The spy who came in from the fold

Unlike the image his admirers have cultivated, American-Jewish mole Jonathan Pollard was neither George Smiley nor Eli Cohen, and certainly no Natan Sharansky.

Esther and Jonathan Pollard (photo credit: COURTESY OF JUSTICE FOR JONATHAN POLLARD)
Esther and Jonathan Pollard
Spies have been firing imaginations since antiquity.
Demanding deviousness, inventiveness, flamboyance and guts, espionage was crafted by the likes of Delilah, the first to mine intelligence while in bed; or Gideon, who probed the enemy’s morale by sneaking behind its lines and eavesdropping on its sentries; or Histiaeus, the Greek who while learning in Persia of its planned invasion reported it home by shaving his slave’s head, writing on it a warning letter, letting the serf’s hair grow, and then sending him home, where his hair was shaved again, the letter was read and the invasion was foiled.
Jonathan Pollard pulled no such tricks.
The spy whose release this fall after 30 years in jail was announced this week, will not be counted among his romantic art’s innovators. Nor will he go down in history as the blameless Israeli patriot and heroic Diaspora Jew his admirers have been trying to sculpt.
Yes, like all spies, Pollard was no coward, having known what selling information from the bowels of American intelligence might cost him. Yet from the point of view of espionage what he did was neither inventive nor unique.
The Stanford-educated Naval Intelligence analyst never infiltrated enemy lands, nor did he deploy any exciting technology. He just collected and delivered documents.
Pollard certainly was no “master spy,” as some crowned him since Wolf Blitzer’s report in 1987, as this newspaper’s Washington correspondent, concerning the quality of the material Pollard passed. That information, according to Blitzer, was highly valuable, ranging from Iraqi chemical-weapons plants to aerial photos of the PLO’s headquarters in Tunis.
Yet that’s not what spymasters do. Rather than steal documents, they recruit, train and assign those who do the thieving, while buying squealers and defectors, and creating cells of operatives through fake businesses and networks of informers, agents and double agents, the way Kim Philby did when he served the Soviets from within Britain’s MI6, or the way George Smiley did when he served “Circus” in John le Carré’s thrillers.
Pollard, then, was not a spymaster.
He was an agent. Yet even as such, attempts to portray him as an American version of Eli Cohen, the Mossad agent who was caught and hanged in Damascus in 1965, are absurd. Cohen was picked and trained before nestling in the enemy’s capital where he penetrated its corporate and political elite, lived in unbearable solitude, and radioed home information that helped Israel win a war for its life.
Pollard, besides developing no contacts other than with documents, and besides returning home to his wife every night, spied not on Israel’s most sworn enemy, but on its most dedicated ally. Moreover, as agents go, he was of the lower-grade type that is not screened, trained and deployed by his operators, but the type that comes from the outside offering services for pay.
Pollard has claimed repeatedly that he was motivated by idealism, that he was alarmed by the American failure to share with Israel information he considered vital for its survival, and that he intended to donate his pay to Israeli causes. Yet from the viewpoint of espionage he was a mercenary, a freelancer who according to some reports offered documents to other governments as well.
Having said all this, Pollard was indeed deployed by Israeli intelligence, if even at his own initiative.
And that is where the plot that began as unimpressive espionage morphed into an Israeli scandal and a Jewish tragedy.
ISRAELI INTELLIGENCE was traumatized already in its infancy, when a spy ring of Egyptian Jews it created in Cairo was caught and tried in 1954 before two of its members were executed, five were jailed and one committed suicide after months of interrogation and torture.
What came to be known as the “Lavon Affair,” because it resulted in defense minister Pinchas Lavon’s removal, later caused rifts in the ruling Labor Party that haunted it for decades.
This history is relevant for understanding the Pollard saga for two reasons: first, because it remained unclear who instructed the creation of the ring whose assignment was to plant bombs that would seem planted by anti-Western terrorists.
And second, because Israeli intelligence was instructed to never again pit Diaspora Jews against their own governments.
