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Time To Put the Pollard Case to Rest—by Demanding He Be Set Free

A newly clear aspect of the case reveals evidence of a deeper injustice—which must now be addressed

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A woman holds a placard during a protest calling for the release of Jonathan Pollard (who was jailed for life in 1987 on charges of spying on the United States) during a protest outside Secretary of State John Kerry’s hotel in Jerusalem on April 8, 2013. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)
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It should be ever more difficult for patriotic Jewish Americans—or anyone else, for that matter—to believe that Jonathan Pollard, who has spent 29 years in prison for passing secret intelligence documents to Israel, is being punished for the very real crime to which he pleaded guilty in 1986. Pollard, a former naval intelligence analyst, has spent nearly three decades in prison for a crime that carries a maximum penalty of 10 years under current U.S. law—more time than any other convicted spy in American history. He is the only person in American history to receive a life sentence for the crime of spying in a case involving a friendly country, and the only person convicted of such a crime to be sentenced to more than 10 years in prison.

And what you are about to read is not a knee-jerk, tribalist defense of Pollard—you will be subjected to no whining about his health, no assertions about how serving time in a maximum security prison is hard, or the like—but is rather an argument about a newly clear and deeply problematic aspect of the case.

In an op-ed published this week in the New York Times, M.E. Bowman, former deputy general counsel for national security law at the FBI and coordinator of the investigation that put Pollard behind bars, did his best to revive the idea that the spy deserved his extreme sentence and should remain in prison. Yet the logic of Bowman’s argument is so tenuous, and so noxious, that it only magnifies the perception that Pollard was railroaded by an American national security establishment animated by a very personal animus towards one particular spy—and one that has spent the past three decades trying to cover up its own failures.

According to Bowman, Pollard pleaded guilty to a statute that deals with the disclosure of information that might result in the death of a U.S. agent or that “directly concerned 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.” The suggestion that passing satellite photos or communications intelligence to a friendly country is a crime on a par with causing the death of a U.S. agent in the field defies common sense. But that is because Bowman’s confusion is quite deliberate—and revealing, as is his suggestion, based on an allegation made by Seymour Hersh in 1999 that Israel traded information it obtained from Pollard to the Soviet Union in exchange for “Jewish emigrés.” If Pollard didn’t actually kill anyone or harm America directly, the innuendo goes, then Israel must have—in deadly collusion with America’s then-worst enemy.

Behind Bowman’s dark farrago of half-baked rumors and theories it is possible to glimpse the real basis of the sealed case that he and his associates presented in court. At the time that Pollard was convicted of passing satellite and communications intelligence to Israel, a string of American agents in the former Soviet Union was in fact discovered by the KGB, and they were shot dead. Bowman and the rest of the national security establishment believed that Pollard and the Israelis were somehow responsible—because Pollard was the only spy they knew of within the American national security establishment. Maybe, the theory went, in addition to passing information about Iraq and ships in the Mediterranean Sea to the Israelis, Pollard was somehow able to access the names of American agents inside the Soviet Union and pass them to the Israelis, who in turn passed them to the Russians in exchange for facilitating Soviet Jewish immigration to Israel.

The main problem with this theory is that we have known for a fact since the mid-1990s that it is false. Jonathan Pollard was not the mole who passed the names of American agents to the Soviet Union in the 1980s. In fact, the Soviet Union had two high-ranking moles in the American national security apparatus working simultaneously to pass along huge quantities of information about American spies and spying techniques. The first was Bowman’s superior on the FBI organizational chart, Robert Hanssen. In 1987, the year that Pollard was convicted, Hanssen was put in charge of discovering why American agents were being blown at such an alarming rate. Needless to say, Hanssen didn’t identify himself as a mole—or let Bowman and his colleagues in the FBI’s legal department in on his secret. The second Soviet agent was Aldrich Ames, a CIA legacy case and counter-intelligence specialist who, in 1985, began passing information to the Soviets that led to the apprehension and execution of at least 10 American agents, including Dmitri Polyakov, a general in the Soviet armed forces who had functioned as an American double-agent for 20 years.

It is unclear why the Times saw fit to publish Bowman’s disjointed exercise in late-in-life personal and organizational ass-covering, or why Bowman believes that he can get away with publishing such trash in the guise of doing further service to his country. Yet it is also true that the ins and outs of Pollard’s crimes, his sentencing, and his motivations, and what he did or did not pass to the Israelis, have long ago ceased to matter—especially to the people who are keeping him in prison. Rather, Pollard’s continued incarceration appears, at this point in time, to be intended as a statement that dual loyalty on the part of American Jews is a real threat to America—and a warning to the American Jewish community as a whole.
But why do Jews need such a warning? In a country where no one drinks from separate water fountains and same-sex marriage is legal, the idea that American Jews are uniquely susceptible to the lures of serving two masters at once—and therefore need an extra-stiff dose of public deterrence to keep from selling out their fellow Americans—is as silly as it is vicious. In order to cover their own incredibly damaging mistakes and failures, the national security establishment is keeping Pollard in prison on the apparent grounds that Jews are especially prone to disloyalty. The fact that American Jews are afraid to answer this entirely self-interested slur against our entire community makes us—all of us—a target for political bullying by people who believe, or find profit in suggesting, that we have something to hide. It is time for the American Jewish community to put the Pollard case to rest—not by letting him rot in prison, but by standing up against a real injustice whose perpetuation is clearly intended to suggest that all American Jews are, inherently, potential traitors to their country.


Although it is painful to assert such an obvious fact in 2014, the notion that American Jews have an extra-special motivation to act as secret agents for the Israeli government has no basis in the historical record—which shows that spies of all races, genders, and creeds are motivated by ideology, money, ethnic ties, the promise of sex and adventure, and almost every other reason under the sun. Traitors and spies come in all flavors: White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, Catholic, Chinese, Muslim, Cuban. The list goes on. Since treason, like most crime, is an equal-opportunity employer, singling out any national, ethnic, or religious group as especially susceptible to disloyalty is an obvious violation of both American law and basic common sense.

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Time To Put the Pollard Case to Rest—by Demanding He Be Set Free

A newly clear aspect of the case reveals evidence of a deeper injustice—which must now be addressed