In January 1999, I wrote a column in which I pondered: ‘Will Jonathan Jay Pollard rot?’ Nothing prescient about the question, to be sure, since everybody was convinced that he would.
At the time, Pollard had served a mere 13 years of his life sentence. And a mere three months before that, in October 1998, the insufferable Benjamin Netanyahu, in his first stint as Israel’s Prime Minister, did something that the then American president, Bill Clinton, in a fit of unguarded pique, called “despicable” — Netanyahu, you see, had brazenly resorted to outright blackmail by making Pollard’s release from jail a last-minute issue at the Wye River Conference (another one of those American-sponsored peace conferences that you may recall came to naught).
Now freeing Pollard is again on the table, except this time the US is seriously weighing his release, presumably in order to avert the collapse of the current peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, which are tagged with an April 29 deadline, but which appear to be closer to breakdown than breakthrough.
It was not like that the first time around when the Israeli prime minister sought amnesty for this pompous and humourless fanatic. For the record, I remember Pollard from the early 1980s when he and I lived in the same high-rise on 20th Street, off Dupont Circle, an upscale neighbourhood in the US capital. At the time, American officials, especially those in the intelligence community, were adamant: Come hell or high water, no release, early or otherwise, for a traitor who had compromised his country’s secrets.
Who really was Jonathan Jay Pollard, this Dupont Circle geek with thinning hair and fat jowls, who no one among those who knew him in Glaveston, Texas, where he was born in 1954, the youngest of three siblings, would have imagined the turn his life took at age 30. Pollard, who is Jewish, grew up obsessed with the Holocaust, and with, as he put it, the Jews’ “racial obligation” to support Israel. When he visited there in 1970, as part of an educational programme sponsored by the Weizman Institute, he promptly got into a brrawl with a fellow student who not only had not evinced sufficient ardour for the Zionist experiment, but dared voice crititcism of Israeli practices in the Occupied Territories. One Weizman scientist remembered Pollard at the time as being “unstable” and as a “trouble-maker of the worst kind”. During his undergrad years at Stanford University in the 1970s, he acquired a reputation as a fanatasist, boasting that he worked for Mossad and that he had attained the rank of colonel in the Israeli military. He did not marry till 1985, more than a year after he began spying for Israel. The elaborate wedding in Venice, Italy, was made possible compliments of his Israeli handlers, who had showered him with cash rewards and expensive jewellery.
And that is how it went down. Despicable or not, Netanyahu’s demand may have been, president Clinton still promised to “review” the case. Thus, in a letter addressed to senior administration officials, including attorney general Janet Reno, defence secretary Caspar Weinberger, secretary of state Madeleine Albright and director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) George Tenet, he asked for recommendations on whether Pollard should be granted clemency, and for any information that might have a bearing on the case. The response was both prompt and predictable, for not only was Pollard the bete noire of the intelligence community, but of American officialdom in general. The reason for that becomes clear when you consider the damage that this traitor had caused his country.
Over a period of 16 months, between 1984 and 1985, when he was captured by the Federal Bureau of Investigation outside the Israeli Embassy, where he had gone to seek asylum, Pollard, then a US Navy intelligence analyst, had pilfered 1,800 highly classified docuuments — an estimated 800,000 pages — that he handed over to Israel’s agents in the US. In addition to that, he handed over to them highly secret information on US code-breaking techniques as well as codes for American diplomatic communications. Armed with that, Israel’s intelligence agencies, for example, were able to intercept cables from Samuel W. Lewis, the American ambassador to Israel — in effect, aprising Israeli leaders of all American diplomatic moves in the Middle East — all on a daily basis. Imagine, in other words, the Israeli cabinet being able to read embassy reports addressed to Washington before, say, the American president or the secretary of state, were able to do so.
Pollard also gave his Israeli handlers reports about South Africa, reports that Tel Aviv then promptly passed on to Pretoria, which provided the then apartheid government with the means to identify American agents and their assets there. But more galling — and damaging — for the US was the theft by Pollard of top-secret American intelligence on the Soviet Union, its air defences, SA-5 surface-to-air- missile system, nuclear targeting data and the US intelligence community’s annual review of the Soviet Union’s strategic arms build-up, which included information dealing with satellite photography, communications intercepts, radar intelligence and agent reports — especially damaging since all these important documents had been passed over to Moscow by Israel. And to what did Moscow owe this generosity? Israeli leaders, particularly Yitzhak Shamir, an ardent proponent of closer ties with the Soviets, had seen this as an opportunity to seduce Russian leaders into relaxing their restrictions on Jewish emigration.
And it worked.
Where Israeli leaders saw an opportunity, American administration officials saw red. Tenet, who had attended the Wye River talks, threatened to resign as CIA director if Pollard was to be released. Weinberger, speaking to a caller who interceded on behalf of the convicted spy, is reported to have hollered into the receiver: “Pollard should’ve been shot”.
And lest we, in our part of the world, forget, Pollard is a murderer who caused the death of at least 39 Arabs and serious injury to well over 60 others. On October 1, 1985, in an operation called Wooden Leg, eight Israeli F-15 fighter jets mounted an assault on Palestine Liberation Organisation headquarters in the Tunis suburb of Hammam Al Shatt. The damage was extensive and the victims were both Palestinian and Tunisian. And here the intelligence supplied to Israel by Pollard on Tunisia’s air defence systems and the route best to take to avoid detection by Egyptian and Lybian radars, greatly facilitated the raid.
Why did Pollard choose to betray his country. The answer appears to be simple. During his years at Navy Intelligence, with full access to Field Operations, he came to believe that US intelligence was withholding information from Israel - in his view, a reprehensible act - and offered to hand as much of it as he could to his last Israeli handler in the US, Aviem Stella. Pollard’s arrest was to later shock many in the Jewish-American community, who were torn by the fact that, by his actions, one of their own had effectively raised serious doubts about their loyalty as Americans.
Pollard, however, to this day, remains unrepentant and as haughty as he was almost 30 years ago when he was captured by the FBI outside the Israeli embassy in Van Ness, a neighbourhood in northwest Washington, ironically a few blocks from Dupont Circle, where he lived.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.