Almost 30 years after being convicted for espionage, Jonathan Jay Pollard will be eligible for parole in November 2015 — and the U.S. may release him. In 1987, Pollard became the first American ever convicted for passing intelligence to a U.S. ally. In espionage acts the U.S. says were unnecessary, Pollard was personally adamant Israel was not getting the full intelligence picture due to a U.S. ally and so took it on himself — as a civilian member of U.S. Navy intelligence — to provide that information.
Pollard didn’t go to trial because he pled out to get leniency for himself and his wife. He was handed a life sentence, with eligibility for parole after 30 years.
He has become a cause célèbre in some Jewish and Israeli circles. Yet both sides of the American political aisles argue against his release: the conservative publication National Review and the liberal Slate both published pieces against it, and many former Department of Defense officials are against his release. Some prominent Jewish-American figures are against it. Even once-ardent supporters of Pollard disagree with the timing. Ron Olive, the NCIS investigator who caught Pollard after he handed more than a million documents to Israeli agents over 18 months, believes the spy should stay in jail. So does Vice-President Joe Biden. Then-CIA director George Tenet threatened his resignation if President Clinton released Pollard in the late 1990s.
Pollard’s disclosures to Israel have never been fully revealed to the public. A 46-page memo viewable by Pollard and his defense attorneys was provided to the court at his sentence hearing by then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, who said Pollard gave information that caused grave damage to the national security of the United States.
This included the 10-volume Radio and Signal Intelligence [RASIN] manual, aka “the Bible,” detailing the entire U.S. global listening profile, “frequency by frequency, source by source, geographic slice by geographic slice. RASIN was in effect, a complete roadmap to American signal intelligence.” The manual revealed which communications channels of which powers, in which regions, the NSA was intercepting and in what order of priority, providing insight on where and what actions the U.S. military might take next. It was this specific disclosure which led the sentencing judge to send Pollard away for life.
The full disclosure of secrets Pollard passed to Israel are so damaging the memo detailing the gravest of them is itself Top Secret; he essentially revealed the “sources and methods” of all American intelligence gathering. Secretary Weinberger asserted Pollard had a photographic memory and the ability to go on disclosing secrets into the foreseeable future (a summary is available here).
“It is difficult for me, even in the so-called ‘year of the spy,'” wrote Weinberger, “to conceive of a greater harm to 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. That information was 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.”
In his defense trial, Pollard claimed he was motivated by altruism for Israel’s security and not greed, but was still paid $11,000 (almost $24,000 adjusted for inflation) and a diamond and sapphire ring he used to propose to his girlfriend. He would eventually receive $2,500 (more than $5,700 in 2015) each month for his work for Israel, as well as cash for hotels, meals, and other luxuries. Pollard admitted to taking the money. The government alleged he was a habitual drug user who burned through cash as fast as he could get it. In the above video, Marion Bowman called him a very “venal person.”
The government’s case against Pollard included unsuccessful attempts to broker arms deals with South Africa, Argentina, Taiwan, Pakistan, and Iran. When the Israelis were asked to return the material, they returned only low-level classified documents, but the U.S. was aware of more than 10,000 documents Pollard passed, at times by loads in suitcases, copied by Israeli agents with two high-speed copiers in a DC apartment. Ron Olive, the NCIS investigator handling the Pollard case, later detailed more than a million documents.
“By his own admission, he gave enough information to fill a space six feet by six feet by ten feet.”
A Texas native, Pollard attended Stanford University and graduated in 1976. After a few failed attempts at graduate school, he also failed to get a job at the CIA, being unable to pass the polygraph test necessary for the CIA’s Top Secret clearance. He was able to get a job at the Naval Intelligence Support Center, Surface Ships Division. While there, his boss tried to fire him, but he was instead reassigned to a Naval Intelligence Task Force.
Along the way he had a meeting with Adm. Sumner Shapiro, the Commander of Naval Intelligence Command, which led to the admiral ordering his security clearances revoked. Shapiro, who insists Pollard was too low ranking to know what the U.S. was sharing with Israel, described Pollard as a “kook,” saying “I wish the hell I’d fired him.” His clearance somehow wasn’t revoked but was downgraded, only to be returned after Pollard filed a lawsuit to get it back.
