Commentary Magazine

The Pollard Spy Case, 25 Years Later

On January 4 of this year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formally requested that President Barack Obama release Jonathan Pollard. He is the former U.S. Navy Intelligence analyst who was convicted of spying for Israel and sentenced to life in prison in 1987. And so began anew a routine that has been played out many times in the past 25 years, with Pollard’s defenders and those who prosecuted him once again at daggers drawn. For the defenders, Pollard is the well-intentioned but misled American Jew whose overzealous affection for Israel led him astray but whose punishment has been outrageously disproportionate and must end. For those unsympathetic to him, Pollard is merely an American who betrayed his oath and his country and whose unprecedented leak of classified information deserved a severe sentence that ought to be served out to the bitter end.

Since Pollard’s arrest, which took place after he and his wife were refused entry to the Israeli Embassy in Washington on November 21, 1985, an ocean of ink has been spilled detailing his story and in putting forth arguments for and against mercy for him. But after so many years of debate, it is clear that the case is about more than the life of one man. It has become a seemingly permanent aspect of the tangled political ties that link America and Israel.

Yet of even greater moment is the extent to which Pollard’s example has generated and sustained suspicion within the U.S. defense and intelligence services about American Jews. The belief on the part of some in those agencies as well as in the Justice Department and the FBI that the Jewish state’s American supporters constitute a security threat has bubbled beneath the surface ever since, and was almost certainly the wellspring of the unseemly, long-running investigation into the activities of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which the FBI clearly believed was engaging in espionage on behalf of the Jewish state. Though the AIPAC case was finally dropped in 2009 after an outrageously unjust five-year persecution of two AIPAC officials, it remains a frightening legal analogue to the arguments advanced by those who see the “Israel Lobby” as a cabal that nefariously seeks to manipulate U.S. policy. Thus, the shadow of Jonathan Pollard still looms large despite his decades out of public view.

Pollard’s tale is the sort whose moral depends on which side is doing the telling. Predictably, that has led to additions to the narrative that are either false or unproved. Some of his more ardent supporters have made wild claims that the information the spy provided Israel was data that the United States should have given to Israel anyway and that it saved lives that might otherwise have been lost. On the other side, some in the American intelligence community have made equally wild assertions about the damage he did to the United States, up to and including responsibility for the deaths of American agents at the hands of the Soviets. Such exaggerations are testimony to the symbolic importance of the case. But the indisputable facts are extraordinary enough on their own terms. They speak volumes about the devastatingly poor judgment exercised by both the spy and his Israeli handlers.


Jonathan Jay Pollard was a 29-year-old intelligence analyst working for the United States Navy when he sought out contacts within the Israeli military and security services to offer his services as a spy. He later claimed in an interview with Wolf Blitzer (who published the first and still best account of the affair, Territory of Lies, in 1989, when he worked for the Jerusalem Post) that he had done so solely out of a sense of concern for Israel’s security. But Pollard had had a history of unorthodox behavior and had nearly lost his security clearance because of lying and various indiscretions more than once. He was also volunteering to do something that the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, had specifically forbidden; its close ties with the CIA had resulted in an agreement in which the Mossad had pledged that Israel would not conduct espionage in the United States.

But the man Pollard contacted, Israeli Air Force Colonel Aviem Sella, did not report to the Mossad. On leave to study in the United States, Sella sought permission to meet Pollard from Yosef Yagur, the science counselor at the Israeli Consulate in New York City. Yagur reported directly to a special scientific-intelligence-gathering unit of the Defense Ministry, the office of Scientific Liaison—known by its Hebrew acronym, LAKAM. Far from being deterred by the danger of angering Israel’s only ally, Rafael Eitan, the head of LAKAM, was intrigued by the opportunity to score a coup. Eitan had strong ties both to Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin, respectively Israel’s prime minister and defense minister at the time, and obtained the permission of the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces for Sella to take part in this intrigue.

Pollard brought classified materials to his first meetings with Sella in 1984, and that was just the tip of the iceberg. By the time he was caught more than a year later, he would deliver to the Israelis an unprecedented volume of secret materials—satellite photos, sensitive cables, reports, and other documents that included references to sources.

