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Snowden, Spying, and Pollard

The outrage in Europe about the revelations by Edward Snowden of U.S. spying on allies embarrassed the Obama administration and caused the president to speak of trying to impose new guidelines on the National Security Agency and to try and distance himself from the affair. As Max Boot wrote here in October, the White House’s decision to throw the intelligence community under the bus was disgraceful. But the hypocrisy of America’s critics on this point was no less absurd. No one should doubt that the U.S. spies on its friends and that, in turn, its allies spy on America. Thus, the latest round of Snowden leaks published in the Guardian, Der Spiegel, and the New York Times on Friday giving further details about such spying should surprise and outrage no one. But there is one aspect of the topic that is understandably causing something of a ruckus: U.S. efforts to keep tabs on Israeli leaders. According to the Snowden leaks, the United States worked with British intelligence to intercept the emails of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak as well as other Israeli targets. The reports also state that Barak’s home was under surveillance by the Americans.

For those inclined to outrage about friends spying on friends, this is no more nor less infuriating than the stories about other such incidents, such as the U.S. efforts to monitor German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone. But there is one difference between the incidents involving other allies and what happened to Israel. The U.S. is not holding a German or French spy in prison for more than 28 years for doing what America did to them.

By that I refer to Jonathan Pollard, the U.S. Navy intelligence analyst who betrayed his oath and spied on his country at the behest of Israeli handlers. Jailed in 1985, Pollard is still serving a draconian life sentence for espionage. Though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is wisely not seeking to exacerbate the already tense relations between his government and the United States over the Snowden leaks, some in his Cabinet as well as other Israelis are saying the stories about U.S. spying should cause the Obama administration to rethink its determination (shared by all of its predecessors) to let Pollard rot in jail. Though I deprecate the attempt by some in Israel and elsewhere to depict Pollard as a hero or to minimize the severity of his crimes, they happen to be right.

As I wrote in an analysis of the Pollard case in the March 2011 issue of COMMENTARY, both the spy’s defenders and his worst critics tend to exaggerate his importance. But there should be no doubt that what he did was wrong and badly hurt Israel as well as the United States:

There is no underestimating the damage that Pollard and his Israeli handlers did to American Jewry. The decision on the part of a few operatives and their political masters to exploit what may well have been the romantic delusions of a man of questionable judgment and character did far more injury to the countless loyal Jews who have served the United States so well for generations than anything else. It is not inappropriate that Israel’s government would seek the freedom of a man who, however misguided and harmful his mission, served that nation. But whether or not Obama or a future president ever accedes to Israel’s request for Pollard’s release, his unfortunate example will always be exploited as a pretext to justify those enemies of Israel and other anti-Semites who wish to wrongly impugn the loyalty of American Jews.

Long after his release or death, Pollard’s behavior will still be used to bolster the slurs of those who wish to promote the pernicious myth that there is a contradiction between American patriotism and deep concern for the safety of the State of Israel. It is this damning epitaph, and not the claims of martyrdom that have been put forward to stir sympathy for his plight, that will be Jonathan Pollard’s true legacy.

But once we concede that point, it is difficult to view his continued incarceration as justified. While the United States, like any other country, has every right to capture and prosecute spies, Pollard’s sentence was disproportionate. No one who has ever spied for a U.S. ally has ever received a sentence of this kind. Indeed, such spies are usually quickly ushered out of the country rather than prosecuted in order to avoid unpleasantness. As a U.S. citizen, Pollard had to be punished, but the determination of the U.S. intelligence establishment to see that he dies in jail seems to be based more in a desire to let him serve as a warning to Israel than anything else.

Just as Pollard’s spying is not justified by America’s efforts to do the same to Israel, his lawbreaking can’t be rationalized by U.S. activities. Serious people understand that this is what nation states do. Some of the spying is more outrageous than others (certainly the decision of Israelis to use an American Jew and to loot the Navy’s intelligence falls into that category). But the Snowden leaks make it clear that the self-righteous attitude of U.S. intelligence about Pollard is, at best, hypocritical.

Washington’s attitude on this point may be that small allies that are dependent on big ones for help, such as Israel, can’t expect to be treated fairly or to be granted the same leeway on such matters. That may well be so. But the Snowden leaks erase any doubt that such a position can be justified. Though it’s doubtful that President Obama will make it up to Israel by granting Pollard clemency, there is no reason based in justice or morality for him not to do so. Whatever else Snowden (who deserves punishment no less than Pollard did) has accomplished, he has made it clear that it is long past time for the U.S. to end the Pollard affair by setting him free.


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