THE cause cbre of Jonathan Pollard, serving a life term for passing classified information to Israel, has gone mainstream. Once confined to a small circle of right-wing Zionists, Mr. Pollard's cause has now been embraced by a wider audience.
The foremost advocate of executive clemency for the naval intelligence officer, imprisoned in 1987, is Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who made his request in a meeting with President Clinton last year.
Proponents of clemency, and some opponents, share a common view of Pollard's motivation (benign if not patriotic), the nature of his espionage (directed at Arab military and nuclear capabilities), and the value of the intelligence he stole (vital to Israel and not harmful to United States interests).
Key elements of this conventional wisdom are either incorrect or woefully incomplete. The dimensions of Pollard's betrayal have been obscured by the cult of secrecy that veils nuclear espionage. Yet a close reading of available information reveals Pollard as an Israeli spy who passed the crown jewels of American intelligence - information about Soviet nuclear sites - to Israel, which incorporated relevant secrets into its own military strategic planning and then traded them, and the sources and methods exposed by them, to Moscow, perhaps for a loosening of restrictions on Jewish emigration.
Then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger hinted at the nature of Pollard's revelations in his secret 46-page memorandum to the judge passing sentence. He noted that ``substantial and irrevocable damage has been done to this nation.'' In an unclassified memo he wrote that data supplied to Israel by Pollard were ``intentionally reserved by the United States for its own use, because to disclose it, to anyone or any nation, would cause the greatest harm to our national security.''
Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, in a Dec. 23, 1993, letter to Mr. Clinton opposing clemency, reaffirmed Mr. Weinberger's assessment of ``the severity of the damage caused by Pollard's betrayal.''
The most revealing key to the nature of Pollard's treason appeared in a meticulously worded article from one of the Justice Department's good soldiers. David Geneson, one of the two assistant US attorneys who prosecuted Pollard and his wife, broke his public silence on the case in a Dec. 13 article in the Washington Post.
Mr. Geneson described the common claim that Pollard was not in it for the money as ``hogwash.'' He wrote that Pollard ``demanded a raise from his most senior control officer while the man lay in a hospital recuperating from surgery.'' Not exactly the action of a selfless patriot.
Far more important and instructive, especially in view of the pervasive adornment of Pollard as a well-meaning but misguided patriot, is Geneson's amplification of Weinberger's and Aspin's main contention. Pollard, wrote Geneson, disclosed and thus compromised ``a range of this country's most important secrets.... huge amounts of highly classified information unrelated to'' Iraq's nuclear and chemical capabilities.
ASK any State Department or Defense Department official to define ``this country's most important secrets.'' The unanimous response is: information relating to US targeting of Soviet nuclear and military installations and the capabilities and defenses of these sites - certainly not pictures of Yasser Arafat's Tunisian redoubt or Saddam Hussein's Scud sites.
Geneson added that much of this intelligence ``was unusable to the Israelis except as bargaining chips and leverage against the United States and other countries' interests.''
Moscow would pay dearly for unedited US intelligence on its nuclear capabilities. And trading nuclear secrets for Soviet Jews is a bargain that former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir might well have been prepared to make.
Geneson has carefully repudiated the conventional wisdom about Pollard without spelling out the details of his treachery. His was a sophisticated, conservative approach, made by someone not anxious to join the public debate. Geneson did not return numerous requests for an interview.
His charges offer an authoritative nod to Seymour Hersh, the first to expose the true dimensions of Pollard's actions in his 1991 book, ``The Sampson Option.'' Mr. Hersh's revelations about Pollard's nuclear espionage, like Geneson's, contribute a vital factual context to the Pollard debate - a context which today is all but absent.
One need not be a hard-bitten Zionist, for whom the nuclear dimensions of Pollard's treachery is immaterial, to believe that Pollard got a raw deal at the hands of a government paranoid about its nuclear secrets. But an informed debate about clemency continues to rest upon a realistic understanding of the nature of Pollard's crimes. Whatever the sentiment about Pollard's future, it should at least be based on a factual appreciation of his past. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.