From Pollard, the Israelis obtained the ability to track American intelligence capabilities in the Mediterranean (which, along with satellite photos, is believed to have assisted the Israeli air force’s strike on Palestinian Liberation Organization Headquarters in Tunis in October 1985). But the most far-reaching of Pollard’s haul was the 10-volume Radio and Signal Intelligence Manual (RAISIN), which detailed the American global electronic signal network. That theft alone reportedly cost the United States billions of dollars, since the compromise of these secrets required the complete restructuring of the country’s capabilities.

While Pollard claimed that his intention was only to aid Israel and not to harm the United States, the sheer volume and quality of the reams of documents that Pollard provided the Israelis was an enormous blow to U.S. intelligence. The extent of that damage, however, is still a matter of dispute. The most devastating accusation that has been lodged against him is that the stolen material ultimately wound up in the hands of the Soviet Union and resulted in the capture and death of American intelligence sources. If true, that would justify the harshest possible punishment and undermine any appeal for mercy. But it is highly unlikely that this is so.

Nineteen eighty-five was known as the “year of the spy.” Over the course of that year, a Soviet spy ring led by naval officer John Walker and National Security Agency analyst Ronald Pelton was rolled up in addition to Pollard. In the wake of these blows, the Soviets uncovered or captured several American agents. But the deadly leak did not come from a theoretical Israeli or Russian source by means of Pollard. It came from Aldrich Ames, a top CIA counterintelligence officer working for the Russians.

Ames’s treachery was uncovered in 1994, but it was not until 2001 that American officials discovered to their horror that he was not the only leak inside America’s counterintelligence forces. At the same time that Ames was spilling the CIA’s secrets about agents working inside the Soviet Union, FBI agent Robert Hanssen was also in the employ of the Kremlin. Between the two of them, Ames and Hanssen thoroughly compromised American covert actions.

However great Pollard’s sins were, neither he nor the Israelis can be fairly blamed for the terrible intelligence defeats the United States suffered at the hands of the crumbling Soviet Union and the new Russian Federation during this period.

But what Pollard did do was bad enough. Having “walked into” Israel’s hands rather than being seduced in the normal way that spies are procured, Pollard presented his handlers with a unique management problem, and they proceeded in the most cynical manner possible to ensure that he would not “walk out” should the emotionally unstable agent change his mind. According to Blitzer’s account, the Israelis insisted almost from the beginning that Pollard accept compensation, an act that would transform a supposedly idealistic foray into a mercenary one. To his shame, Pollard succumbed to their blandishments and took money and jewelry for his wife Anne, who had also been dragged into the scheme.

In the course of pilfering thousands of documents for the Israelis, Pollard also stole five classified documents that gave background information about Chinese diplomats and intelligence activities in the United States. He gave these documents to his wife, who used them as background material for a pitch to win a public-relations contract from the Chinese Embassy in Washington (though she did not disclose any of this material to the Chinese). Members of the prosecution team subsequently claimed that Pollard intended to sell other materials to other countries, such as Pakistan, but this was not included in the indictment and is thus still unproved.

In November 1985, Pollard’s deceptions were uncovered, and he made a wild and ill-considered attempt at escape for which neither he nor his handlers were prepared. He and his wife were turned away from the Israeli Embassy, where they had foolishly thought they would be welcomed. In custody, Pollard agreed to a plea bargain that gained leniency for his wife and a lesser sentence for himself in exchange for cooperation that would obviate the need for a messy and expensive trial.

As for the Israelis involved, all who had worked with Pollard fled the country before being apprehended. When pressed for an explanation after Pollard’s confession, the State of Israel maintained that his spying was the result of a rogue operation. This was clearly false. Not only had Eitan secured permission for his adventure, but there is little doubt that the information he procured from Pollard was made known one way or the other to the three men at the top of the coalition government at the time: Shamir, Rabin, and then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. And though Israel promised to cooperate with America’s investigation of the affair, what ensued was a matter of damage control more than of cooperation. The Israelis downplayed the immense scale of the espionage and did their best to conceal Sella’s role in the plot. They did not wish the career of the air force’s rising star—he had been the pilot who led the mission to bomb Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981—to be derailed by his crucial contribution to this disaster. (In the end, though, that was exactly what happened.)


