Friday, March 10th, 2006
We have an extended conversation with Tony Benn, one of Britain’s most distinguished politicians and the longest serving MP in the history of the Labour party. Benn discusses the new revelations the British government helped Israel build the atom bomb. Benn also speaks about U.S. and U.K. relations, extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo Bay, torture, religion, and the state of the media.
BBC News revealed Thursday the British government secretly supplied Israel with hundreds of chemical shipments in the 1960’s, despite fears the chemicals could be used to develop nuclear weapons. Analysts say the shipments, which included plutonium, helped speed up Israel’s acquisition of an atomic bomb. All told, the BBC reported the British chemicals could have been used to produce bombs 20 times as powerful as those dropped on Hiroshima.
The deals were made in violation of strict government policy. According to de-classified government documents, a British government official named Michael Michaels oversaw the shipments behind the backs of his superiors. One of these superiors is our guest today. Tony Benn was Britain’s Minister of Technology at the time. That post was one of many that have come in the career of one of Britain’s most distinguished politicians.
Tony Benn served in the British Parliament for over half a century. He is the longest serving MP in the history of the Labour party, which he joined in 1942. In May 2001, Benn retired from House of Commons to, in his words, “devote more time to politics.” While many politicians take on corporate or lobby positions when they leave office, Benn became one of the harshest and most vocal critics of the Iraq war. He is a prominent leader of the Stop the War Coalition in Britain.
In February 2003 – one month before the invasion of Iraq – Benn interviewed Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. In December of last year, Benn was the lead signatory to an appeal sent on behalf of dozens of prominent British political and cultural figures asking the UN to investigate the US and British governments for war crimes in Iraq.
Tony Benn, former British Labour MP, one of Britain’s most distinguished politicians and the longest serving MP in the history of the Labour party. He is the author of several books, including “Free Radical: New Century Essays” and “Dare to be a Daniel: Then and Now,” an autobiography.
AMY GOODMAN: We welcome Tony Benn to the studios here in London to Democracy Now!
TONY BENN: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: It's great to have you with us. Well, let's begin with why you're in the news this week in Britain, and that has to do with -- well, we'll talk about Iran in a minute, but right now, this expose on, some 40 years ago, Britain helping Israel develop the atomic bomb secretly.
TONY BENN: This came out of the availability of papers that have previously been secret. I knew Michael Michaels very well. I went through my diary, which is about 17 million words long, and picked out every reference to him. And I had good grounds for not trusting him. But I had no idea of this, of course, at all. And he was doing it behind the back of ministers, and he undoubtedly did assist Israel and was intended to assist Israel, because I believe after he retired, he was given a job by the Israeli government. So there could be little doubt that that was what it was about.
But if you look at the story of nuclear weapons and nuclear power, it's very interesting. What I remember, as a navy pilot, hearing at Hiroshima, and I visited it later and Nagasaki, then Eisenhower said, “atoms for peace.” And that moved me, I thought a classic case of swords into plowshares, if you remember the Bible. And I a became an advocate of civil nuclear power. I was told it was cheap, safe and peaceful. And having been responsible for it for many, many years, I learned from experience, it wasn't cheap, with the cost of storage of nuclear waste and the research; it isn't safe, because Chernobyl and Three Mile Island and Windscale and so on; and it wasn't peaceful. But all the time it was motivated by the desire to build nuclear weapons.
And, I mean, the example we're just discussing was one. But I discovered after I left office, that without telling me, the plutonium from our civil power stations, what we called “atoms for peace power stations,” all the time was going to the United States for its weapons program. So, I’ve learned a lot from this. I’m now a passionate opponent of nuclear power and nuclear weapons, always was against nuclear weapons. But this story highlights the hypocrisy that lie behind so much of the comment about the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
AMY GOODMAN: In the BBC Newsnight story that we watched last night, that's big headlines today, one of the people interviewed is a man named Peter Kelly, who was at Whitehall, who was a defense intelligence analyst, who said he recognized quickly, back then in the 1960s, when shown pictures of what the Israeli government was saying was a textile factory -- this was Dimona -- he said, this is a nuclear factory.
