More than 27 years after his arrest, the Jonathan Pollard saga continues to fascinate and infuriate Americans. As I wrote in a COMMENTARY article on the subject in March 2011, advocates of the convicted spy tend to exaggerate the assistance he gave Israel during the course of the espionage he carried out while serving as an intelligence analyst for the U.S. Navy. Similarly, those who continue to demand that he remain in prison until his death have also tended to inflate the damage he did to his country. While it is unlikely that anything could do much to move the argument one way or the other, the release of a 1987 damage report on the case conducted by the CIA should serve to silence those who have claimed Pollard’s spying was focused on American capabilities. The report, which can be read here (albeit with parts blacked out due to secrecy laws), makes it clear that his interest was solely in helping the Israelis find out more about Soviet and Arab military and intelligence capabilities.
That does not mitigate the scope of Pollard’s crime, as his handing over of a massive amount of material including signal intelligence to a foreign country did great damage to the United States. But the account of what he did and did not do does serve to bolster the arguments made by those seeking his release that his motive was a desire to help Israel rather than pure venality or treason.
Much of the report is familiar territory to those familiar with the case, as it details the narrative of his espionage as well as a lengthy psychological profile. The more one learns of Pollard’s background and unstable character the more one wonders about the faulty judgment of those who hired him to serve in such a sensitive capacity. But the important information here consists of the details about what sort of material he sought and then handed over to the Israelis.
His priority was to obtain the following information: Arab (and Pakistani) nuclear intelligence; Arab exotic weaponry, including chemical weapons; Soviet aircraft, air defenses, air-to-air missiles and air-to-surface missiles; and Arab order-of-battle, deployments and readiness.
Though arguments made by his friends that Israel was entitled to this information fall flat, this sort of material was clearly intended to bolster Israel’s ability to deal with valid threats to its security rather than to harm the U.S.
This is important because the prejudicial statements made by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger to the court that sentenced Pollard to life in prison were thought to have given the impression that the spy’s crimes represented a direct threat to U.S. security. Indeed, the file makes clear something that was already understood: The willingness of the prosecutors and the judge to renege on the plea bargain by which Pollard had been persuaded to tell all about his activities had more to do with pique over the spy’s decision to speak about the case to reporter Wolf Blitzer (the CNN anchor was then a writer with the Jerusalem Post) in an inflammatory prison interview rather than the egregious nature of his crime.
While the report is explicit about the Israelis not requesting data about the U.S. or its intelligence resources or military, there were some other interesting tidbits that give us an idea about the dynamic between the spy and his handlers. Among them is the fact that Rafi Eitan, the head of the spy unit running the operation, wanted to know about Israelis providing the Americans with information as well as “dirt” about Israelis the Americans might have. Pollard refused this request with the support of Yosef Yagur, a consulate official who was part of the plot.
As I have written elsewhere, what Pollard did was bad enough. There is no need for anyone to misrepresent his spying as part of an Israeli effort to undermine the United States. None of this is likely to change the minds of those in the U.S. intelligence establishment who take the position that Pollard must die in jail so as to set an example for other potential spies. Nor will it dampen the desire of some who have used him to justify unreasonable suspicions or even attempts to single out and prosecute other American Jews. It remains a fact that while Pollard’s espionage was a unique chapter in American intelligence history, his sentence is still the most severe ever handed out to a spy for a friendly country.
After 27 years in jail, it can no longer be asserted that he represents a threat to American security or that he has not already been severely punished. Though his most damning legacy may be the way his name continues to be used to bolster false accusations of dual loyalty on the part of American Jews, it can no longer be credibly argued that his goal was to harm the United States. While the chances of clemency for Pollard seem no better today than at any other point during his incarceration (something that is as much due to the poor judgment of the spy and some of his advocates), the release of the CIA report does place the case in perspective.
Unlike the others arrested in what became known as the year of the spy, Pollard’s goal was not to assist America’s enemies. That ought to make it just a bit easier to justify the commutation of his disproportionate sentence should President Obama or a successor ever care to seriously review the case.