It was at this point that Pollard, having already confessed and facing a long prison term, began to feel abandoned by the Israelis. What followed was the first of his many post-arrest missteps—missteps that are, as Edwin Black wrote in a 2002 investigative report published in the Forward, the best explanations for why he is still in jail. In the months before his scheduled sentencing in March 1987, Pollard granted two exclusive interviews to Blitzer, then the Washington correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, in which he put himself forward as a Jewish hero, a “master spy,” and not the bumbler that the press had accurately portrayed him as being prior to that point.

This was followed up by a letter to the Jerusalem Post in which Pollard described his plea bargain as a “judicial crucifixion” and further asserted that the benefits to Israel justified the risks he took and demanded that the Jewish community “put a stop to this ordeal.” Just as damaging was an appearance on 60 Minutes by Anne Pollard that aired days before the sentencing hearing. In it, she claimed that the couple had no regrets, because their actions were the result of their “moral obligation as Jews.”

While Pollard had received permission from the prison to meet with Blitzer, the prosecution team regarded his campaign for sympathy as a moral, if not a legal, violation of the plea agreement, since defendants who admit guilt are supposed to show remorse. Their response was to violate their own promises. Instead of a request for a lesser sentence, they presented U.S. District Court Judge Aubrey Robinson with a demand for a life sentence. And going all-out to make sure Pollard was doubly punished for his presumption, they furnished the African-American Robinson with inflammatory evidence, such as a letter that Pollard had written complaining about black prisoners who were incarcerated with him.

But far more damaging was a four-page affidavit from then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger detailing Pollard’s crimes and arguing for life in prison. Weinberger’s memo is the subject of great controversy. He later attempted to downplay his role in the drama by telling reporter Black that the Pollard case was a comparatively “minor” business. Yet, at the time, his intervention was widely interpreted as evidence that Israel’s spy had presented a major threat to U.S. security. The Weinberger memo, which was nothing unusual for a court proceeding involving a spy, may well have tipped the balances. To the dismay of Pollard, his family, and his lawyers, and to the shocked surprise of the prosecutors, Robinson slammed the prison door and threw away the key.


From that moment on, efforts to reverse or lessen that sentence have fallen into three categories: legal, activist, and diplomatic. All have failed but none so miserably as the first, largely because of inexplicable blunders by Pollard’s defense team. While the prosecution’s breach of the plea agreement might have led to a reversal of the sentence on appeal, the failure of Pollard’s lawyers to present any objections at the time has presented an insurmountable obstacle to those who have taken up his case in the years that followed.

Pollard’s attorney, Richard Hibey, failed to ask, as he might have done, for an evidentiary hearing about Weinberger’s memo, during which he could have presented arguments to mitigate the effect of the secretary’s intervention. Perhaps most astonishing was that Hibey failed to file a routine Notice of Appeal form with the court within the mandatory 10-day period, which meant that Pollard could never after file for a direct appellate review even if he could present evidence of judicial error or prosecutorial misconduct. Subsequent legal avenues of appeal have thus been blocked, and all efforts to reverse this colossal error with claims that Pollard had inadequate counsel or other legal stratagems have failed.

Even before the sentencing, Pollard’s supporters have sought to create a broad-based public appeal for mercy for the spy. His sister Carol, whose brash tactics alienated some Jewish leaders who felt that Pollard’s was a dubious cause, led the campaign at first. But the spy broke with his sister and his parents when he came under the influence of Elaine Zeitz, a Canadian woman who made the case her life’s work and then married Pollard in prison (he and Anne were divorced after her release from prison). Calling herself Esther Pollard, she has since conducted a tireless campaign that has made more enemies for her husband than friends. Alternating shrill threats with abject pleas, she has besieged the government of Israel and the leaders of American Jewry with demands for action that have been largely fruitless.

