Jonathan Pollard is one of the most polarizing figures of our times. Pollard, a former intelligence analyst in US naval intelligence, has now served 20 years of a life imprisonment sentence following his conviction for transferring classified US intelligence materials relating to Arab ballistic missile and nonconventional weapons programs to Israel from May 1984 until his arrest in November 1985.
For his contribution to Israel's security and for his long suffering in prison, Israelis consider Pollard a national hero. He is commonly considered the source of Israel's preparedness for the Iraqi missile attacks during the Gulf War. Israelis across the right-left and religious-secular divide are basically unified in their hope to greet Pollard in Israel as a free man.
For many American Jews, Pollard is reviled as a traitor. Since his arrest, a cloud of suspicion has hung over all Jews employed in the Pentagon, the State Department, the US military and intelligence services. Time after time, baseless allegations surface of American Jews spying for Israel. In spite of Israel's strategic alliance with the US, American intelligence agencies define Israel as a "country of concern" for intelligence breaches and American Jews are under constant, often malicious scrutiny. All a person has to do to expose the deep frustration of Washington Jews with the constant discrimination by intelligence agencies is mention the name "Pollard."
Immediately he will be showered with bitter statements like, "If it weren't for that traitor, we wouldn't be in this position," and, "I hope he rots in jail."
For the past 12 years Pollard has been incarcerated in Butner Federal Prison in North Carolina. He was transferred to Butner from Marion Federal Prison in Illinois where he was held in a subterranean cell in solitary confinement for seven years. Pollard's treatment, like his life sentence, is unprecedented in the history of US espionage investigations. Never has a spy in the employ of a friendly country received such a sentence. On average, spies working for countries considered US allies receive between 4-7 years in jail. Aldrich Ames, the most notorious spy in recent history, who as head of the CIA counter-intelligence department compromised all US intelligence emanating from the Soviet Union for over 15 years and caused the death of more than 10 US agents operating in the Soviet Union – while sentenced to life in prison – was never placed in solitary confinement for stretches comparable to Pollard.
I went to see Jonathan Pollard last week. During a two-and-a-half-hour meeting, we spoke at length about his espionage, the conditions of his imprisonment, his feelings toward the US, Israel, the Jewish people and his hopes for the future.
Pollard is now 50 years old. He grew up in South Bend, Indiana. He studied political science, economics and classics at Stanford University and was studying towards a doctorate in military history at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts when he was recruited in 1979 by Naval Intelligence.
Pollard first visited Israel in 1971 for a summer program at the Weitzman Institute. He refers to his Jewish background as "modern-Orthodox, American style. The centrality of Israel for the Jewish people was emphasized."
"I had thought constantly about aliya," he says, "But it's hard to pick up and leave the 'Golden Medina.' My parents are proud Americans. My father is a decorated Army officer. He carries a copy of the US Constitution in his pocket. But when I joined Naval Intelligence my father warned me that it's not a good place for a Jew. There is a lot of anti-Semitism there. But even when I saw it, I thought it would be better for me to stay."
Today at Butner, Pollard is employed as a window washer. His life is one of constant terror.
"I will give you an impressionistic description of my life. It involves constant noise, constant violence; profanity – every conceivable type of profanity. There is no place to be quiet or to find quiet – to read. You really have to be disciplined not to be provoked. You need to be disciplined to see when a situation is getting out of hand and to get away as quickly as possible. I have to be ready if my door opens at 2 in the morning.
"I live in a small room, not in a cell, with a roommate. My room is so small that when I sit on my bed and stretch out my arms I touch both of the walls. And it is impossible to lock the door. When I am not washing windows I spend my day reading and listening to the radio – to NPR and the BBC."
The prison has television sets set up in common rooms for inmates. His fellow inmates include murderers, rapists, armed robbers, pedophiles and other violent criminals. On September 11, Pollard was in the TV room, watching CNN.
What did you feel when you saw the World Trade Center and the Pentagon attacked?
"I felt sick to my stomach. The worst thing for me was that a lot of the Muslim inmates here greeted the attacks by saying Alla Akhbar and cheering."
But why would it bother you to see the US under attack? After all, you betrayed this country.
