Commentary Magazine


Topic: espionage

The Disturbing Pollard Debate

The decision of Secretary of State John Kerry to inject the question of Jonathan Pollard into his quest to keep Middle East peace negotiations alive was a complete and total fiasco. As I noted earlier today, not only was it a futile “Hail Mary” pass that was contemptuously torpedoed by Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, even if both the PA and Israel had agreed to the terms of the proposed deal—which would have required Israel to free another batch of terrorist murderers and several hundred other security prisoners—it would have only meant continued negotiations with little hope that they will lead to an actual agreement.

The collapse of this effort is a great disappointment to those who have worked for Pollard’s release and a relief to those who want him to rot in jail. But the most disturbing element of this incident is not so much the latest proof of Kerry’s foolishness as it is the way that the discussion over Pollard has brought back to the surface the myths and misinformation about the case that come to the fore every time his name is in the news. Though advocates for his release are right to view Pollard’s sentence as excessive, much of what we have been hearing about him this week demonstrates anew the extent of the damage that he and his handlers did to the U.S.-Israel relationship.

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The decision of Secretary of State John Kerry to inject the question of Jonathan Pollard into his quest to keep Middle East peace negotiations alive was a complete and total fiasco. As I noted earlier today, not only was it a futile “Hail Mary” pass that was contemptuously torpedoed by Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, even if both the PA and Israel had agreed to the terms of the proposed deal—which would have required Israel to free another batch of terrorist murderers and several hundred other security prisoners—it would have only meant continued negotiations with little hope that they will lead to an actual agreement.

The collapse of this effort is a great disappointment to those who have worked for Pollard’s release and a relief to those who want him to rot in jail. But the most disturbing element of this incident is not so much the latest proof of Kerry’s foolishness as it is the way that the discussion over Pollard has brought back to the surface the myths and misinformation about the case that come to the fore every time his name is in the news. Though advocates for his release are right to view Pollard’s sentence as excessive, much of what we have been hearing about him this week demonstrates anew the extent of the damage that he and his handlers did to the U.S.-Israel relationship.

At its heart, the debate about Pollard is about two competing themes. As I wrote in a comprehensive summary of the case three years ago, both Pollard’s defenders and his critics exaggerate their arguments. Though the information Pollard passed to the Israelis was, no doubt, useful to them, the assumption that it was a game-changer in terms of its security is unfounded. So, too, is the notion that the Israelis had a “right” to the information.

By the same token, the comparisons made between Pollard and various Soviet agents are absurd. Pollard was not spying for a hostile power and there is no evidence, nor even a reasonable argument to be made on behalf of the notion that he was in any way responsible for the deaths of U.S. agents in the field. Nor was what he did was in any way comparable to the revelations of Edward Snowden who deliberately sought to undermine U.S. intelligence operations and then fled to the safety of a hostile nation where he continues to thumb his nose at the United States. What he did was bad enough and deserving of severe punishment, but the manner with which the intelligence establishment has demonized him and made his release even after decades in prison and long after any information he might have possessed was relevant is as excessive as it is illogical.

The fact remains no one who ever spied for an ally—something that the U.S. has no scruples about doing itself with regard to Israel or other friendly nations like Germany—has ever received such a harsh sentence. Most such incidents are quickly covered up and forgotten. While Pollard’s espionage was particularly egregious, the life sentence he received violated the plea bargain negotiated with him by the government. The main reason he is still in jail is not so much the desire of the government to keep him locked up but the result of legal errors by his original attorneys that prevented appeals that would have almost certainly been successful in reducing his sentence. After 28 years, many of them in solitary, it cannot be asserted that he has not been punished or that defense of the rule of law depends on his continued incarceration. Since he will be eligible for parole in the fall of 2015, the talk about keeping him in prison forever is just hot air.

Nevertheless, this is an apt moment for both Israelis and Americans who are campaigning for his release to recognize that efforts to portray him as a hero are as damaging as they are misguided. It is legitimate for the Israeli government to seek the release of someone who is being punished for acts committed in the name of their country. But those who succumb to the temptation to treat his actions as anything other than a profoundly misguided operation are dead wrong.

Anyone listening to the debate about Pollard being conducted in the last week must understand that his name is synonymous with charges of dual loyalty against American Jews who serve in both the U.S. government and its armed forces. As I detailed in my 2011 article, the damage that the cynical decision to employ a foolish and unstable person as a spy has done to American Jews and to the vital alliance between the U.S. and Israel is incalculable.

While after serving so much time in prison he is deserving of clemency, I stand by my previous conclusion about what should be the final word about this subject:

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.

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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.

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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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What Pollard Did and Didn’t Do

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.

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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.

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