But in spite of the counterproductive efforts of his second wife, support for clemency for Pollard has grown among American Jews over the past 25 years. Most organizations have signed on to appeals for mercy. Sympathy for this cause rests in no small measure on the importance in Jewish tradition and history of the concept of pidyon shvuyim, or the ransoming of captives. Some of his most ardent admirers have, despite the unambiguous guilt revealed by even a cursory look at the evidence, continued to promote the implausible image of Pollard as the ultimate Israeli patriot. But most of those who have spoken out on his behalf, such as attorney and activist Alan Dershowitz, have centered their arguments on the disproportionate nature of his sentence. It is this point that has led figures such as former U.S. attorney general Michael Mukasey; Lawrence Korb, assistant secretary of defense at the time of Pollard’s crime; and former CIA director James Woolsey to call for commutation of his sentence.

Some veterans of the U.S. intelligence establishment scoff at the claim that no spy for a friendly country has ever been treated as harshly as Pollard. But the assertion is largely correct. Other spies—Walker, Pelton, Ames, and Hanssen—have also received life in prison, and given the scale of Pollard’s espionage, it can be argued that his crime is no different from theirs. But while the law may not technically recognize a difference between a person who gives secrets to a friendly nation such as Israel and one who betrays his country to a deadly rival such as the Soviet Union, common sense dictates that these are offenses of a different nature. The fact is that no spy for a U.S. ally other than Pollard has ever gotten a life sentence or anything close to it.

For while it can be assumed that all nations spy on all other nations, including their allies, when such betrayals are discovered, they are usually hushed up or otherwise made to quickly disappear, since however angry the injured party may be, exacerbating the situation is generally in no one’s interest. Cases of espionage against the United States on behalf of friendly countries have, as a rule, drawn light sentences, and defendants have usually secured early release. Though Pollard’s crime is certainly the most egregious such case on record, it is not reasonable to claim that his betrayal—or its consequences—can be put on the same moral plane as that of an Ames or a Hanssen, both of whom served America’s enemies.


The Pollard affair was a serious blow to the U.S.-Israel alliance, but not a lasting one. The powerful ties that link the two nations are based on common values that far transcend this one sad chapter. Though the case neither defines nor limits that relationship, it continues to be a distraction and an irritant to U.S.-Israel diplomacy.

Given the fact that the leaders of both the Israeli government and its parliamentary opposition were at least indirectly implicated in the decision to employ Pollard, it is hardly surprising that diplomatic efforts on his behalf in the years immediately following his sentencing were lackluster. The last thing that Shamir, Peres, or Rabin wanted was to draw attention to Israel’s responsibility for Pollard’s plight. Gradually, that changed through the succession of a new generation of leaders (though Peres remains in office in the ceremonial post of president). Pollard has been granted Israeli citizenship, and a square in Jerusalem has been renamed in his honor. Numerous appeals for mercy on Pollard’s behalf have also drawn the support of the majority of Knesset members.

The closest that Pollard has come to freedom was the result of diplomatic initiatives undertaken by Netanyahu. During negotiations with the Clinton administration during the Wye Plantation talks in 1998, Netanyahu insisted that Pollard’s release be part of the price to be paid for Israeli concessions to the Palestinians. While Clinton said in his memoirs that he was inclined to agree to the measure if it would grease the way for Israeli withdrawals from territories, the ardent opposition of virtually the entire U.S. security apparatus derailed the plan. CIA director George Tenet threatened to resign if Pollard was freed, and Clinton backed down. This exercise was nearly repeated more than a decade later, with Netanyahu back in the prime minister’s chair. Pollard’s name has again resurfaced as a possible bone to be thrown to the Israelis by the Obama administration to get them to accede to a freeze in settlement-building in the West Bank and Jerusalem. It is in this context that Netanyahu’s recent public request to Obama must be seen.

