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.”
Weinberger’s 1986 memo is available alongside the recently released cache of documents but remains heavily redacted. However, his March 1987 supplemental memo is unclassified. “The punishment imposed,” wrote Weinberger, “should reflect the perfidy of the individual’s actions, the magnitude of the treason committed, and the needs of national security.”
But of course Pollard was not charged with levying war against the United States or aiding America’s enemies—i.e., treason. Codevilla explained that Pollard’s uniquely hard sentence is a function of the Weinberger memo. “When someone is indicted,” said Codevilla, “the sentence has to be conformant with the dimensions of the damage alleged in indictment. Instead, the sentencing of Pollard was conformant with Weinberger’s memorandum to the court. He was sentenced to life on the basis of rumors.”
Indeed, as James Woolsey, a former director of the CIA under the Clinton Administration, noted to me, Pollard is serving time comparable to Ames and Hanssen’s. But unlike those two Soviet spies, said Woolsey, “Pollard did not get anybody killed and was not spying for an enemy. We’ve had South Korea, the Philippines, and Greece, all friendly countries, spy on us. We caught them and they served time, which has turned out to be a very few years, or much less time than Pollard has already served.”
Codevilla suggests that even Weinberger’s memo may have been the end result of bureaucratic bluster. “All of this started in 1981 when Israel bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak,” he said. “The CIA was aghast that the Israelis had done this, because they thought they had a good thing going with Saddam Hussein.” Even as the senators on the intelligence committee, including Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Scoop Jackson, all celebrated the Israeli strike, the CIA was incensed.
“Bobby Ray Inman [then deputy director of the CIA] came into the Senate committee stomping up and down, and said he was going to cut off the satellite intelligence they fed Israel,” Codevilla recalled. “What Pollard did was to ignore these restrictions—which he had no right to do—and continued to supply Israel with the information. His sin was more against U.S. policy than U.S. security. The reason for the animus against him was that he subverted U.S. policy.”
That particular policy dovetailed perfectly with the CIA’s longstanding pro-Arab predisposition. “That the CIA has these prejudices is fact,” said Codevilla. “The opinion of this Italian-American Catholic is that there is also a long residue of anti-Semitism in the agency.”
Woolsey is one of the few figures from the intelligence community, and certainly the only former director of the CIA, who believes Pollard should now be released. “When I was director, I looked into it carefully, and I opposed clemency then,” Woolsey told me. “But now some 20 years have passed and the whole point is to link sentence and comparable sentences. Anyone who thinks what he did is comparable to Ames and Hanssen has no understanding of what they did. If you are hung up on Pollard having spied for Israel, then pretend he is Filipino-American, Korean-American, or Greek-American spy (we have had all three) and the facts are otherwise the same, you’d conclude he ought to be released.”
Still, it’s doubtful that even the revelation that Pollard did not spy against the United States will change minds among his detractors, especially those critical of the U.S.-Israel alliance. After all, for those who think the bilateral relationship is more of a burden than a boon, it’s the Pollard case they cite as the prime example of Israel’s aggressive intelligence collection against the United States—a sign of ingratitude hardly appropriate, the argument goes, for a client that gets $3 billion in aid from Washington annually. Trying to reason with those who see Pollard as Exhibit A of Jews whose loyalty to their country of origin is dubious is hopeless.
Ultimately, the Pollard case is not a referendum on Jews or Israel, or the U.S.-Israel alliance. “The story of the Pollard case is a blot on American justice,” said Codevilla. “It makes you ashamed to be an American.”
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Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).