Almost any article regarding Jonathon Pollard elicits a wave of responses, usually more negative than positive. For supporters the issue typically comes down to the “injustice” of the term of sentence. Opponents are likely to raise the spy’s “treason,” blame him for the deaths of CIA “assets” during the 1980’s in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
In point of fact Pollard’s incarceration is far longer as compared to other persons similarly charged and convicted. Also correct is that many CIA operatives did lose their lives across Eastern Europe and Russia during the years in which he was engaged in espionage. But was he guilty of treason, and were those deaths due to his activities?
Certainly more is involved in this issue than the known and assumed facts. And in what follows I will suggest an alternative explanation for what began as espionage by an American on behalf of an ally, and turned into what today is known as the Pollard Affair.
The espionage and conviction of Jonathan Pollard, 1979 - 1985
From the moment Jonathan asked me to represent him as director of Justice for the Pollards in 1988, one thing in particular caught, and continues to hold my attention. While the last-minute so-called Weinberger Memorandum supposedly provided Judge Robinson reason to vacate the government’s plea agreement with Pollard, the single visible technical reason for doing so was that he had violated his plea agreement by granting interviews with Wolf Blitzer of the Jerusalem Post. The problem with this violation, and it was in fact a violation of the plea agreement, was that at the time of the interviews, Pollard was a prisoner in a federal penitentiary. He could agree to any number of interviews, but unless he actually met with them he was not in violation. And, unless Blitzer had had authorization from someone well above the pay grade of a prison warden, such as an administration member, he could not have been admitted to see Pollard, and provide the opportunity to violate the plea agreement. Pollard was set up.
Nor was this just my imagination. In his book that resulted from those prison interviews, Territory of Lies, Blitzer expressed the same thoughts: “If those interviews were not approved,’ he asks, “why was I allowed into the prison... was this part of a conspiracy?” And while Blitzer chose not to pursue the question in the book, I suggest it represents the key to understanding how and why Pollard and Israel were targeted, and why Pollard remains a prisoner even today.
Blitzer describes Pollard’s entry into espionage as having, “quietly passed some intelligence to Israel when he had officially participated in two formal intelligence exchanges with Israel in 1982. He felt that vital information – which actually had been authorized for release to Israel,” was withheld because, “other U.S. officials were anti-Israel, if not anti-Semitic.” During a break in one of those meetings Pollard is described as approaching a “startled” Israeli. “I’m Jewish,” he said, “I want to help you.”
The story of how Pollard found himself in those intelligence exchange sessions, for that matter how he even managed to be hired by Naval Intelligence, is itself suspect. In brief, Pollard dropped out of his masters degree program to seek employment with the CIA and, following a polygraph exam was quickly turned down. So he applied to Naval Intelligence (NI).
Of all the service branches of the U.S. military, the Navy had a reputation as least “friendly” towards Jews and Israel. But Pollard, Jew and vocal Zionist, passed his background check minus a polygraph, and was hired as an analyst. That failure to polygraph was something that seemed to occur throughout his tenure at NI, through promotions and increases in security clearance.
“Within two months of being hired, the technical director of the [Naval Fields Operational Intelligence Office] NFOIO, Richard Haver, requested that Pollard be terminated. This came after a reckless and inappropriate conversation with the new hire in which Pollard offered to start a back-channel operation with the South African intelligence service and lied about his own father''s involvement with the CIA.” But Pollard did not lose his job. Instead Haver''s boss reassigned him to a human-gathered intelligence operation.
About a month later Pollard again tried to promote the South Africa back channel, this time by approaching none other than the director of Naval Intelligence. The admiral later referred to him as a "kook…I wish the hell I''d fired him." But he didn’t, and somehow Israel’s future spy continued to enjoy promotions within the Defense Department establishment, was assigned positions increasingly more sensitive, received increasingly higher security clearance.
And then, “in June 1984 Jonathan Pollard was transferred to the newly created Anti-Terrorist Alert Center (ATAC) of the Naval Investigative Service’s Threat Analysis Division to serve as watch officer(!).” His security clearance now included, “CONFIDENTIAL, TOP SECRET, and SPECIAL COMPARTMENTED INFORMATION (SCI).” (pps. 65-68) Pollard could now access to any information he felt was being withheld from Israel.