The willingness of Netanyahu (who visited Pollard in prison in 2002 while he was out of office) to continue to push Washington to free Pollard is testimony to the sincerity of his belief that Israel bears the responsibility for his plight and must use whatever little leverage it has over its ally to gain his release.

But it can be argued that Pollard’s role as a pawn in the peace process is yet another instance of how his spying harmed Israel. That a man who claimed his crime was committed to enhance the Jewish state’s security would have his freedom bought with concessions on territory or settlements that undermine the country’s ability to defend itself must be considered a bitter irony. But although Obama would be happy to make Netanyahu more pliable, it does not appear that this administration is any more likely to release Pollard than was its predecessors. The implacable determination of the U.S. security establishment to keep Pollard in jail is such that the political price for releasing Pollard is probably too high for any sitting president to consider.


For some inside the government, the Pollard case was the visible proof of the way that Israel and its supporters had infiltrated Washington and compromised American interests. A mix of traditional anti-Semitism and the more up-to-date anti-Zionism put forward by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer in The Israel Lobby, the notion that pro-Israel figures in the government have become pawns and catspaws of the Jewish state, has led to a series of investigations aimed at Jews working in the defense and intelligence fields. Pollard asserted that during his initial questioning he was shown lists of American Jewish figures and asked to name which ones were his accomplices. Prosecutors claim that this story is false, but the manner with which some cases have been pursued since by the government has strengthened the suspicion that there are people in the FBI and Justice Department who are predisposed to believe that officials in the defense or security establishment who actively support Israel and have frequent contacts with Israelis might be up to no good.

The most explicit example of this was the government’s attempt to convict two AIPAC staffers of violating the 1917 espionage act for passing on warnings of a possible terror attack to a Washington Post reporter given them by a U.S. government official. In fact, the warning was a trap, and the official who gave it, Lawrence Franklin, was part of a sting operation cooked up by the FBI to prove that AIPAC was spying for Israel rather than merely conducting normal lobbying activities. Indeed, when CBS News broke the story of this investigation in August 2004 via government leaks, it represented the case as a search for a new Pollard-like spy inside the Defense Department.

Indictments and a five-year investigation ultimately came to naught when the charges against AIPAC staffers Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman were dropped. But not before the government subjected the pro-Israel lobby to an unprecedented spy hunt aimed at trying to justify the unfounded suspicions of some in the FBI that it was a tool of Israeli intelligence rather than a successful example of Americans pooling their resources to petition the government on behalf of a cause they support. The notion that there is a “second Pollard” inside the government who has never been found is a sort of white whale that some security agents have continued to chase even though the existence of such a person is utterly improbable. As Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman told Eli Lake of the Washington Times, “I am not sure that to this day they have given up on this fantasy notion.”

Any effort to criminalize the normal exchange of information that goes on in Washington between lobbyists, politicians, journalists, and government officials is bound to fail on First Amendment grounds as well as those of sheer practicality. But the idea that there is something noxious about the work of pro-Israel organizations and their staffers who maintain contact with representatives of the Jewish state is something that may be traced in part to resentment and fear generated by the Pollard case.

Moreover, the backlash created by Pollard’s crime has resulted in Jews employed in the defense and security agencies having to live under the shadow of accusations of dual loyalty that, however unfair, always lurk not far below the surface. It is for this reason that Jews who work for the government are often the most ardent opponents of Pollard’s release.


With Pollard having entered his second quarter-century in prison, the case for mercy is not inconsiderable. He has served so much time that there is no longer any question of his getting off easy simply because he spied for a country most Americans care deeply about. His punishment has already been severe and the argument that he must stay in jail longer than many murderers who have been sentenced to life in prison merely to prove a point about the heinous nature of espionage is hardly compelling, considering that others who spied for allies or even some who betrayed their country to rivals like post-Soviet Russia have sometimes been treated more generously. Nor can anyone seriously believe that the damage he did is still relevant after all these years to the nation’s defense or its intelligence capabilities. Despite the hysteria that the suggestion that he be released provokes from the intelligence establishment, freeing Pollard now would harm no one.

But 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.

About the Author

Jonathan Tobin is senior online editor of COMMENTARY.

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