The effort to keep Middle East peace talks alive has pushed the U.S. to consider doing what once was unthinkable: freeing convicted spy Jonathan Pollard.
Three decades before Edward Snowden shocked the world by exposing U.S. electronic spying tactics, a 31-year-old naval intelligence analyst based in Washington stunned the American government when he was discovered passing thousands of pages of classified documents to Israel.
The passage of time, Pollard’s reported ill health and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s desire to save peace talks from a potential collapse all have combined to make Pollard’s release a possibility. Freedom for Pollard, who was convicted in 1987 and sentenced to life in prison, has been discussed by Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to a U.S. official who wasn’t authorized to be named.
Another official familiar with the talks said the deal under discussion would see Pollard, 59, freed before the Passover holiday on April 14, while Israel in return would expand a previously agreed Palestinian prisoner release to include an additional 400 people.
President Barack Obama “has not made a decision to release Jonathan Pollard,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters today, while acknowledging “there are a lot of things happening in that arena.”
Under federal sentencing guidelines in effect at the time of Pollard’s conviction, he’s scheduled to be released on Nov. 21, 2015, pending a final review by the U.S. Parole Commission, said Chris Burke, a spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
His early release was the last thing on the minds of U.S. officials during the Cold War, who continue to view Pollard as an unrepentant traitor.
“I was there, and some of us wanted him executed,” said Vincent Cannistraro, who served as director of intelligence programs in President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council at the time of Pollard’s arrest.
While Pollard has won sympathy because he was helping Israel, a close U.S. ally, Cannistraro said the damage he caused to U.S. national security was more serious than is generally known. Pollard passed secrets to countries besides Israel, including China, he said.
In what Cannistraro described as a particularly egregious breach, Pollard gave Israel classified information on the movements of U.S. submarines, which he said ended up in the hands of the Soviet Union and forced the U.S. to change some of its operations.
U.S. intelligence analysts suspected but never obtained hard proof that the Israelis traded some of the intelligence they received from Pollard for loosened restrictions on the emigration of Soviet Jews to Israel.
The evidence was largely circumstantial, including the timing of the release of some prominent Soviet Jews, although that also coincided with the coming to power of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and with the exchange of spies that freed Natan Sharansky, one of the most prominent Soviet “refuseniks,” said a former official who investigated the Pollard affair and asked not to be identified discussing classified intelligence.
In a 1996 column in the Washington Post, three former directors of the Office of Naval Intelligence wrote:
“Pollard pleaded guilty and therefore never was publicly tried. Thus, the American people never came to know that he offered classified information to three other countries before working for the Israelis and that he offered his services to a fourth country while he was spying for Israel. They also never came to understand that he was being very highly paid for his services -- including an impressive nest egg currently in foreign banks -- and was negotiating with his Israeli handlers for a raise as he was caught.”
Pollard was arrested in 1985 near the Israeli Embassy in Washington, where he was seeking political asylum in Israel.
In almost a year of espionage, Pollard had delivered to Israel about 800 documents, some of which were classified top secret, according to the National Security Archive, a nonprofit research group at George Washington University in Washington. He also stole an estimated 1,500 U.S. intelligence summary messages.
The Central Intelligence Agency’s 1987 damage assessment of Pollard’s activities found that he had provided Israel with information on topics including Iraqi and Syrian chemical warfare production capabilities, Soviet arms shipments to Syria and other Arab states, Pakistan’s nuclear program and the capabilities of Tunisian and Libyan air defense systems.
Pollard’s imprisonment has long been a source of tension in U.S.-Israeli relations, with Netanyahu trying to secure the spy’s release since his first term as prime minister, which began in 1996.
Former Central Intelligence Agency Director George Tenet threatened to resign in 1998 when Netanyahu pushed for Pollard’s release during peace talks brokered by President Bill Clinton at the Wye Plantation in Maryland. Netanyahu that year acknowledged Pollard’s espionage for the first time in an effort to facilitate his release.
“If Pollard were included in the final package, no one at Langley would believe I hadn’t had a hand in that, too,” Tenet wrote in his memoir, referring to the location of CIA headquarters in Washington’s Virginia suburbs. “In the margins, the deal would reward a U.S. citizen who spied on his own country, and once word of that got out (and that would take a nanosecond or two), I would be effectively through as CIA director. What’s more, I should be. I would have no moral capital left with my troops.”
Even if freeing Pollard about 18 months early could spur Israel to make concessions that would keep the peace talks alive, it would cause an uproar among current and former U.S. intelligence officials who consider him a traitor.
“We would express our real outrage that an unrepentant spy is being released for an abstract political point that really won’t make a difference,” said Oliver “Buck” Revell, who served as associate deputy director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation when Pollard was convicted.
The U.S.-brokered peace talks foundered today as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas vowed to pursue a bid for statehood at the United Nations after Israel failed to meet a deadline to release prisoners.
Aaron David Miller, who has advised secretaries of state of both political parties on Mideast policy, said the Obama administration is making a mistake by floating the idea of Pollard’s early release.
“This is the dumbest idea anyone can think of,” said Miller, a vice president at the Wilson Center, a Washington policy group. While trading Pollard for an actual peace deal might be worthwhile, “we’re paying far too great a price” if Pollard is released just to keep talks going for a few more months, Miller said in an interview.
Dennis Ross, a former Middle East adviser to Obama and Clinton, disagreed, saying releasing Pollard now, after he’s served almost 30 years in prison, is a useful bargaining chip in the give-and-take of Middle East diplomacy.
“At a time when the Middle East is characterized by upheaval, and U.S. foreign policy needs to demonstrate effectiveness, we can ill-afford a collapse of the current efforts to negotiate between Israelis and Palestinians,” Ross, a counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote in an opinion column on the group’s website.
Israel’s push to release Pollard is hardly surprising, Ross said, because of what Pollard has come to symbolize for Israelis. Pollard was granted Israeli citizenship while imprisoned.
“He has taken on the aura of being a soldier who was left in the field, and the ethos in Israel is that soldiers are never left behind,” Ross wrote.
Still, some of Netanyahu’s own ministers have opposed linking Pollard’s release and the freeing of Palestinian prisoners or settlement construction. Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir said today on Army Radio that he would vote against any agreement connecting the issues, and condemned as “bribery” any U.S. offer to free Pollard under those terms.
“I get goosebumps when I think of Pollard being released under such an arrangement,” Tourism Minister Uzi Landau told Channel 10 television in Israel. “The reason they will give us Pollard is so that we can sugarcoat what is actually a cyanide pill.”
For much of the American Jewish community, the Pollard case is an unwelcome dilemma that triggers mostly silence. In a sign of the matter’s sensitivity, lobbying groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and J Street declined to comment on whether Pollard should be released.
“When something like this happens, it creates an ambivalence in American Jews,” said Rabbi Jack Moline, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council in Washington. “It is a complicated situation for everybody.”
Anti-Semites “see Mr. Pollard as being representative of the true allegiances of Jews in the United States and around the world,” Moline said. “This is an opportunity for them, and it provokes all our insecurities.”