To this, Jonathan gave me a look of profound sadness and said, "I fell in love with two women –Israel and the US. It doesn't work in private life, and it doesn't work in politics. My reaction to September 11 was as an American. As an American, I believe that this country is guarding the gates of Western civilization from the barbarians."
In 1983, shortly after Israel and the US signed a memorandum on intelligence sharing, then deputy director of the CIA Admiral Bobby Ray Inman unilaterally breached the agreement by stopping all intelligence transfers to Israel on Arab and Muslim states not directly bordering Israel. This included Iraq, Iran, Libya, Tunis and Pakistan. Inman was hired after leaving the agency by a company called International Signal and Control. The company's owner, James Guerin, was imprisoned later for transferring military technology to Iraq and South Africa.
Pollard, who was privy to the now embargoed intelligence, believed that Israel faced the specter of chemical and biological warfare attacks from these countries. Pollard claims that he considered all legal venues for ending the embargo but felt that informing the media, testifying before Congress or involving the US Jewish leadership of the situation would all be ineffective.
He claims also that "there was an incident during Operation Peace for the Galilee that provided me with my introduction to the US-Israel 'special relationship.' I saw the incredible cynicism with which the US views Israel. It flew in the face of everything that I thought was the point of the relationship. The way I viewed the world was destroyed. I had never before thought that my loyalties towards the US and Israel were in contradiction. But then I understood."
What did you understand?
"I understood that we are alone."
Pollard argues that his decision to spy for Israel, and thus betray the US, stemmed from his conviction that he "was preventing a second Holocaust."
One can question whether it was necessary for him to prevent it personally, or whether he could simply have quit his position, informed the responsible Israeli officials of the mounting dangers and let Israel – with its intelligence agencies and military — contend with the issue as a sovereign state. But the fact is that Pollard chose himself for the task and Israel, too, in employing Pollard as its agent, chose him for the task. Over the 18-month period that Pollard worked for Israel, he provided suitcases of documents to his handlers on a regular basis.
Rafi Eitan, Israel's master spy who served a
s Pollard's chief handler from his position as head of the Office for Information Cooperation (LAKAM) at the Israeli Embassy, told him that his information was discussed at cabinet meetings and Pollard understood that his main contractor was then Maj.-Gen. Ehud Barak, who then served as Commander of Military Intelligence.
Yet, when Pollard was arrested, Israel did whatever it could to deny its connection to him. From the moment then prime minister Shimon Peres ordered embassy security officers to physically eject Pollard and his wife-at-the-time Anne from the embassy, Israel has done everything in its power to distance itself from Pollard. It wasn't until 1995 that he was granted Israeli citizenship and it wasn't until 1998 that Israel officially recognized that Pollard was its agent.
Binyamin Netanyahu was the only prime minister to have made a serious effort to get Pollard released. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has abjectly refused to take any action on Pollard's behalf.
For Pollard, who expected to be protected by Israel if caught, it is the treatment he has received from the Israeli government that surprises and disturbs him more than the harsh and disproportionate punishment that he has received from US authorities.
"I had two particularly memorable terrible days since I was arrested. The first was when the FBI showed me transcripts of statements that Israeli officials made shortly after my arrest. It was clear that the Mossad had three goals. They wanted to put all the blame on the Office for Information Connections and Rafi Eitan; they wanted to protect AIPAC at all costs; and they wanted to bury me. It was the Mossad that was the source of all the disinformation about me and my character. The lies that I used cocaine and was a mercenary, selling secrets to countries other than Israel, it all came from them.
"Later, in 1995, a Mossad agent came here to see me and suggested that I kill myself. I said that while I would die for Israel, I would not die for some group of toadies.
"The Israelis claimed that mine was a rogue operation. But this was a total lie. Not only did the senior political and military leadership know what was happening, Ariel Sharon tried to use me for his own ends. Rafi Eitan was Arik's man. And he asked me to collect political intelligence for Sharon – what people in Washington were saying about him and the like. I refused.
"But what hurt me the most was when I saw the unclassified version of the Eban Report. [The Eban Report was a report of the Knesset's sub-committee on intelligence services investigation into the Pollard affair that was published in 1987.] It made me almost physically ill. The report includes a summary of a midnight conversation between Peres and [then US Secretary of State George] Schultz about a week after I was arrested. Schultz asked Peres to return the documents I took and Peres agreed but made Schultz promise that the documents wouldn't be used against me and Schultz agreed.
