No single espionage case has managed to become as controversial as the Pollard case. Espionage cases involving the USSR and China have flown under the radar by comparison. And a lot of the reason has to do with the myths circulating around the case.
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.
Whatever one may think of the spy game, the accusations otherwise never made any sense.
Israel was hungry for information about enemy capabilities. It didn’t need any American secrets and the various claims, such as that Israel, which was in a proxy war with the USSR, was passing American secrets to Moscow, were even more ridiculous.
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.”
There are two lines of thought about why the Pollard myth had to be created and spread.
1. To maintain a wedge with Israel
2. To cover up the activity of existing Soviet spies including Aldrich Ames
The former theory is plausible enough. But the second theory is far more intriguing. Pollard was blamed at times for acts of espionage being committed by Soviet spies yet to be caught. But if that’s the case, then the USSR had penetrated the United States at a much higher level and was able to use the Pollard case to kill two birds with one stone, driving a wedge between Israel and the US, while covering up its own espionage.
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.”
Violating the policy of unelected officials is generally more of a crime than violating laws made by elected officials. But why has the Pollard case continued to be a focal point long after the fall of the USSR?
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.”
But South Korea, Greece, etc don’t get obsessed with imprisoned spies the way that Israel has with Pollard. Israel made Pollard into a bargaining chip that can only be redeemed once. Which means that his release is unlikely to happen as long as the peace process drags on.
There’s a lesson here that Israel keeps failing to learn. Emotional vulnerability is more strategically dangerous than any other kind.