Pollard Defenders Vindicated
After 25 years, the CIA has declassified documents that show Jonathan Pollard never spied on the U.S. for Israel
Jonathan Pollard, a former Naval intelligence service analyst, broke the law by selling American secrets to Israel. For that crime, he is currently serving the 25th year of a life sentence—the same sentence handed down to Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, American intelligence officers who sold secrets to the Soviet Union, a dangerous Cold War enemy for nearly half a century.
Since his 1985 arrest, Pollard’s case has sharply divided Americans, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. To detractors, it makes little difference that Pollard gave top secret intelligence documents to an American ally. From their perspective—and this includes many in the pro-Israel camp—one of the most dangerous spies in American history richly deserves to end his life behind bars. But to Pollard’s supporters, including those who continue to demand his freedom, even naming a square for him in Jerusalem, he is a hero of the Jewish state.
Even as Israeli leaders have regularly petitioned their American counterparts for Pollard’s release, so little has been known about the details of the Pollard case that it was easy to assume the very worst. For instance, there was the widespread belief that Pollard had committed “treason,” as then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger wrote in a memorandum to the judge sentencing Pollard. There was also speculation that the intelligence he sold to Israel had found its way into the hands of the Soviet Union, which had led to the deaths of several American agents. Perhaps the truth was even worse: Why else would former CIA director George Tenet have threatened to resign when President Bill Clinton considered Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request to have Pollard released?
After more than 25 years of speculation, documents released last week to the National Security Archives at George Washington University provide us, for the first time, with many of the details of the espionage activities that have made Pollard one of the most controversial figures in the history of the U.S. intelligence community. What the documents, particularly the CIA’s 1987 damage assessment of Pollard, show is that both Pollard’s detractors and supporters possess vastly distorted views of him. But it is the narrative put forth by those who insisted that Pollard was the most treacherous U.S. spy since Benedict Arnold that has caused real damage to the fabric of this country—more damage, in fact, than Jonathan Pollard ever did.
Contrary to the widespread belief, the CIA report reveals that Pollard did not procure secrets about the United States—nor did Israel ask him to. The intelligence he provided his Israeli handlers consisted of the information that the United States had acquired concerning Arab and other Middle Eastern states. This information may not change the minds of long-time detractors, but it vindicates those who have argued that Pollard, having already served a punishment that fit his crime, should be released.
A Stanford graduate with a B.A. in political science, Pollard started working as a naval intelligence analyst in June 1979 at the age of 24. The newly released documents verify that Pollard was an emotionally unstable man whose erratic behavior, boasting, financial problems, drug use, and fantastical stories alarmed his superiors—so much so that, in August 1980, his top-secret clearance was suspended “owing to evidence of gross unreliability,” and he was sent to a psychiatrist. Nevertheless, less than eight months later, a psychiatrist judged that he was “thoroughly capable of handling the duties of his job and not a security risk.” His top-secret clearance was reinstated in January of 1982.
In June 1984, he began his espionage career, selling secrets to Israel. (This lasted until his arrest Nov. 21, 1985.) Pollard’s initial contact was with Aviem Sella, a former Israeli pilot studying for a graduate degree at NYU. Sella eventually passed him on to Joseph Yagur, counselor for scientific affairs at the Israeli Consulate in New York, and working for an Israeli intelligence agency attached to the defense ministry known by the Hebrew acronym LAKAM, the bureau of scientific relations. Yagur, according to the damage assessment, “emphasized that Pollard should seek military and scientific intelligence on Arab States, Pakistan, and the Soviet Union in its role as military patron of the Arabs.”
Israel “did not request or receive intelligence concerning some of the most sensitive US national-security resources,” Pollard told his CIA investigators. “The Israelis never expressed interest in US military activities, plans, capabilities, or equipment. Likewise, they did not ask for intelligence on US communications per se.” The fact that Pollard did not collect intelligence against his native country is reflected in the June 4, 1986, indictment handed down by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Pollard was charged with violating Title 18 United States Code, section 794(a), gathering or delivering defense information to aid a foreign government. This federal law “makes it a crime to deliver defense information to a foreign government ‘with intent or reason to believe’ that the information is to be used in one of two ways: ‘to the injury of the United States,’ or, alternatively, ‘to the advantage of a foreign nation.’ ”
Presumably recognizing that Israel is an ally and not an enemy, the indictment specifies only the second part of the statute, charging Pollard with delivering “information and documents relating to the national defense of the United States, having intent and reason to believe that the same would be used to the advantage of ISRAEL.”
“The indictment is scrupulous,” I was told by Angelo Codevilla, who has followed the Pollard case since serving as a senior staff member for the Senate intelligence committee from 1978 to 1985. Codevilla argues that the swarm of accusations against Pollard over the years is implausible on the face of it. “Pollard was an analyst. He is alleged to have given away information to which no analyst had any access,” he said. “All of what has been said about what he did, including the secret memorandum that Caspar Weinberger wrote to the court in order to influence the judge’s sentence, is nonsense.”
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