Why Is the U.S. Releasing Israeli Spy Jonathan Pollard?

The White House denies it’s freeing Jonathan Pollard as a salve to Israelis angry at the Iran deal, but the timing is curious—and ex-counterintelligence officials are against the move.


“It is difficult for me, even in the so-called ‘year of the spy,’ to conceive of a greater harm to the national security than that caused by the defendant in view of the breadth, the critical importance to the U.S., and the high sensitivity of the information he sold to Israel.”

Thus spake U.S. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger in 1986 in a still largely classified declaration, more or less sealing the life sentence handed down to Jonathan Pollard, a former analyst at the U.S. Navy’s Anti-Terrorist Alert Center who over a 17-month period in the mid-1980s passed along enough classified intelligence to Israel to fill, by his own admission, a 6-by-6-by-10-foot room.

After decades of trying in vain to get out of jail, Pollard will be released on November 20 after serving 29 years in a federal prison. The timing, coming so soon after the U.S. helped ink an arms control agreement with Iran, has raised eyebrows not least because anonymous U.S. officials told The Wall Street Journal last week that the Obama administration was planning to release Pollard as a salve to Israel to try to convince the Jewish state to tone down or abandon its fierce criticism of the Iran deal.

The administration has repeatedly denied that any such quid pro quo arrangement was being brokered and insisted that Pollard’s fate was entirely up to an independent parole board. “I haven’t even had a conversation about it,” Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters Tuesday.

However, while it’s true that Pollard was in any event due for a mandatory parole hearing this year under the terms of his sentence, the Journal scoop proved uncannily prescient.

At least one former U.S. government attorney who has done damage assessments on Pollard’s espionage told The Daily Beast that it was well within the White House’s prerogative to leverage a coincidental calendar date to shut up Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—namely by instructing the Justice Department not to block Pollard’s parole.

“The Justice Department has been corrupt under this administration,” said Marion “Spike” Bowman, a former counselor for the U.S. Navy and FBI as well as the former deputy director of the National Counterintelligence Executive who was privy to the classified intelligence Pollard gave the Israelis. “I say that as having worked for the FBI for 11 years. This is a real fortuity for Obama. It came up at exactly the right time for him to make nice with the Israelis. They may have taken advantage of the fact that the timing was perfect. My best guess is that the intelligence community was not consulted because there’s been no hue and cry this time as there has been every other time the issue has come up.”

And it’s come up quite a lot over three decades.

Pollard’s case has been a cause célèbre for decades within Israel and a perennial bargaining chip in diplomatic parlays with Jerusalem—and with Netanyahu in particular. Just a year ago, letting Pollard go was mooted as one way to save foundering Israel-Palestine peace talks. And in 1998, President Bill Clinton considered pardoning Pollard after Netanyahu, then in his first stint as Israeli premier, prevailed upon him during a prior round of negotiations at Wye River. Clinton’s CIA director, George Tenet, threatened to resign if that happened. It never did.

Indeed, the mere consideration of the spy’s being granted clemency has engendered intense resistance in U.S. intelligence officials. Two former U.S. intelligence officials told The Daily Beast that former FBI director Robert Mueller, who served from 2001 to 2013, also threatened to resign if Pollard was let out of prison. Mueller, now an attorney in private practice, declined to comment for this story.

In 2001, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was so incensed by the very possibility that the Israelis would ask the Bush administration to release Pollard that he preemptively drafted a letter to the president advising against it, claiming that “[a]ny step to free Pollard would be enormously damaging to our efforts to keep spies out of government.” For good measure, Rumsfeld also attached a letter he and six other former defense secretaries—including Dick Cheney—sent to Clinton during the Wye River process. Rumsfeld tweeted copies of both documents on Monday, adding Tuesday that “spying ought not to be rewarded.”

Even before Pollard committed treason, his tenure as an intelligence officer was sufficiently checkered to have roused U.S. suspicions. Though praised as an exceptional analyst on Soviet ship technology, he was assessed after his breach as having exhibited erratic and disturbing behavior. He falsified his academic credentials by saying he’d obtained a master’s degree in law and diplomacy when he hadn’t. He said he was proficient in Afrikaans when he wasn’t. He claimed to be the son of the former CIA station chief in South Africa; he was not. He also told colleagues that he had served as a CIA operative in Syria before being captured and tortured by the mukhabarat. He had not.

