Some Perspective on Jonathan Pollard, the American who Spied for Israel — and, 30 Years Later, Will be Released by the United States

[A few thoughts by Dan Raviv, co-author of Every Spy a Prince and the current Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars – on the case of Jonathan Jay Pollard, the American Jew who was a U.S. Navy intelligence analyst and delivered secret documents and photos to Israeli diplomats]:

Jonathan Jay Pollard, circa 1984
Jonathan Jay Pollard, circa 1984

I have been reporting on the Pollard case since the day he was arrested in November 1985 — trying, with his then-wife, to seek shelter in the Israeli Embassy here in Washington.  The Israelis turned him away, and the FBI arrested them both.   He’s my age — both born in 1954.  He was 31 when he was arrested, and (like me) he’s 60 now.

 I immediately wondered why U.S. prosecutors were so hard on him — demanding and getting a life sentence.  After all, he was spying on behalf of an American ally.   Other Americans who sold secrets to foreign powers sometimes got lesser sentences.

But, for Pollard, it was bad luck.   The federal prosecutors wanted to make an example out of him — so that other Americans who had top-secret clearances in their government jobs would not be temped to give or sell any secrets to anyone.

Pollard campaign poster

Part of the Campaign for Pollard’s Freedom

Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger wrote to the judge in the case, reportedly declaring that Pollard had done “incalculable harm” to the U.S.   The reasoning was that in the world of espionage, you never know where the secrets might go.  Israel might conceivably give some secrets — about U.S. military capabilities — to Communist countries such as Russia.  

When I did reporting on the story inside Israel — for the books I’ve co-authored with Yossi Melman about Israeli espionage and security — I found a lot of embarrassment.  The Mossad — the famous and successful spy agency — insisted that it would never spy inside the United States.  The Pollard caper was the overly aggressive idea of one particular agency: a Science Liaison Bureau (Lakam, in Hebrew), which collected science and technology secrets all around the world.

In our research, it became clear that the Mossad and Aman — the large military intelligence agency — benefited from the huge quantity of secrets that Pollard provided.  They must have known there was a spy, working for Israel, inside America’s defense or intelligence establishment.

Because of the embarrassment, Israel was slow to offer any support for Pollard.  Finally, in recent years, Israel has repeatedly asked the U.S. to release him.   Bill Clinton considered doing it, and so did George W. Bush.   But the CIA and Pentagon officials told the Presidents not to do it — not to forgive Pollard in any way, because it would send the wrong signal to other Americans who might be thinking of doing what he did.  The FBI and Justice Department officials, too, were clearly against releasing Pollard.

Yossi Melman and I wrote about the Pollard case in our 1990 best-seller

Yossi Melman and I wrote about the Pollard case in our 1990 best-seller

What the American president — in this case, Barack Obama — needs is some kind of excuse: so he can tell the U.S. intelligence community that “for vital reasons of U.S. national interests,” he chose to release Pollard.    It has seemed in the past that for the sake of keeping the Middle East peace talks going — to get some concessions from Israel that the Obama White House thinks are vital — Obama might grant clemency to Pollard and release him.

Now, a published report suggested, Obama may free Pollard in order to show some good will toward Israel, hoping that Israeli public opposition — and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s highly vociferous opposition — to the nuclear deal with Iran might soften.

Releasing Pollard would spark celebrations in Israel, where there’s a strong tradition of “doing everything necessary to bring home any soldier who’s caught behind enemy lines.”  

But there’d also be a little bit of pain — as the world, and specifically the American people, would be reminded that there’d been an American Jew who was hired by Israel to hand over secrets.   Israelis have explained to me that they are always living with their backs against the wall — so sometimes they have to do desperate and daring things that aren’t polite and gentle.

Spy cases are often embarrassing.  Yet the U.S.-Israel relationship survived the anger caused by Pollard’s arrest in 1985.  The relationship will survive the sharp disagreement over the deal with Iran.  But clearing the decks wherever possible — eliminating the Pollard issue by freeing him — would probably help. 

July 24, 2015

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