Recently declassified Pentagon documents reveal a strange, not to say illicit, 1980s operation called ‘Tipped Kettle,’ in which weapons stolen by Israel from the PLO in Lebanon were transferred to the Contras and to anti-American elements in Iran
The collection of declassified documents published two weeks ago by the Pentagon reveals infighting among branches of the U.S. administration and intrigues in foreign countries – including 1980s’ Israel. The impression one gets is not especially positive. The Americans are publishing the documents now not because they are trying somehow to suggest to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu how he should behave, but because the law obligates them to reveal records in due course following a review, unless there is a genuine reason to keep them secret. In the aforesaid period Netanyahu served as deputy to Moshe Arens, when he was Israel’s ambassador to Washington, D.C. (1982-83 ). Arens’ staff then also included Gen. Menachem Meron, the military attache in Washington, and spokesman Nachman Shai. Arens and his aides constituted an island of sanity in their relations with the administration of U.S. President Ronald Reagan, at a time of hostility in the U.S. capital toward the government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon.
The recently revealed documents deal with an operation dubbed “Tipped Kettle,” involving weapons the Israel Defense Forces looted from the Palestine Liberation Organization during Operation Peace for Galilee in Lebanon, and their transfer to the Contras – opponents of the socialistic Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. That was the first episode, of rather questionable legality according to U.S. law, in a more complex story whose second installment, in 1985-1986, became known as the Iran-Contra scandal. Part II was patently illegal – a blatant effort by the White House to violate a Congressional order and to cook up a strange deal involving the sale of American weapons (originally supplied to the IDF ) to anti-American Iran, for use in its war with Iraq; the release of Western hostages being held in Lebanon by Iranian-controlled Hezbollah; and the financing of Contras’ activities thanks to the difference between the sum paid by the Iranians and the true value of the weapons – minus a profit for those engaged in the deal.
By the end of that decade, during the trial of U.S. Marine Col. Oliver North and other officials in the Reagan administration, charged with deceiving Congress and providing false testimony to a special prosecutor, Operation Tipped Kettle was also briefly mentioned in the court proceedings. Now, however, the whole picture has come into view, with its emphasis on the behavior on the Israeli side.
In the fall of 1982, Reagan’s secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger, was trying to implement a policy intended to combat pro-Soviet elements in Latin America, including the Sandinistas. Even more belligerent than he was CIA director William Casey. The CIA had direct intelligence connections with the Mossad, but in the affair of the captured weapons the American agency preferred to hide behind the Pentagon. The system of communication between the CIA and the Pentagon was called Focal Point; it had been used to facilitate connections between them since the mid-1950s. Officially, Israel was unaware then that the weapons taken from the PLO would be used not by the U.S. Army in its training bases, but rather to arm the Contras.
Though the Republicans controlled the White House at the time, the Democrats controlled Congress. The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Edward Boland, achieved a majority for a series of bills named for him, which limited the administration’s ability to help the Contras. In one of the bills, passed in the fall of 1984, all U.S. intelligence agencies were prohibited from any such activity. (North tried to outsmart the law, claiming, after he came under investigation, that the National Security Council, which coordinated the operations, was not an intelligence agency. )
The legislation meant, in effect, that without the specific approval of Congress, no money could be formally budgeted in this case. Therefore, Casey, North and their colleagues had to use subterfuge to supply the arms, for example, by way of “donations” from foreign countries – Saudi Arabia, the Sultanate of Brunei – or circuitous deals with South Korea, Taiwan, China and especially Israel. The loot captured from the PLO during the war, at a cost of hundreds of Israeli dead, was particularly suitable for use by the Contras. And if Kalashnikov rifles fell into the hands of the Sandinistas, there would have been fewer questions about its source.
