Jonathan Jay Pollard, an American Jew, born in 1954 in Galveston, Texas, the son of a distinguished scientist, was educated at Stanford and became an intelligence analyst with the U.S. Naval Intelligence Service in Suitland, Maryland, in late 1979. He rose in the ranks and had access to sensitive information. In May 1984 he was recruited by Israeli agents and for the next 18 months was "run" by a senior Israeli air force officer Colonel Aviem Sella, then on study leave in New York. Pollard provided Israel with a vast amount of information pertaining to Israel, the Middle East, and other countries, thus compromising the United States. This information was channeled through an independent intelligence unit called the Scientific Liaison Unit, which functioned in the Israeli Defense Ministry from the 1960s and was headed by a veteran Mossad operative, Rafael Eitan. During those 18 months Pollard was paid for his services, traveled to Israel and Europe, and was promised asylum in case of discovery. The Israelis argued that his recruitment and "running" were never authorized by any Israeli defense minister or the cabinet, though their denial was not widely regarded as credible in the United States.
When fbi agents began to follow Pollard and his wife, they fled to the Israeli embassy in Washington seeking asylum, but were ejected from the embassy's grounds and arrested on November 21, 1985. Their arrest and revelations were leaked to the U.S. media, and the extent of their operation and the Israeli involvement generated an extreme and furious reaction by the American leadership – including American Jewish leadership – and public opinion. There emerged a serious danger of an open confrontation between Israel and the Reagan administration and the U.S. Congress. The row that erupted required an immediate Israeli effort to stem the tide. By then the Israeli people were appalled over the details of this operation carried out by civil servants. The details of the affair could have created a major crisis with Israel's only major ally, and placed American Jews in a highly delicate situation.
The U.S. demanded cooperation from Israel in the investigation, and on December 1, 1985, Prime Minister Peres agreed to allow questioning of the Israelis involved by U.S. officials, to return all the documents taken by Pollard, to disband the Scientific Liaison Unit, and to punish the Israelis responsible. Pollard was never brought to trial. As part of a plea bargain, which provided for the limited – five-year – imprisonment of his then wife Anne, Pollard pleaded guilty to espionage charges in June 1986. But in spite of this he was sentenced in March 1987 to life imprisonment. The severity of his sentence remains a matter of considerable controversy even in the early 21st century.
The government charged Pollard with violating 18 usc 794 (c), the federal law that makes it a crime to deliver defense information to a foreign government "with intent or reason to believe" that the information is to be used "to the injury of the United States" or "to the advantage of a foreign nation." The indictment did not charge Pollard with injury of the United States but with the "intent and reason to believe that the [in-formation] would be used to the advantage of Israel." Israel is clearly a foreign nation but an ally, not an enemy, of the United States, which is of moral significance though not necessarily of legal significance. Those involved in the Pollard case assumed that this distinction would result in a more lenient sentence than life imprisonment.
Between the time of the plea bargain and the actual sentencing the government submitted two Victim Impact Statements, one that was made public and one that was delivered in camera because of issues of national security.
The government argued in the Victim Impact Statement that the scope of what was revealed was great, that it threatened U.S. relations with its Arab allies, and that it diminished U.S. leverage with Israel. In short, the government argued that Pollard had done significant damage to the United States. In January 1987 the government submitted a 46-page classified declaration from Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger that described in detail the harm Pollard's activities had allegedly caused national security. The contents of this submission have never been made public; a heavily redacted document was released, which alleges that Pollard "jeopardized … the sources of that information, by placing it outside a U.S.-controlled security environment." In addition, "U.S. combat forces, wherever they are deployed in this world, could be unacceptably endangered through successful exploitation of this data."
Then, on March 3, 1987 – the day before Pollard was to be sentenced – Secretary Weinberger submitted a supplementary declaration to the court, which included the following:
It is difficult for me, even in the so-called "year of the spy," 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… I respectfully submit that any U.S. citizen, and in particular a trusted government official, who sells U.S. secrets to any foreign nation should not be punished merely as a common criminal. Rather the punishment imposed should reflect the perfidy of the individual's actions, the magnitude of the treason committed, and the needs of national security.
The word treason – which was not part of the government's initial charge – was introduced by Weinberger for the first time, just prior to sentencing.
