A Contrarian Perspective to Jonathan Pollard

“Delicate indeed! Truly delicate! There is no place where espionage is not used.  (微哉!微哉!無所不༽間໷屆)”

—  Sun Tzu, The Art of War, ¶13.15 (Griffith translation, 1963)

{NOTE:  Jonathan Pollard has actually arrived in Israel, so this piece, originally written on 23 November 2020, can now be posted.}.

The purpose of this blogpost is not to join in with the “Welcome Home, Jonathan Pollard” mania.  I do not consider him to be a great hero, but am pleased that his long-overdue arrival now upbraids those, many with personal anti-Israel agendas, who debased the integrity of the American due process in their zeal to do Pollard in.  What follows is my take on the events leading to the removal of the onerous movement restrictions imposed upon Jonathan after he was released from prison on parole.  Other than what is alluded to in this posting, I am not privy to any “inside” information not publicly available; this is mostly conjectured from my own contrarian perspective.

As news stories of Jonathan Pollard’s arrest and prosecution made the headlines, I and other Jewish employees of the U.S. Department of Defense sensed a heightened scrutiny regarding our security clearances.  The case of David Tenenbaum would later conclusively demonstrate that our perceptions were certainly not unfounded paranoia.  The Department of Defense continues to note that “[s]everal U.S. government employees have been prosecuted for disclosure of classified information to persons connected to the Israeli government” in its security clearance denials, an obvious reference to Jonathan Pollard.

My own personal employment issues stemming from the Pollard affair cannot help but influence my attitude towards Jonathan, but they pale in comparison to another factor:  What Jonathan received from the Israelis in exchange for his services.  It is true that if not for Jonathan’s activities Israel would not have received critical information that enabled certain operations of existential import, but the quid pro quo arrangements with Jonathan cannot be ignored.

As the chazzan in the largest synagogue in Washington DC, my wife’s grandfather was told that when the congregation moved to its new building he would be expected to face the congregation and thereby turn his back to the aron kodesh; this (and the use of electronic sound amplification on Shabbat) was unacceptable to him.  Accordingly, he resigned from the secure position he held for 20+ years and, following a stint with the Mizrachi Organization of America, made Aliyah in 1950.  He sold his Brentwood row house and moved to a typical Geula apartment having an insolent and avaricious landlord, no air conditioning in the summer, and poor heating in the winter (never mind the Jerusalem food rationing regime amidst the prevailing shortages at the time).

Two decades later, my wife’s sister made Aliyah, leaving behind a highly promising career in the Executive Office of the President of the United States.

In making our own Aliyah, my wife and I transitioned from a single-detached house of more than 300 square meters of floor space, on two dunams of land with a swimming pool and gardens in the back yard, for an apartment unit having less than half the floor space (including a balcony of barely 20 square meters).  I gave up a law practice and a long-term university teaching gig, and my wife’s net salary in her new position was less than half of what she had been paid in the USA.

The tangible and financial benefits we and our family members received from the Israeli government in connection with our respective Aliyahs were no more than any similarly situated contemporary was given; in fact, our material standards of living incurred significant diminution.

Not so with Jonathan Pollard.  Even before his detention and arrest he and his then-wife received cash, jewelry, travel, lodging, and other lavish consideration for their services.  Jonathan’s benefits were far in excess of his out-of-pocket expenses incurred in connection with his espionage activities (think postage, telephone calls, taxi fares, and the like).  As with every other paid volunteer spy, he sold not only secret information which he was able to obtain, but he also sold himself, for his Israeli handlers kept documentation of their outlays to him, thereby holding over his head the implicit threat that he would be exposed if he refused to continue to produce.  Once any volunteer spy accepts such lagniappes, he or she cannot voluntarily quit the espionage game without harsh consequences.

Like the Aaronsohns of the NILI spy ring (who were careless enough to circulate British gold coins in Ottoman-controlled pre-Mandate “Palestine” and whose supposedly secret communication codes were too easily deciphered),  Jonathan Pollard was adept in his field of technical expertise, but significantly lacked competence as a professional spy.  He was an amateur volunteer from the get-go, and not a Mossad-trained recruited professional.  Had he promptly heeded the warnings of his handlers to flee to Israel his other faux pas, including but not limited to allowing visible stacks of classified documents unrelated to his official work to remain on his desk overnight, might not have proven so detrimental to him.  And for all of Jonathan’s indiscretions as an incompetent spy, those of his girlfriend/wife, Anne Henderson Pollard, were even more severe.

The Pollard affair entailed great damage to the United States, to Israel, and to US-Israel relations, and great failings on the part of the governments of Israel and the United States alike.  That the United States had failed to uphold its treaty obligations to Israel was exacerbated by the American justice system’s miserable failure in the due process that was accorded to Jonathan.  For Israel’s part, it abandoned Jonathan to twist in the wind, thereby disincentivizing future volunteers (and recruitments) for its necessary intelligence-gathering function (though Jonathan had, through his own bunglings, in fact become a heavy liability to Israel at the time).