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Perhaps the biggest red flag was that Pollard was known to have disclosed classified information to a South African defense attaché, a violation that evidently alarmed his higher-ups in naval intelligence. Nevertheless, a clinical psychologist judged him to be “grandiose and manipulative” and a high risk for the “unintentional compromise of information” but not for the graver crime of espionage.

Pollard was successfully recruited in 1984 by Colonel Aviem Sella, an Israeli air force pilot who had taken part in the famous 1981 raid on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak nuclear reactor. To prove his bona fides, Pollard initially passed along U.S. intelligence on Saudi military capability and ground force logistics as well as American satellite footage of the aftermath of the destroyed Iraqi reactor, which Sella may only have wanted as a personal souvenir.

Eventually, the Israelis would pay Pollard as much as $2,500 a month—roughly the equivalent of his U.S. government salary—in exchange for sensitive documents related to Arab and Pakistani nuclear intelligence, Arab biological and chemical warfare programs, Soviet air force and air defense systems, and Arab nations’ orders of battle. Specifically, the Israelis were most interested in information on Syria, according to a CIA damage assessment written in 1987.

According to the assessment, Pollard’s second handler, Joseph Yagur, who had been the counselor for scientific affairs at the Israeli consulate in New York, asked the American for specific intelligence on a suspected “Syrian research and development facility; data on Syrian remotely piloted vehicles…the numbers and locations of all Soviet advisors in Syria; information on the national-level command, control and communications center in Damascus; the identities of Syrian units with attached Soviet advisors; and all training programs for Syrian personnel in the USSR. Yagur also requested medical intelligence on the health of Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad.”

Pollard also stole National Security Agency summaries on the Middle East and North Africa, and intelligence on Egypt’s air defenses. A veteran Mossad agent, Rafael Eitan, who was in charge of running Pollard, apparently tasked him with obtaining information from PLO Force 17, an elite commando unit of Palestinian Fatah, also responsible for Yasser Arafat’s personal security; any U.S. “dirt” compiled on Israeli politicians; any information on Israeli citizens who might by spying for the U.S.; and broader U.S. intelligence operations against Israel. However, Pollard insisted, in a polygraph-debriefing, that these requests were evidently overruled by Yagur, according to the CIA assessment.

In addition to paying him a monthly fee, Israel bought Pollard’s fiancée a diamond-sapphire engagement ring and, under the cover of a fake uncle’s subsidized holiday, paid for the couple’s trip to Paris, where his transformation into a mole was finalized. Israel also financed Pollard’s wedding and honeymoon, to the tune of $12,000. Pollard’s handlers agreed to open a Swiss bank account for him in the name of “Danny Cohen” where they’d deposit $30,000 a year for a period of 10 years, after which Pollard would no longer be asked to spy for Israel. (According to the CIA, no money was ever deposited in the Swiss bank account.)

Pollard never made it to his second anniversary as spy. But what he turned over to the Israelis defied their highest expectations. He later confessed to selling more than 800 classified publications and 1,000 classified messages and cables. Still, he maintained in court and in subsequent years that this caused the U.S. no great harm and was on behalf of a trusted diplomatic and military ally.

Not so, say experts. “The notion that what he did wasn’t very bad because we are an ally of the Israelis is foolishness,” one U.S. counterintelligence official intimately acquainted with the Pollard case told The Daily Beast. “The point of having a security clearance is that you owe your loyalty to one country and one country only. It doesn’t matter what your particular feelings are about Israel. This is a man who was a traitor and who thought that because of his personal views it was permissible to substitute his views for what should be shared with our ally for those of the president or the government in general.”

Spike Bowman also pointed out that Pollard had previously tried to sell information to both Pakistan and South Africa, despite his self-portrayal—and the narrative adopted by his defenders—that he was motivated by an ardent Zionism. “He was scheming any way he could to make money,” Bowman said. “This was his big thing. He just happened to hit upon one that was a well to go to. It was purely mercenary.”

Some of the damage Pollard wrought, Bowman said, still has an impact on U.S. national security in 2015 because the data he disclosed forced organizations such as the NSA to alter their operations and intelligence-gathering mechanism. And that was long before Edward Snowden.

“Pollard’s advocates have long argued that he’s suffered more severely than any other spy,” Bowman said. “But that’s because there are no other spies with similar convictions. He’s a loner. Personally I don’t think he should ever see the light of day.”