In a breathtaking display of poor timing, a few weeks before sentencing U.S. public opinion was again inflamed by the news that Rafael Eitan had been appointed chairman of the board of Israel Chemical Industries, a government corporation, while Aviem Sella was appointed to command a major air base, which meant promotion in rank, moves that seemed to belie Israel's formal claim that this was a rogue operation, unauthorized and wild. Following public outcry in the U.S., Sella resigned his post. Meanwhile public opinion in Israel demanded the appointment of an inquiry committee to investigate the evolution of the affair and to determine responsibility for this operation. The harshness of the Pollard sentence led the government to appoint a two-man committee (the Tsur-Rotenstreich Committee) on March 12, 1987, while a subcommittee of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee headed by Abba *Eban carried out its own separate and independent investigation. Both committees submitted their reports on May 26, 1987.
The Tsur-Rotenstreich committee felt that the entire cabinet should bear responsibility for the affair. In a secret annex it affixed blame on Prime Ministers Peres and Shamir and Defense Ministers Arens and Rabin for failure to exercise control and supervision over the Scientific Liaison Unit and recommended new procedures in intelligence operations. This body and the Knesset subcommittee felt that the involved civil servants, Eitan and Sella, acted injudiciously and far exceeded their authority, but also blamed the senior political echelon for lack of involvement in such operations and their failure to check the details pertaining to the source of the vast intelligence information flowing to Israel. Both committees severely criticized Israel's leadership for hasty actions and serious errors of judgment, although they justified their cooperation with the United States government.
American Jews were furious, most especially Israel's strongest supporters in Congress and in the Executive Branch and the bevy of Israel's supporters who worked in Washington to advance the U.S.-Israeli alliance. The avowed justification of Pollard that he was a Zionist and the exploitation of that commitment by Israeli agents – and perhaps even higher authorities – threatened the easy communications, the close friendships, and cooperative working relationships throughout Washington. The affair placed the American Jewish community in an embarrassing situation, their confidence in Israel's leadership seriously shaken, fearing that the affair could be used in the future by anti-Israel and anti-Jewish elements in America. Public opinion both in Israel and the U.S. felt however that the Israeli committees' reports basically amounted to a whitewash. Accusations by such eminent Israeli intellectuals as Shlomo Avineri that the Pollard case was the Dreyfus case redux only inflamed the tension. The differences were basic: Pollard was guilty, Dreyfus was framed, and American Jewry was not reticent about going public in defense of Jewish interests and confronting the administration, whether Democratic or Republican.
To some, Pollard was a hero. A fundraising effort on Israeli city streets brought more than $150,000 for the Pollard defense fund. Significant sums were raised to pay for ongoing litigation that reached not only the Court of Appeals but the Supreme Court. Those Israelis who sought to defend their country's actions argued that Israel was still under siege, fighting a battle against terror, and living in a fragile and turbulent Middle East. Israel's strategy rested on early warning with intelligence the key to that strategy. Denying Israel vital information was seen as hurting its vital security interests. In spite of the existing Israel-U.S. Strategic Understanding, some Israelis felt they were not being supplied with all relevant information.
These arguments did not convince many Israelis who felt that a monumental error had been committed and that Israeli leaders were not being required to pay the political price for their lack of judgment and involvement. It was feared that the affair would have long-term negative effects on Israel-American relations and the degree of trust and confidence once prevailing in these ties had been seriously compromised.
Over time, the anger generated by the Pollard Affair within American Jewry has faded; many who condemned him and the Israeli government now support clemency, and Pollard is a hero to some within the American Jewish community though not within the political establishment. Still, few relish the image of Pollard going to Israel and receiving a hero's welcome.
By the early 21st century all avenues of appeals had been denied at every level of the U.S. judicial system. The case had been litigated again and again. Pollard divorced his first wife and remarried. Pollard remained in prison, often in solitary confinement, angry at American Jewry for abandoning him, angry at Israel for leaving an agent in the field. His only hope was clemency, and it seemed that every time Israel made a major concession in the peace process such as in the Wye Agreement, the request for presidential clemency was made and then the American intelligence establishment used all of its considerable resources to pressure the president – as George Tenet and others did with President Clinton – not to acquiesce to the Israeli request. The case also has ongoing consequences, as in 2005 two aipac officials were indicted for passing on to the Israeli government secret information given to them by a Pentagon official. Painstaking efforts were made to distinguish their case from the Pollard Affair. No documents were passed, no funds were offered or received, and these men were not American officials but lobbyists who routinely trade in information.
In 2006 yet another appeal on behalf of Jonathan Pollard was presented to the U.S. Supreme Court.
[Meron Medzini /
Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.)]