Who is Jonathan Pollard, and why is his spy case inflammatory?

Jonathan Pollard supporters say the spy did nothing but help an ally, Israel, and clemency could help Middle East peace talks. Critics say Pollard did serious damage to US intelligence and his release would gain nothing.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry listens to a question at a news conference in Paris on March 30. The Associated Press reported Monday that the US is talking with Israel about clemency for convicted spy Jonathan Pollard as an incentive in stalled Middle Wast peace negotiations, citing an unnamed person familiar with the situation.

The United States is talking with Israel about releasing convicted spy Jonathan Pollard to the Israeli government as an incentive to keep troubled Middle East peace negotiations going, according to the Associated Press and other US and Israeli media reports.

Wow, really? That would be huge, a big geopolitical move that would please many in Israel, meet with the approval of pro-Israeli lawmakers in the US Congress, and infuriate a US defense and intelligence community, already angered by the revelations of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.

Mr. Pollard did not steal as many secrets as Mr. Snowden. Or maybe he did – intelligence agencies have never released a full report of his espionage. His name may be little remembered after 27 years in federal prison. But in his day, his case was almost as famous as Mr. Snowden’s is now – and highly controversial.

Jonathan Pollard was a Jewish American who from an early age was determined to aid Israel, according to a CIA damage report drafted in 1987 and declassified in recent years. He did well as an undergraduate at Stanford University but at times frightened classmates by claiming to be a Mossad agent, waving a pistol in the air, and screaming that everyone was out to get him.

“Pollard’s fantasies regarding involvement with clandestine US and Israeli intelligence operations continued during his employment with US naval intelligence from 1979 to 1985,” reads the CIA report, which is heavily redacted for security reasons.

Pollard was a civilian working for US Navy Intelligence, but eventually his fantasy life turned into reality. Through an intermediary who was a family friend, Pollard met his initial Israeli handler, a noted fighter pilot named Col. Aviem Sella, who was on study leave in the United States, and volunteered to spy.

Initially, Pollard passed along secrets related to artillery developments in several Arab countries. Matters escalated from there. The Israelis continued to ask for secrets directly related to their security, according to the CIA study, including Arab and Pakistani nuclear secrets and capabilities of the Soviet weapons in Arab hands.

But Pollard may have given them much more than that. He passed along great volumes of intelligence material. On Jan. 23, 1985, he handed over five suitcases of secrets, for instance. He kept up an almost-steady biweekly schedule of further deliveries until his arrest in November 1985.

Colleagues had noted his suspicious handling of classified material and turned him in. Initially, he sought refuge at the Israeli Embassy, but Israel refused to recognize him at the time. He pleaded guilty to leaking documents to Israel and received a life sentence. (He was not charged with treason, because Israel is not an enemy of the US.)

Since then, his case has become a cause célèbre in Israel and among US supporters of Israel. Their argument is that he did nothing but help an ally in its own defense, and that, over the years, he has paid for his crime. As noted, he’s been imprisoned for more than a quarter-century, and his mental health is reported to be not great. Beginning next year, the US government must prove why he should remain in prison at a scheduled parole hearing. In that context, why not get something for his release now?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be a hero in Israel for winning Pollard’s release. But the effect on peace talks would be less clear. Reportedly the US wants talks to continue as the price for Pollard. But Mr. Netanyahu’s political coalition would break apart if he made the land-for-peace trades any actual deal with Palestinians might entail.

US critics argue that releasing Pollard in this context really gains nothing of value. Netanyahu has no intention of breaking the current deadlock in peace negotiations, they say.

“The impasse is largely based on the Netanyahu government’s active efforts to scuttle the negotiations themselves. So this amounts to offering a thing of great value in exchange for getting dust kicked in your face,” writes Josh Marshall, editor in chief of the generally left-leaning TalkingPointsMemo.

US intelligence officials are incredulous that this deal may be in the works. They have long described Pollard as a troubled individual who was motivated by money more than ideology and who tried to peddle secrets to at least three other countries.

Retired Adm. Thomas Brooks, former chief of naval intelligence, says in Foreign Policy that much of what Pollard took did not involve Israel at all.

“I think what he did is exceeded only by Edward Snowden,” Brooks told FP’s Shane Harris.

Pollard peddled secrets that included details of US spy satellites, analyses of foreign missile systems, and the extent of NSA surveillance of foreign governments.

He reportedly offered material to South Africa, Argentina, and Taiwan, and was in touch with officials in Pakistan. Then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger testified in court that the US national security community suspects that much of what Pollard stole ended up with the Soviet Union, through the USSR’s own network of spies and moles.

The US intelligence community has not forgotten or forgiven Pollard for his actions. Any move to release him will surely spark a furious internal reaction. In judging its move in this case, the White House thus would have to weigh a likely increase in tension with its own national security team against whatever geopolitical advantage it predicts would result from clemency for an aging spy.

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