‘No policy problem’
The first of the Pentagon documents concerning Operation Tipped Kettle was sent by Weinberger to Casey on November 17, 1982. The subject: rifles, machine guns and light mortars for infantry fighters “captured by Israeli forces in Lebanon.” The Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency “can offer assistance in helping to acquire significant amounts of these types of weapons presently available in Lebanon.” The letter didn’t say from whom exactly the weapons would be purchased – from the Christian Phalange forces, from other organizations or from Palestinians in areas outside IDF control. The State Department, added Weinberger, had “no policy problem with this effort as long as it is not publicized.”
“In a separate action, our efforts to obtain captured weapons directly from the Israeli government have been delayed while their military attache, MG Meron, is out of the Washington area. He should return within the next few days and the subject will be raised at that time … We are prepared to meet your request through the Focal Point System,” wrote Weinberger.
In March 1983, four months later, Weinberger sent Casey a second letter, declaring, “I am glad to report significant progress.” In February, back in Israel, the Kahan Commission of inquiry report on the massacres in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in Beirut was submitted, as a consequence of which Ariel Sharon was dismissed as defense minister. At that point, staff from the embassy in Washington took over at the ministry in Tel Aviv: Arens was at the top, Meron became director general, and Shai was media adviser.
Weinberger reported that “a joint DoD/CIA survey team visited Israel and was shown about 300 metric tons of captured weapons and ammunition suitable for your purposes. Shortly after Ambassador Arens became the new Israeli MOD, the DoD was informed that these weapons would be provided to the U.S. at a small percentage of their market value. This charge, which I understand will be agency funded, would only be for packing and handling and is anticipated to be in the neighborhood of $100,000. My staff is in the process of setting up the movement of these weapons to the U.S. Due to the weight and bulk of these items they will have to be moved by surface transport and thereby will not be available until the May/June timeframe.”
That same day, the U.S. Navy was instructed to provide transport for “military items … that will be shipped from the Israeli port of Ashdod … to the East Coast of the United States.”
Weinberger updated Casey: “The shipment will be available for CIA pickup” and “can remain packed in the 34 Land/Sea containers until reaching their destination. The Land/Sea containers are the property of the Government of Israel and will need to be … returned to Israel.”
The shipment included 20,000 rifles and submachine guns, 1,000 machine guns, 90 recoil-less rifles, 110 mortars, 1,000 hand grenades and a large amount of ammunition. “The then newly appointed Israeli minister of defense, Moshe Arens, made the final decision that these weapons were to be provided on a gratis basis to DoD. This was one of MOD Arens’ first actions … and was clearly a signal of his desire to improve U.S./Israel relations,” according to the Pentagon documents.
Israel, with one-time and well-calculated generosity, did not lose much money here: In the 1980s, private arms dealers sold similar Kalashnikov rifles, made in Yugoslavia, for $210 each. The market value of all the Kalashnikovs in the shipment in question was only about $4 million; 60-mm. mortars were sold for about $1,500 and 81-mm. mortars for about $5,000.
A year later, the CIA’s appetite was whetted again; now there were additional factors in the equation. Weinberger’s new undersecretary for international security, Richard Armitage, became a close friend and regular visitor of the new military attache, Gen. Uri Simhoni; the same was true of Weinberger’s senior military assistant, Gen. Colin Powell.
In June 1984, Weinberger received a memo from Armitage describing the process by which the looted weapons had been transferred a year earlier. Armitage mentioned that the mission was accomplished as a result of talks between Maj. Gen. Richard Secord and Meron, and a decision by Arens. In February 1984 the Pentagon was asked to find out whether there were additional weapons available in Israel “under the same financial terms” – i.e., “available for operational use at little or no cost.” In contacts with the Israeli government a few months earlier, in March, it turned out that there were additional weapons stolen from the PLO caches, including Katyushas and anti-aircraft weapons, but that they were “for sale.” A joint Pentagon-CIA survey delegation, headed by the liaison officer with Israel (whose name is erased, apparently a Col. Forster ), went to Israel to examine the items.
“Contacts with the GOI,” noted Armitage dryly, “revealed that they had placed a value of over $77M on these weapons, while DoD sources estimated the cost of the weapons at around $27M.” Or, according to another estimate, $35 million. The head of the U.S. Army Museum, an expert on Soviet weapons, estimated the value at only $17 million.
