weapons facilities.

Israel, which did not sign the 1970 U.N. Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, has kept its facilities free from inspections.

"Sometimes I’m not sure who is more interested in silencing the matter (of Israel’s nuclear weapons), Israel or America," Meir Vanunu said.

"The Americans have a policy of putting a spotlight in one direction and covering the other side. When my brother spoke, he didn’t come up only against the silence of his country, but mostly against the silence and the interests of the United States."

Labeled a traitor
The crowd outside Shikma Prison was emblematic of Vanunu’s problems now that he’s free. His biggest supporters are foreigners, but he cannot meet with them or leave the country. Most Israelis consider him a turncoat.

"He is a traitor because he grew up with us. He got everything he has from Israel. He got his education. He got his job. He worked for the government of Israel," said Gilad Erdan, a member of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset.

Nick and Mary Eoloff, activists from St. Paul, Minn. who adopted Vanunu in 1997 out of solidarity with his plight, said he is a hero who acted on his conscience and belief that nuclear weapons are a bane on humanity.

"They’ve taken his life. He’s served the term. And they want to imprison him further by putting all these restrictions on him," Mary Eoloff said.

Vanunu appeared to suggest his defiance would continue as a free man.

Speaking about Israel’s intelligence services, he said, "You didn’t succeed to break me. You didn’t succeed to make me crazy."

But he denied Israeli allegations he intended to reveal more secrets. "I have no more secrets," Vanunu said.

A glimpse of Vanunu’s mindset upon leaving prison came on Sunday, when audiotapes of a security agent’s interview with him two weeks ago were leaked to the press. In the recording, Vanunu is heard saying there was no need for a Jewish state, drawing more ire from Israelis and their leaders.

"Vanunu violated norms and betrayed his country," Shimon Peres told Army Radio. Peres, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, went on to call Vanunu’s prison term "justice."

In the recording, Vanunu also defended his actions, saying, "I acted in a way that was honest with myself."

Safety concerns
Vanunu’s friend and family expressed concern for his safety. At least one newspaper columnist and radio talk show host suggested Vanunu be killed if he reveals more about Israel’s nuclear capabilities. Some media have published the location of an apartment where Vanunu is expected to live.

"The hostility has been building for the last two months," Meir Vanunu said.

"I am afraid for my brother’s life."

Born an Orthodox Jew, Vanunu converted to Christianity in the 1980s, the first in a series of life changes that led him to question Israeli government policies, embrace pacifism and declare his sympathies for the Palestinian cause. A further restriction on his release prohibits Vanunu from approaching Palestinian territory.

Laid off from the Dimona nuclear facility, Vanunu traveled the world. His discussions with fellow travelers caught the attention of a journalist. The photos and information published in October 1986 undercut Israel’s denial of its weapons programs.

Vanunu’s biological parents no longer acknowledge him. Nick and Mary Eoloff, who will need security clearance to see their adopted son, say he wants to move to the United States, though it’s not clear when or if that will be possible.

"He’d like to get married, and he really just wants to lead a quiet, normal life," Mary Eoloff said. "He doesn’t want to climb up on a pedestal. Israel says he’s going to go off and talk about nuclear weapons. Maybe he will, maybe he won’t. But he says he just wants freedom of speech. To be able to say it, if he chooses."