Three decades on, it was also unclear just who did and didn’t know of Pollard’s deployment, and who decided to ignore the prohibition on pitting a local Jew against his government.
Two things, however, are clear.
First, Pollard was deployed by a small outfit that belonged neither to the Mossad nor to Military Intelligence, which split between them most of Israel’s spying. That outfit, the Defense Ministry’s Bureau for Science Relations, enlisted Pollard through a non-spy, Air Force Col.
Aviem Sella who happened to have been studying in the US when Pollard approached him. Poorly supervised and operating under looser standards, this agency evidently did not appreciate what it was tinkering with when it provoked the American government’s trust of American Jewry and the Jewish state.
Secondly, Pollard was enlisted in the last days of Yitzhak Shamir’s first premiership in 1984.
A parliamentary inquiry headed by the respectable Abba Eban, then chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, concluded later that decade that neither Shamir nor his successor Shimon Peres knew of Pollard’s deployment, nor did those years’ defense ministers Moshe Arens and Yitzhak Rabin.
There is no reason to doubt this conclusion, as Israeli leaders are routinely presented with sensitive intelligence reports whose exact sources are to them immaterial. Then again, the fact is that in his previous career Shamir was himself a spy. Some therefore continued to suspect that at that early point in his premiership his enthusiasm for raw intelligence was greater than his concern for American Jewry’s confidence in its home.
Either way, the Pollard fiasco was a link in a chain of uniquely Israeli spying tragedies. What began with the Lavon Affair was later followed by the jailing in 1961 of Israel Baer, an Austrian-born adviser of David Ben-Gurion who spied for the Soviet Union. The Baer scandal was later eclipsed by the jailing of Marcus Klingberg, a Polish-born IDF lieutenant- colonel and a Tel Aviv University epidemiology professor who spied for the KGB from within the Israeli government’s Institute for Biological Research, which reportedly studies biological and chemical warfare.
Baer and Klingberg, who betrayed Israel, were the inversions of Pollard and the Egyptian ring, who sacrificed for the Jewish state. Yet like the American and the Egyptians, the Austrian and the Pole were ideologically driven, Baer by his belief that the USSR will win the Cold War, and Klingberg by the communist conviction he shared with his wife, Wanda, a Warsaw Ghetto survivor.
The common denominator among these disparate debacles is that they reflect the great spying opportunities and risks that the Jewish people’s geographic reach creates.
THE ISRAELI GOVERNMENT has apparently learned its lesson from the Pollard Affair, and now avoids such deployment of Diaspora Jews.
However, individual Jews’ attitude in this regard, both within Israel and abroad, is sometimes more elusive.
Yes, by any moral yardstick Pollard is no traitor. He was no Philby, Baer or Klingberg who served the enemy.
Moreover, as he saw it, he not only served an American ally but also the US itself. Yet betrayal is judged not by the betrayer but by the betrayed, and the American government felt betrayed regardless of its stolen documents’ destination, because its trust was breached, bluntly and wholesale.
Pollard and his advocates have some convincing charges against Israel concerning his enlistment and initial abandonment. They have no such arguments concerning the risk at which he put American Jewry by exposing it to dual-loyalty charges.
The concern over Pollard’s emergence from the Jewish fold was most harshly expressed by the US Navy’s Sumner Shapiro, a Jewish admiral who at one point demoted Pollard, and later attacked what he saw as a campaign to transform him from a “greedy, arrogant, betrayer of the American national trust” into a “committed Israeli patriot.”
One does not need to accept this sweeping condemnation’s language to agree that Pollard’s potential damage to American Jewry was immense, a grim truth that some of those who glorify him, especially in Israel, still fail to appreciate. America is not an evil empire, Pollard was no Natan Sharansky, and attempts to treat him as such will seal tragedy with farce.
Jonathan Pollard’s espionage began unsolicited, unfolded recklessly and evolved into a tragedy in three acts whose protagonists were the man who made Israel an offer it should have refused, the spies who accepted his Faustian bargain and the zealots who idolized him. Now, with their 31-year show finally over, they should all bow and leave the stage.