TONY BENN: Well, of course, Mordechai Vanunu, who was arrested by -- he was kidnapped in London by the Israelis -- he was telling the Sunday Times what was going on -- in prison, much of it in solitary confinement, recently released with restrictions. But he warned us about Dimona. And I did know later about Dimona, as an Israeli military establishment, but I never knew until yesterday, or until it came out a few days ago, that we had helped to assist the Israelis in building it.
AMY GOODMAN: And you, as technology minister, would have had to sign off on this if you had known, is this right?
TONY BENN: Well, it wasn't put to me at all. It wasn’t put to ministers. I mean, this is the trouble with the nuclear industry, I came not to believe what I was told, and that throws a doubt on more than nuclear power: the question of democracy, if officials can operate as a state within a state. Where is the democratic control of policy? So it was a very, very serious thing to happen. And, of course, it also comes up at a time when, as you've been pointing out, there's a lot of pressure now on Iran not to develop nuclear technology in any form.
AMY GOODMAN: We're going to go to Iran in just a minute, because I want to play you some clips of politicians in the United States, like Donald Rumsfeld, like the New York Senator Hillary Clinton, about Iran. But before that, do you think Harold Wilson, the prime minister at the time you were technology minister, signed off on this, knew about what Britain was doing?
TONY BENN: I have no reason to believe he did. I would find it very hard to believe he had known. But I can't be absolutely sure. He was very sympathetic to Israel, I knew that. But he was so strong on non-proliferation, and you see in another case later, when we discovered Pakistan was developing the bomb, I took it straight to a cabinet committee on nonproliferation to see if we could take action to prevent it. So there's no question of that government being weak on the proliferation question. So, I have no reason to believe he knew.
AMY GOODMAN: I also heard Mordechai Vanunu interviewed on the BBC, responding to this expose in Britain, and he said, “I continue to call for international inspections” -- or rather, “independent inspections of the Dimona nuclear plant.”
TONY BENN: Well, you see, the United States and Britain are in total breach of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The Non-Proliferation Treaty says three things. One, the nuclear powers will agree to disarm collectively. Secondly, that other countries can develop nuclear technology. And thirdly, that nuclear powers will give absolute assurances they will never use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear state. And both the United States and Britain have now said that if their security was at stake, they would use nuclear weapons. What Bush has done -- I don't think you realize it -- that make the case for the spread of nuclear weapons, because I tell you this, if Iran had nuclear weapons now, he would not dare to attack it. So, actually, Bush is encouraging the spread, and when he went to India the other day, which isn’t a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, he signed an agreement. So, I mean, the thing is total hypocrisy. I think if we could get that clear, then we can consider how we deal with the situation that faces us.
AMY GOODMAN: Technology that could be used for nuclear weapons to India?
TONY BENN: Well, I mean, India is a nuclear weapons state. It isn't a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. And Bush's technical agreement will obviously assist the whole thing.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me play you some of the U.S. politicians talking about Iran. I wanted to talk about the Bush administration stepping up its rhetoric against Iran. This is Vice President Dick Cheney, addressing the annual gathering of the American Public Affairs Committee on Tuesday.
VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: The Iranian regime needs to know that if it stays on its present course, the international community is prepared to impose meaningful consequences. For our part, the United States is keeping all options on the table in addressing the irresponsible conduct of the regime.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking on Tuesday. That same day, the Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was asked about Iran at a Pentagon news conference, and this is what he had to say.
DONALD RUMSFELD: I will say this about Iran. They are currently putting people into Iraq to do things that are harmful to the future of Iraq, and we know it. And it is something that they, I think, will look back on as having been an error in judgment.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk of military force against Iran has not been exclusively Republican. This is Democratic Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, speaking at Princeton University in January.
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: We must move as quickly as feasible for sanctions in the United Nations, and we cannot take any option off the table in sending a clear message to the current leadership of Iran, that they will not be permitted to acquire nuclear weapons.
AMY GOODMAN: New York Democratic Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. We're going to go to break, and I'll get your response to what the U.S. and Britain are saying about Iran and what you think should happen. We're talking to long-time politician here in Britain, Tony Benn.