Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Free Jonathan Pollard? I don’t think so

By Noel Koch Best Defense guest columnist In the run-up to President Obama’s trip to the Middle East, apologists for Jonathan Pollard, the U.S. Navy civilian convicted of spying for Israel, urged Pollard’s release. This has become a recurring event led, strikingly, by Israeli leaders. Here are two reasons why it is absurd to consider ...

GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images
GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images

By Noel Koch

Best Defense guest columnist

In the run-up to President Obama's trip to the Middle East, apologists for Jonathan Pollard, the U.S. Navy civilian convicted of spying for Israel, urged Pollard's release. This has become a recurring event led, strikingly, by Israeli leaders.

By Noel Koch

Best Defense guest columnist

In the run-up to President Obama’s trip to the Middle East, apologists for Jonathan Pollard, the U.S. Navy civilian convicted of spying for Israel, urged Pollard’s release. This has become a recurring event led, strikingly, by Israeli leaders.

Here are two reasons why it is absurd to consider ever releasing Jonathan Pollard:

First, the Israelis have never told us who his co-conspirators were.

Second, the Israelis have never told us how much of the information they obtained was traded to nations hostile to the United States.

Pollard was arrested on November 21, 1985 while trying to escape into the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. In March 1987 he was convicted in a plea bargain that permitted him to avoid a public trial, as a result of which there would be no public record and thus no public awareness of the full extent of his crimes or why he committed them.

The narrative aggressively promoted by his supporters in Israel and the United States paints Pollard as a committed Zionist prompted by his love for Israel and concern for its security. It ignores other facts, e.g. before he began spying for Israel, he had already reached out to other foreign intelligence organizations, one of which actually was an enemy of Israel, in an effort to capitalize on his position as an analyst with access to classified U.S. information. The plea agreement also helped obscure the fact that Pollard was bought and paid for by the Israelis; his motive was money, not warm feelings for the Jewish state.

Israel’s damage control efforts included the contention that the Pollard escapade was a rogue operation not carried out through the nation’s normal espionage channels. This much would prove to be true. Pollard was not being run by Mossad. As is often the case with missteps between states, this one was rooted in personal animus. Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger’s reluctance to put the lives of American military personnel at the disposal of Israel’s interests promptly produced the usual result: a smear campaign in which Weinberger was implied to harbor anti-Semitic sentiments. Especially ill-disposed to Weinberger was his Israeli counterpart, Ariel Sharon. Among other things, Sharon was convinced Weinberger was refusing to share intelligence of interest to Israel. Accordingly, Sharon set about to get the alleged intelligence on his own.

Sharon’s agent in this endeavor was legendary Israeli intelligence operative Rafi Eitan. Rafi found his dupe in the buyable Jonathan Pollard. Here begins an aspect of the matter hidden from public view by the manner in which Pollard was prosecuted. It has served the Israeli narrative for Pollard to be seen as some sort of super spy. He was nothing of the sort. He simply exploited his trusted access to Navy computers to withdraw information his handlers instructed him to get. At least some of the documents were secured behind alpha-numeric designators. Pollard had no idea what these designators represented. He was simply told to extract the associated documents.

Thereupon rests one reason Israel has from the outset been anxious to retrieve Pollard, and one of several very good reasons Pollard should remain in prison to the end of his life sentence. U.S. intelligence personnel have long known that Pollard didn’t act alone and that there were other, still unidentified (or at least unprosecuted), traitors to America involved in this undertaking. Who identified for Pollard the specific documents he was to pull out of the computers? Israel hasn’t told us.

In the netherworld of espionage, competent national agencies trade information. It is known that the information Israel bought from Pollard was exchanged with other national agencies to the detriment of U.S. interests. Some of the damage to the United States is known. Some may not be. In any case, Israel has never given the United States a complete accounting of what was stolen (to be sure, Pollard himself doesn’t know) and what was passed to enemies of the United States.

Jonathan Pollard got what he wanted: money, jewelry, and paid trips in exchange for his treachery; he got what he deserved: life in prison. Unlike Judas, who had the grace to hang himself in shame, he lives in the hope that his purchasers will spring him so he can enjoy the apartment set aside for him, the money they have been banking for him, and the hero’s welcome they have promised him for betraying the United States.

Noel Koch served in the U.S. Department of Defense from 1981 to 1986. During this time he worked with Rafi Eitan, advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir on terrorism, and later with Amiram Nir, who held the same position with Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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