Israeli and American officials on Friday firmly refused to discuss former US secretary of state Colin Powell’s assessment that Israel possesses some 200 nuclear weapons, as stated in an email Powell wrote to a business colleague that was apparently leaked by Russian hackers this week.
Discussing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s March 3, 2015 speech to Congress about the dangers posed by the Iranian nuclear deal, in an email he sent that same day to US Democratic party donor Jeffrey Leeds, Powell wrote that he doubted the Iranian regime would use an atomic bomb even if it could get one, since “the boys in Tehran know Israel has 200, all targeted on Tehran, and we have thousands.” The email was published by the LobeLog foreign policy website.
Israel maintains a policy of so-called nuclear ambiguity, neither publicly confirming nor denying the existence of an atomic arsenal.
Itai Bardov, spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, on Friday declined to discuss Powell’s email or Israel’s policy of not commenting on whether it has nuclear weapons.
Asked about the issue at a briefing Friday, State Department spokesman John Kirby also declined to comment. “I’m not going to discuss matters of intelligence,” Kirby said. “We support the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.”
Powell, a retired Army general who also served as White House national security adviser and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told The Associated Press on Friday through a spokeswoman he was referring to public estimates of Israel’s nukes.
“Gen. Powell has not been briefed or had any knowledge from US sources on the existence and or size of an Israeli nuclear capability,” the statement said. “He like many people believe that there may be a capability and the number 200 has been speculated upon in open sources.” It added: “This email was written 10 years after he left government and has not received briefings on classified matters.”
Powell, 79, would not say whether he still retains a security clearance.
Powell is not the first top-level US government official to publicly discuss Israel’s nukes. Former president Jimmy Carter has said in interviews and speeches that Israel has between 150 and 300 warheads.
But the issue is not supposed to be discussed openly by those who work for the US government and hold active security clearances. Even members of Congress are routinely admonished not to even mention the existence of an Israeli nuclear arsenal, said Avner Cohen, a professor at the James Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.
“It’s noteworthy that someone like Colin Powell said that,” said Cohen, who has written extensively about Israel’s nuclear program. “Obviously, he was privy to all kinds of intelligence on this issue. It’s kind of considered by everybody to be a public fact, but the United States government as a matter of policy has never said that.”
Cohen said US intelligence on Israel’s nuclear program carries “top-level” classification. As an indication of the subject’s sensitivity, he pointed to the recent case James Doyle, a political scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico who lost his job after publishing an academic paper in 2013 that included Israel on a list of nations that either “possess nuclear arms or are in alliance with nuclear powers.”
According to a 2014 report by the Federation of American Scientists, the Jewish state is believed to possess between 80 and 400 nuclear weapons, though that document’s authors estimated the figure was closer to 80.
Powell’s email, sent on March 3, 2015, more than doubled that approximation. As a former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, his figure of 200 nuclear weapons would appear to carry more weight than the approximations of the “news media reports, think tanks, authors, and analysts” cited in the FAS report.
A trove of Powell’s emails was posted on the website DCLeaks.com and first reported by Buzzfeed News late Tuesday. Powell, 79, did not deny the emails’ authenticity when asked for comment by Buzzfeed.
The emails, which run from March 2015 through last month, offer rare insight into the unvarnished opinions of the respected retired US Army general, who was secretary of state under President George W. Bush.
DCLeaks.com has been alleged to be an outlet for hackers tied to the Russian intelligence groups. The website, which says it intends to expose the misuse of political power, has previously released emails from other Washington political figures.
In the leaked emails, Powell also bashed both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and spoke frankly about a number of issues related to the US government.
However, his March 3, 2015, email dealt specifically with the Iranian nuclear deal and Netanyahu’s controversial speech to Congress that day about it.
Powell told Leeds, a hedge-fund founder who serves on the board of the Colin L. Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at the City College of New York, that he had watched “parts of it,” and that is was “well done, but nothing new. I could have mouthed it.”
He challenged some of the assertions made by Netanyahu in the speech. According to Powell, the Iranians “can’t use [a nuclear bomb] if they finally make one,” because of Israel’s overwhelming arsenal.
“As Akmdinijad (sic) [said], ‘What would we do with one, polish it?'” he wrote, referring to former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Powell said that while all his “buddies” in Abu Dhabi wanted an Iranian nuclear deal and had been working for over a decade to reach one, he was unconvinced.
“I don’t trust Iranians — almost went to jail over Iran-Contra,” he wrote, referring to a political scandal in the United States in the late 1980s, in which American officials were caught facilitating weapons sales to Iran, despite an arms embargo.
Powell also cast doubt on the amount of time that Netanyahu and others estimated that it would take Iran to develop a nuclear bomb.
“Bibi likes to say ‘a year away,’ as do our intel guys. They say it every years (sic),” Powell wrote.