There has been a flurry of articles about the possibility that Jonathan Pollard, convicted Israeli spy who is now languishing in a North Carolina prison, might be released by President Barack Obama as a gesture to revive the moribund Middle East peace talks. Media accounts from Israel suggest that Secretary of State John Kerry, under pressure from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has raised the issue of Pollard’s release with the president as an incentive to encourage Israel to complete its own release of Palestinian Israelis being held, which it has been delaying. The Palestinian Authority has reportedly indicated that it would not object to such a move.
As Pollard spied against the United States, not against either Israel or Palestine, the viewpoints from Tel Aviv and Ramallah are somewhat irrelevant but nevertheless interesting for anyone following the ebb and flow of the world’s most protracted search for a solution to two peoples who want to occupy the same space at the same time. Pollard’s supporters, including many former government officials and politicians, tend also to be strong advocates for Israel, which means they are seeing the issue in terms of their own perception of Tel Aviv’s interests. They have made a number of claims regarding his prolonged incarceration. They note that the life in prison sentence was unduly harsh and that the denial of parole is unprecedented after twenty-six years behind bars. They also maintain that Pollard was only providing background information to help Israel, an ally, and should not be judged by the same standard applied to spies like John Walker, Rick Ames and Robert Hanssen, all of whom worked for the Soviet Union during the Cold War, selling top secret intelligence to a powerful enemy.
It is difficult to find a moral high ground when it comes to spying, but Pollard’s friends pretend that the espionage was carried out to help a small and vulnerable ally better defend itself. There is no evidence that Pollard ever thought in those terms himself and the Pentagon investigation concluded that he was only motivated by money. He reportedly wanted to get rich and before he approached the Israelis he also offered to sell his information to several other countries, including Pakistan and then under apartheid South Africa. After Pollard was caught, he pleaded guilty to espionage and was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1987.
Over the years since Pollard was sentenced I have had to good fortune to speak to several former senior intelligence officials who were involved in doing the damage assessment of what the Israeli spy exposed. They were sworn to secrecy on the details of what actually occurred but were able to make some general comments. They agreed on several points, namely that Pollard was the most damaging spy bar none since the Rosenberg espionage ring betrayed US nuclear secrets to the Soviets in the 1940s; that Pollard exposed entire intelligence collection systems that had to be recreated at a cost of billions of dollars; and that Pollard, who has never shown any genuine remorse for what he did, should never be released from prison.
Recently, M.E. “Spike” Bowman, who was at the time the liaison between the Departments of Defense and Justice and coordinator of the damage assessment, wrote an op-ed entitled “Don’t Trust This Spy” for the New York Times and also elaborated on his view of Pollard in a paper presented at the March 7th National Summit to Reassess the US-Israel Special Relationship. Bowman confirms the unique damage done by Pollard, observing that there has been no other American spy who provided “information of the quantity and quality that Mr. Pollard has.” To cope with the volume, the Israelis had to install high speed copiers in a safehouse apartment they used with Pollard and it is estimated that he stole 360 cubic feet of documents, enough to fill a room. And it was nearly all information that was beyond secret, meaning top secret and SCI or codeword, which is the most sensitive information that the United States government possesses. The Israelis were delighted and were able to request specific documents from a Defense Intelligence Agency catalog of available intelligence reports that had been given to them by another of their spies in the Defense Department, who has never been publicly identified. Pollard’s high level clearance meant that he could get his Israeli Washington Embassy based case officer Colonel Avi Sella, who was also running spy Ben-Ami Kadish at the Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey, anything that he wanted.
For those who hint at anti-Semitism to make their claim that Pollard was treated with disproportionate rigor Bowman notes that it was not a normal espionage case. The conviction was under a special statute (18 US Code 194) that protects information related to “…nuclear weaponry, military spacecraft or satellites, early warning systems, or other means of defense or retaliation against large scale attack; war plans; communications intelligence or cryptographic information.” In other words, information that would make the United States vulnerable to attack by an enemy or would limit its ability to respond.
Pollard had provided intelligence to Israel relating to nearly every one of the key national security elements detailed in 18 USA Code 194 and, most particularly, had provided the Radio Signal Notations Manual, which contained details of how the United States collects signals intelligence as well as the known parameters of the systems used by the Soviet Union. The information would enable an adversary to avoid collection by American codebreakers and, if in the hands of a sophisticated adversary like the Soviets, would enable penetration of US systems. Former CIA Director William Casey and others believed that the Israelis provided at least some of the stolen information to the Soviet Union in exchange for the expedited emigration of Russian Jews.
Bill Clinton, ever ready to accommodate Israeli interests, nearly pardoned Pollard in 1998 , but he was dissuaded by threats of an open revolt in the intelligence community. Pollard will be eligible for release in a little over three years’ time as federal guidelines interpret a life sentence to be a maximum of thirty years in prison and it might even be as soon as next year if he is paroled. He would leave jail as a convicted felon. His supporters both in Israel and the United States would like to see him leave sooner, either by the Department of Justice exercising clemency or by a presidential pardon, which would to a certain extent exonerate him. One thing is certain, when he leaves prison he will head straight for Israel, which has granted him citizenship and has both a town square and a residential building in Jerusalem named after him. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared an unofficial holiday in his honor. There will no doubt be a victory parade.