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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

January 16, 2014
Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images
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
Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images
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

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.

Sadly, however, there are plenty of people in America, as well as the rest of the world, who strongly disagree with the characterization of American Jews, or Jews in general, as being no more and no less likely to turn on their country and sell out their neighbors. The common and proper term for such beliefs is “anti-Semitism.” Allowing the American national security establishment to play on classic anti-Semitic stereotypes in order to keep a man in prison as a “lesson” to other members of his group or race is contrary to both the spirit and the letter of the U.S. Constitution—and would surely and rightly never be tolerated by Muslims, gays, blacks, Chinese-Americans, or any other group.

American Jews may want to ignore the intended message of the Pollard case—that we are second-class citizens because of our inherent political untrustworthiness—but there is ample evidence that America’s enemies around the world have by now received that message, loud and clear: American Jews can be dealt with differently than other Americans, and with fewer consequences, even if they are directly employed by the American government. Ask the Iranians why they felt like they could seize former FBI Agent Robert Levinson—recently revealed to have gone to Iran under contract with the CIA—with impunity and continue to obfuscate about his whereabouts, even as they have sought to negotiate an end to sanctions with the Obama Administration. Ask the Cubans why they feel like they can continue to hold USAID contractor Alan Gross while lobbying for increasing trade ties. Ask the members of the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, who clearly know, or could find out, the whereabouts of longtime USAID contractor Warren Weinstein. They do it, because they know that they can get away with it. They do it, because America does it, too.

Putting a target on the backs of American Jews who serve their country in dangerous places is a terrible way to treat U.S. government contractors and employees—whether they are Jewish or not. Telling America’s enemies that, when it comes to questions of national security, Jews are different makes all Americans vulnerable, by sending the signal that America is a country that won’t protect its own.

But if the official injustice of the Pollard case is dangerous for all Americans who serve their country, it has also metastasized into a real threat to the promise of legal and social equality that American Jews now take for granted. It is not hard to imagine why the heads of the Jewish Federations of North America, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and other name-brand Jewish organizations have ignored the message that Pollard’s outsized punishment is intended to convey—which is that political anti-Semitism is OK in America or at least to be expected. After all, no one wants to be associated with a convicted traitor who pleaded guilty to betraying his country—let alone be outspoken in his defense, or turn him into a symbol of an entire community.

Yet by framing their obligatory annual engagement with the Pollard case as a strictly humanitarian issue, even American Jewish leaders who have been forthright about the case—most especially Malcolm Hoenlein, the longstanding executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations—have given an unwitting stamp of communal acquiescence to the message of suspicion that Pollard’s punishment is intended to convey. The business-as-usual attitude of the American Jewish leadership has legitimized a noxious brand of political anti-Semitism, which has been adopted by parts of the U.S. political establishment—as well as by journalists and academics who help to frame discussions of public policy. The injustice that is being done to Pollard pales next to this very deliberate injustice being done to American Jews by high-ranking U.S. government officials in Pollard’s name.

Israel’s recent flurry of concern for Pollard, after years of denying that he was actually an Israeli spy, hasn’t been helpful, either. In recent weeks, Secretary of State John Kerry has reportedly offered to arrange for Pollard’s release in exchange for concessions from Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in settlement negotiations with the Palestinians. But the idea, now more than 15 years old, that Pollard is a legitimate bargaining chip in Middle Eastern affairs does neither Pollard nor American Jews any favors. Rather, it illustrates the advanced state of moral and intellectual decay into which the organized American Jewish community has sunk. The intended message of Pollard’s continued incarceration is that all American Jews are potential Jonathan Pollards. Are you? Is it right for the U.S. government to see—and present—us this way? As Americans, and as Jews, this is an ugly message that threatens our most deeply held attachments and beliefs.


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Editorials do not (necessarily) reflect the views of staff writers, editors, contributing editors or columnists.

Editorials do not (necessarily) reflect the views of staff writers, editors, contributing editors or columnists.