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U.S. Sells Bunker Busters To Israel

GUY RAZ, Host:

Here's another story we're following this weekend. Newsweek is set to publish a piece on Monday that back in 2009, the Obama administration secretly provided Israel with 55-deep penetrating bombs, so-called bunker busters. And there's some speculation that those bombs could be used in the event Israel decides to launch a military strike against suspected Iranian nuclear development sites.

Reporter Eli Lake broke the story, and he joins me now. And, Eli, first of all, these were the same bunker busters, I understand, that the Bush administration initially refused to sell to Israel. Remind us of the background here.

ELI LAKE: Yes. In 2005, the Israelis initially requested this particular kind of bunker buster, which is the top of the line. It can go through 20 feet of solid concrete. And the rationale at the time was deep concerns with Israeli transfers of military technology to China.

That issue was largely resolved by 2007. And in a secret letter from President Bush to Prime Minister Olmert, Bush agreed to sell the bunker busters. But that sale was then deferred two years into what became the Obama administration. And then Obama, very early in his administration, approved the transfer of 55 out of 100 that had - Bush had agreed to sell Israel in 2009.

RAZ: You write that the Bush administration did not sell them to Israel because there was concern at the Pentagon that it would send the wrong message about Iran, right?

LAKE: Well, the original concern was about the China transfer. But later on, the Pentagon did not have this concern, but it was described to me by the just-retired vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General James Cartwright, as a concern the administration that selling the bunker busters openly would send a message to the Iranians that the United States was not interested in the diplomatic outreach that President Obama tried in 2009. And also, it could send a message to Prime Minister Netanyahu that this was, in fact, a green light to attack Iran.

RAZ: Mm. But why did the Obama administration agree to do it?

LAKE: I think the Obama administration has done a lot of things continuing with initiatives under President George W. Bush that really drew the Israeli military much closer to the United States. And one example is a concept of trying to link the missile defense systems of the entire Middle East region together in sort of one coherent missile defense group. So that is another thing that Obama has asked the State Department to pursue, again, very quietly, something that's fairly significant in Israel's favor in a sense that missile defense requires far more geographic territory than Israel has to just do it in a national level.

RAZ: Eli, as you know, there are some American Jewish voters who regard the Obama administration as insufficiently pro-Israel. And I wonder whether this leak or whatever it was by the administration was a deliberate or maybe a subtle attempt to send a message to those voters.

LAKE: I have to tell you, I don't like to discuss my sources on the air. But I would say that I reported the story and I've been working on this story for some time. I would say that it's off to say that it was politically motivated.

RAZ: That's Eli Lake, national security correspondent with Newsweek. His story on how the U.S. transferred bunker-busting bombs to Israel back in 2009 will appear in the magazine on Monday. Eli, thanks.

LAKE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.