[It is parenthetically noted that just about all nations spy upon even their allies, and whenever one spy is caught, the most common resolution is to declare the foreign spy persona non grata, send him or her home, and generally keep the matter low profile, else each side can play its cards to embarrass the other, resulting in each side walking away with its tail between its legs.  Because Jonathan was not from Mossad’s professionally-trained ranks (and was often less than fully cooperative with his Israeli handlers), the Israeli diplomatic establishment did not accord him the same protections as it would for one from its own old boys’ (or girls’) network.].

As is well known and documented, Jonathan entered into a plea bargain (which the United States blatantly failed to honor), served his time, was released in 2015 on parole with onerous and unfair restrictions which, when formal objections from the relevant government agencies were not forthcoming, expired as of 21 November 2020.  Jonathan Pollard is now a free man.

The Pollard prosecution was handled in a highly irregular manner all along, from initial court documents that were allegedly so sensitive that even Jonathan’s attorneys were not given unfettered access to them, up to the very end of his parole, when he and his attorneys were not given definite confirmation that the parole restrictions would not be renewed until hours before the deadline (notice is normally given weeks or months before the end of the parole term).

Perhaps someday the facts will come out, but from all of the foregoing, conjecture is the best that I can now do; my personal conjectures follow:

During my days with the U.S. Department of Defense, the whispered word was that Israel was not Pollard’s only “customer,” and that he had dealings with the intelligence apparatus of other nations; such speculations have subsequently been confirmed.

Once Jonathan Pollard was taken into custody, he became a valuable asset of the United States – a hostage of use as a bargaining chip.  Pollard had been dangled as such by all U.S. Presidents following his arrest.

Why only now has there been rapid forward motion towards (and culminating in) Jonathan Pollard’s complete legal freedom?  As late as January 2020 there was talk about President Trump removing the restrictions and sending Jonathan to Israel to boost Bibi Netanyahu in the upcoming election, but that did not happen.

In military intelligence matters, the means, media, and messengers by which information is conveyed can be just as critical as the information itself.  An example I know of from my time during the Cold War era is instructive in that regard.  A satellite photograph of a Soviet military installation is given Top Secret classification.  Not because the Soviets did not know about their own military facility, but because they knew almost everything about it.  By analyzing the cars and trucks in the parking lot, the completion stage of one of the buildings under construction, and the angle and length of the shadows, it is possible to deduce the position of the satellite that took the photograph and the time of day it was taken, from which the satellite’s orbit can be determined.

Similarly, dust specks on a photocopy machine can leave marks on the photocopies it produces, thereby giving evidence of which photocopy machine was used, and therefore, clues as to who might have made the photocopy.

In prosecuting Jonathan Pollard, it is quite probable that disclosure of specific names, dates, locations and documents could have compromised U.S. military intelligence gathering and/or secret plans; accordingly, I feel quite comfortable in speculating that there were things the government wished to not insinuate in their prosecution of the case.  Such circumspect treatment of information in espionage prosecution is not unknown (including the prosecution of Ben-Ami Kadish, whose Israeli handler was known to be a person who also handled the Pollards).

My speculation is that Pollard did some significant damage to the United States, damage which the government did not wish to publicize for fear that it would compromise other matters.  It is possible that Pollard’s activities may have resulted in the discovery and executions of American sources within the Soviet Union (as happened in the cases of Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen) or elsewhere.  If such is indeed so, then it would explain very neatly why Pollard’s release was so vehemently opposed by Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger and CIA Director George Tenet, and why Judge Aubrey Robinson Jr. ignored Pollard’s plea agreement and imposed the harshest possible sentence.

Following Pollard’s release from prison (the very onerous parole conditions of which are well known), there was a significant change in the United States government, namely, the ascension of Donald Trump to the White House.  It is beyond the ambit of this posting to detail Mr. Trump’s modus operandi and seemingly mercurial behavior; suffice it to say that the President is very adept at hardball negotiating and not showing all of the cards held in his hand.  As mentioned above, Trump did insinuate the possibility of commuting Pollard’s movement restrictions in January 2020, but ultimately did not do so.

Now that the 2020 election remains disputed, it fits well into Trump’s game plan to deprive Joe Biden, as of this writing the presumptive winner of the Presidency, of the ability to use Pollard as an asset with which to gain favor from Israel and/or the Jewish community.  On the other hand, if indeed Pollard’s activities inflicted very serious damage upon American interests, then Trump’s commutation of Pollard’s movement restrictions would be a potential political and administrative liability that might come back to haunt him.

By working behind the scenes to successfully dissuade the United States Parole Commission, the Department of Defense, and the intelligence agencies from objecting to the discontinuance of Pollard’s movement restrictions, Trump could reap all of the benefits of an official parole commutation without any of the political liabilities.  My conjecture, then, is that it is highly probable that such indeed occurred.

Whether Jonathan should or should not have been allowed to make Aliyah, and whether the reception now accorded him is or is not appropriate, are debatable issues beyond the pale of this blogpost.  Though I would not shy away from some future occasion to personally meet Jonathan (or his ex-wife Anne, with whom I have some mutual acquaintances), I heap no adulations upon him, but do wish him the best of luck in the post-Aliyah transition process he now needs to make.

About the Author
Born in Philadelphia, Kenneth lived on Long Island and made Aliyah to Israel. Professionally, he worked as a lawyer in the USA (including as an attorney for the Internal Revenue Service), a college professor and an analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense. He's also a writer and a traveler.
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