Armitage’s deputy, U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Edward Tixier, Secord’s successor, was traveling to Israel to discuss a different matter and said he would speak privately to director general Meron to discuss transferring the second collection of captured weapons to the Pentagon at little or no cost. If Tixier succeeded, the weapons could arrive in the U.S. at the end of July and be sent immediately to the CIA.
Prior to the Armitage-Simhoni meeting on May 24, Armitage wrote to a liaison officer subordinate to him that “the chances of the U.S. ever obtaining these weapons is poor if they are not in our possession by July 23, 1984 (the date of the upcoming Israeli election ). Our contacts in the Israel MOD (to include both Mr. Arens and Gen. Meron ) could be gone the following day, and establishing relations with new players could be time-consuming.”
According to the recently declassified documents, Israeli activity was frozen at the time, because of “the confusion in the GOI over what direction U.S. policy in Central America is heading and the role that Israel can and should play in relation to the topic. If you feel that timing is right you may which to discuss the issue of payment for these weapons. Because Israeli funds would have to be found to cover specific project related costs (packing, crating, shipping ), we should offer to pay these line items. We should not offer to pay anything for the weapons for two reasons: the weapons will be used to further Western interests, and in the grand scheme of U.S./Israeli relations, a good will gesture on the part of Israel (at a low dollar cost for them ) would be most helpful with the GOI is requesting U.S. assistance on major projects such as funding for the new SAAR-5 missile-attack boat, the Lavi, the F-4 upgrade, the upgrading of the Merkava tank, and the usage of FMS funds off-shore, to mention a few.
“Prior to moving any of this equipment, there needs to be a lead time of several weeks, so that our EOD [explosive ordnance disposal] and logistics people can do the planning required to make this operation work. There is no time to spare if we are to complete this effort prior to Israeli elections.”
In order to save time, Meron suggested that packing of the weaponry begin – this time, over 100 containers were needed – while internal consultation in Israel continued.
The Arens-Meron camp, the Americans reported to their dispatchers, had two problems: IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Levi, eager to speed up the withdrawal of the IDF from Lebanon, gave top priority to establishing a security zone and therefore also arming of the forces of Saad Hadad – which became the South Lebanon Army – with the weapons in question. The IDF’s security assistance unit, headed by Col. (res. ) Zvi Reuter, and foreign relations department, demanded monetary compensation. Above all, the clock was ticking: Soon there would be a new Knesset and perhaps a new defense minister, who would bring in a new director general.
In the last telegram from Tel Aviv, bearing the censored signature of the liaison officer, there is an hour-by-hour description of the consultations, maneuvering and bargaining: hints that the price could be reduced if a way could be found to increase the aid; anger in the Pentagon at the Israeli chutzpah; examination of alternatives; encrypted telegrams from the embassy; bridging proposals; a “gentlemen’s agreement” without signatures.
The elections came and went and the race between Labor, headed by Shimon Peres, and Likud, headed by Yitzhak Shamir, ended in a tie. A week later, before the Peres-Shamir government was formed, Arens signed an approval of the transaction: Weapons worth $30 million to $40 million in exchange for the expectation of an increase in military assistance. Arens was forced to vacate the ministry in favor of Yitzhak Rabin, who like him was pro-American, but Meron remained in the post of director general for two more years.
The Tipped Kettle papers end with an internal memo, with no addressees or signatories, which was written on the day the Iran-Contra affair was exposed, in November 1986. It reports that Reuter, the head of security assistance , complained that the debt for the second transaction had yet to be paid. The complaint was examined in the Pentagon and it revealed an astonishing finding. The Israeli military attache’s office in Washington and the international branch of the Defense Department had reached a secret arrangement: In return for Israel waiving the payment, the U.S. defense contractor Numax was to retain its security clearance and government contracts after being purchased by Israel.
What the officers and ministers, the officials and ambassadors are doing in secret today will be revealed, thanks to the Americans in another 25 years.