"No one ever told me about this agreement. I could have used it in my defense. It is the country's responsibility. Israel had standing before the court. Israel is the only country to participate in the prosecution of its own agent.
"Several years later [in 1990] Sharon attacked Yitzhak Shamir for going along with my abandonment. But that is what Sharon is doing now."
Although sources close to Sharon claim that Pollard may be released on the sidelines of the destruction of the Jewish communities in Gaza and northern Samaria and the pullout of IDF forces from the areas, White House sources know of no request on Sharon's part to release Pollard from prison.
Ahead of Sharon's visit to the White House last spring, 112 Knesset members, including Sharon himself, signed a letter to President George W. Bush asking him to release Pollard from prison. Sharon refused to deliver the letter to Bush. This month, ahead of Sharon's meeting with Bush at his ranch in Texas, all current and former Israeli chief rabbis signed a letter to Bush requesting that he free Pollard. Again, Sharon refused to deliver the letter to Bush during his meeting.
After meeting with Pollard, I contacted James Woolsey, the former director of the CIA. Woolsey told me that upon taking up his position in 1993 he reviewed Pollard's entire file carefully. "This man would not be my first candidate for clemency, but 20 years is a long time. As a general proposition, one dimension of this is that a substantial penalty has been paid, so that the element of deterrence is dealt with.
"I do think there is a consideration here. Israel and the US, Australia, Japan, Poland and Britain are all in this war on terror together. We need to pay attention to the concerns of the citizens in fellow democracies. I would feel this way if it were Japanese espionage. We have to have a degree of sympathy for the sentiments of citizens in a fellow democracy." At the same time, Woolsey was quick to explain, "This is not a recommendation for clemency."
Woolsey also stated that Pollard was not suspected of having transferred secrets to governments other than Israel. In his view "the heart of the matter" was the US fear that Israel's own intelligence apparatus would be penetrated by hostile governments and that as a result the materials Pollard transferred would be picked up. This, he explained, "would present a danger to the US ability to collect intelligence."
"The fear was that the Israeli government itself might have been penetrated, not that Pollard gave the information to anyone else."
When Pollard speaks of his future, he says that he has been training himself to go into a non-security related field if released from prison and most of his reading materials are scientific.
"I have an interest in alternative energy sources to replace oil and in water desalination."
Is there any reason that the US should worry about security damage you may cause if released from prison?
"There is no substantive American worry regarding my release. My life has been destroyed so deterrence has been achieved. Nothing I know and certainly nothing I would ever do would be antithetical to US interests. The bottom line is, I want to come home so I can be with my wife, my people and my land."
In the days that have passed since the interview it occurred to me that the reprehensible behavior of the Israeli government in the Pollard affair tops that of all concerned parties – all of whom have behaved reprehensibly. Aside from the anti-Semites who take pleasure in spewing Jewish conspiracy theories, Israel was the only side that gained anything from Pollard's espionage. The US gained nothing and Pollard lost everything.
In shirking its responsibility for Pollard, Israel paved the way for the entire story being blown out of all proportion by opportunistic enemies of Israel and American Jewry for two decades now. If Israel had resolutely stood by Pollard, then the aspersions cast on Washington's Jews would be far more circumspect than they are today and the US would have seen that Israel is an ally to be reckoned with, not a doormat to be stepped on at will.
Pessah is the holiday of freedom. But for a nation to be free it must take responsibility for its actions, no matter how grave those consequences may be. In shirking its responsibility a nation is doing more than casting out the unwanted weight. It is casting off its own ties to freedom. Pollard said, "The abandonment of a nation begins with the abandonment of an individual."
If we wish to maintain our integrity as a free people, we can do so only by taking on the task of bringing Pollard home. He may be a hero and he may be a fool. However he is viewed, he is one of us and he has been d
iscriminated against and persecuted because he helped us. And other Jews are being persecuted because we refused to defend him. It is time for us to take responsibility for Pollard because his imprisonment paves the road to our servitude.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.