To make the point absolutely clear: “SCI is a designation reserved for especially sensitive classified information (my italics),” accessible only to persons with “special security clearance.”
At the same time as his new assignment Pollard “made comments that he had worked for Israeli intelligence(!).” But not even such comments apparently raised concern in the mind of his supervisor, a 20+ year NI veteran.
“On January 3, 1985, Pollard passed another routine security clearance examination which [again] did not include a polygraph.” (p.95) Was it standard procedure that while other government offices routinely polygraphed during the Year of the Spy, that only Naval Intelligence was exempt? Or was it that Pollard was considered a “special case”?
Following his arrest FBI agents discovered a letter inside a suitcase filled with classified documents. Addressing a “Yossi,” the letter referred to a missile system, “which might be available for sale to Iran… This letter was actually drafted shortly after the United States and Israel began their own covert arms-for-hostages negotiations with Iran,” writes Blitzer.
The Reagan Administration and Irangate, August 20, 1985 – March 4, 1987
Irangate, also known as the Iran-Contra Affair, was a clandestine operation run directly out of the White House. It involved a range of illegal activities including: the sale of weapons to Iran; funding and arming the terrorist Nicaraguan Contras; money laundering to fund the activities; and drug trafficking.
At a time when Pollard was dominating the headlines the administration chose to respond to Congressional pressure over Iran-Contra by appointing its own investigative panel (Congress would later appoint its own). But even this panel, faced with the enormity of the criminal activities, condemned the administration.
According to the Tower Commission Report, “In November 1986, it was disclosed that the United States had, in August 1985, and subsequently, participated in secret dealings with Iran involving the sale of military equipment.” Since selling arms to Iran was a violation of United States law, the administration sought to conceal its illegal dealings behind friendly national “cutouts,” Israel to broker the arms, and other countries, principly the Saudis, to provide the funds. “Before the Israelis would participate,” notes the report, they demanded "a clear, express and binding consent by the U.S. Government." According to National Security Chairman Robert McFarlane, President Reagan approved the deal in July, 1985. “In August,” McFarlane continued, “Reagan again orally authorized the first sale of weapons to Iran.” In his 26 January, 1987 testimony before the Commission the president contradicted his chief of staff’s testimony “by admitting, that he had indeed approved both the Israeli sale of TOWs to Iran and had agreed to replenish the Israeli stocks.”
Conclusions: In the popular imagination the case against Jonathan Pollard involves several serious charges, all emanating from the same source, his ultimate boss at Naval Intelligence, the Secretary of Defense. It was Caspar Weinberger who staged that dramatic last-minute race to the courthouse to deliver his “secret memorandum” asserting criminal behavior justifying the extreme sentence. It was Weinberger who demanded that, “the punishment imposed should reflect the perfidy of the individual actions, the magnitude of the treason committed.” And it was Weinberger who, according to my memory (I am unable to find press references to the impromptu news conference), stood on the steps of the courthouse and publicly accused Pollard of treason and deserving execution, not life imprisonment.
Of course Caspar Weinberger, himself a lawyer, was well aware that Pollard was not a “traitor” since the term only applies to persons providing information to an enemy in time of war. His call for the “death penalty” was mere hyperbole, but the charge stuck and continues to haunt Pollard even today.
Before his death Weinberger admitted that the facts and events surrounding the trial of Pollard were overblown. But the Pollard Affair was never really about the facts of the case but the event itself. It succeeded in creating a diversion, deflected attention away from Irangate. And it served that purpose well. While the reputation of the president remains intact and Iran-Contra is relegated to a footnote in history, twenty-six years later Jonathan Pollard remains in prison.
As to those agents whose deaths were, and continue to be, attributed to Pollard’s espionage: seven years following his conviction the CIA finally unraveled the mystery of the leak: rather than that elusive Agent “X” supposed to have guided Pollard’s activities, the person who had betrayed those murdered CIA agents was one of their own, a burned out, alcoholic agent living well beyond his means, Aldrich Ames.