In college, Pollard made a lot of outrageous claims; he was an agent of Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service (who have an active policy of not spying on the U.S.), he claimed to have killed an Arab while guarding a kibbutz in Israel, and that he was a Colonel in the Israeli Defense Forces. None of this was true, but in June 1984, while working at Task Force 168, he met an actual Colonel in the Israeli Air Force, Aviem Sella. Pollard volunteered to spy for Israel, telling Sella his belief there were secrets the U.S. was not sharing with Israel that were vital to Israeli interests.
In an exhaustive 1987 report, NCIS investigator Ron Olive alleged Pollard passed material on to South Africa and tried to pass it on to Pakistan. He took intelligence documents about China which his wife used to advance her business interests. He passed No Foreign Access (NOFORN) information on to an Australian Navy officer.
He was caught when a coworker noticed he was removing classified material from the work center, but didn’t seem to be taking it anywhere relevant. He was put under surveillance and the FBI caught him moving classified documents. He told the FBI he was taking them to another agency for a consultation, but that turned out to be false. During the voluntary interview, Pollard asked to call his wife, using a code word (“cactus”) which meant the game was up and that she should destroy all the classified material in their home.
Pollard agreed to a search of his house, which turned up documents his wife missed. Since there was no proof of passing the documents on, the case was given to his supervisors. When they asked him to submit to a polygraph, he admitted to passing the documents on but didn’t mention Israel. Meanwhile, Pollard’s neighbor — himself a naval officer — began to cooperate with the FBI, handing over a 70-pound suitcase full of classified material Mrs. Pollard gave him for safekeeping. Pollard and his wife were again put under surveillance by the FBI.
This time, Pollard and his wife tried to seek asylum at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. but were turned away. They tried invoking the Israeli Law of Return, but were still rebuffed. As soon as he left the embassy, he was taken down by FBI agents. His wife evaded capture for a few more days, alerting Sella and allowing all the Israelis involved to escape via New York.
When U.S. investigators traveled to Israel, the Israelis were uncooperative, forcing every question and answer to go through Hebrew-English translation (everyone spoke English), purposely creating a schedule designed to tire the investigators, denying them sleep, stealing items from their luggage and withholding Sella’s identity. Most of the documents taken by Israel were not returned.
Pollard pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to deliver national defense information to a foreign government. The terms of agreement included the caveat that neither Pollard nor his wife could speak publicly about his crimes or the kind of information that was passed on. Pollard and his wife immediately broke that plea in an interview with the Jerusalem Post and then 60 Minutes where he told them the kind of information he passed.
Among the information Pollard admits giving to Israel:
- Detailed information about a Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) HQ in Tunisia
- Iraqi and Syrian chemical warfare factory locations and production capabilities
- Regular PLO operations plans
- Soviet arms shipments to Arab states unfriendly to Israel
- Soviet fighter jet information
- Information about Pakistani nuclear weapons programs
The Israelis first insisted Pollard was part of a rogue operation but later admitted their complicity in 1998. Pollard’s supporters argue his intelligence leaks weren’t pertaining to the United States but they fail to mention the problems surrounding Israeli use of the information, such as the possible outing of CIA sources abroad. The same supporters also argue against the severity of his life sentence, saying prosecutors didn’t seek it, but the judge gave it to him anyway after receiving the full details of the damage Pollard caused via the Weinberger memo, and that may other spies were given far more lenient treatment.
Pollard’s detractors counter this with the accusation that Israel may have turned over the same information to the Soviet Union in order to get the Soviets to allow more Jewish emigres to leave the Soviet Union for Israel — including the ways the U.S. Navy tracked Soviet submarines worldwide. Israel is also believed to have traded Pollard’s intelligence to other nations.
He gave Israel information about VQ-2 electronic surveillance plans, which allowed the U.S. to monitor the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the 1982-83 evacuation of Beirut, and American bombing of Libya in April 1986. This revealed American “time and place acquisition methods,” allowing Israel to track America’s own intelligence capability in the Mediterranean and even over Israel itself.
In a 1998 Washington Post Op-Ed, three former Navy Intelligence Chiefs argue that Pollard has a nest egg hidden away in foreign banks, and that with the “sheer volume of sensitive information betrayed, Pollard rivals any of the traitors who have plagued this nation in recent times.” They added that the movement to release Pollard is a “clever public relations campaign.”