WASHINGTON, April 3, 2014 — The plan proposed by Secretary of State John Kerry to release convicted spy Jonathan Pollard to save the stalled talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is meeting heavy resistance from the intelligence community.
“A spy is a spy is a spy,” says a current intelligence official stationed overseas, “Unless he can help you win the Nobel Peace Prize, apparently.”
For intelligence and military officers, there is little gray area concerning Jonathan Pollard. In 1985, Pollard was a civilian analyst with the U.S. Navy. He was arrested for passing literally thousands of classified documents to Israel. Pollard pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison.
Pollard’s supporters defend his actions because, they say, he was working on behalf of a U.S. ally. The website JonathanPollard.org excuses the espionage by Pollard, saying, “Pollard discovered that information vital to Israel’s security was being deliberately withheld by certain elements within the U.S. national security establishment.”
“That doesn’t change anything,” says a retired analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency, “Pollard intentionally passed classified documents to unauthorized people. Period. He was recruited by the Israeli service and he knew these documents were not for distribution. He did it not once, but thousands of times. It was wrong.”
Pollard also received $50,000 from the Israeli’s for his cooperation, and documents from his trial showed he expected to receive additional payments.
The law on espionage does not consider exceptions to end users. Any inappropriate distribution of classified information to outsiders constitutes espionage and could endanger Americans or their sources and methods.
Moreover, as attorneys in the Pollard case argued, once information is outside of the control of correct channels, it is impossible to know who else has access to the information. Well-known investigative reporter Seymour Hersh has written several articles alleging that Israel passed information from Pollard to the Soviet Union in exchange for Moscow allowing Soviet Jews to immigrate to Israel. Others, however, question the accuracy of that reporting.
Intelligence officials also note that the decision of whether to share information was never up to Pollard to make. Intelligence sharing is decided by governments, not by individual analysts.
Historically, the United States has refused to accede to Israeli requests to free Pollard. In 1998, President Clinton’s advisers investigated the possibility of releasing Pollard to jump start talks which were, at that time, also failing. CIA director George Tenet reportedly told Clinton he would resign if the government followed through on the release, and warned Clinton he would lose the backing of the intelligence community if he made that decision.
Yesterday, President Obama echoed the official U.S. position, saying his primary goal is to enforce U.S. laws.
However, there are increasing reports that the U.S. is mulling the release to save the quickly failing peace process. Associated Press, which first broke the story, says that in exchange for Pollards release, the U.S. will “demand” that Israel give major concessions to the Palestinians. These would include releasing hundreds of prisoners, halting West Bank settlements and extending negotiations through 2015.
Secretary of State Kerry has made the Middle East talks a cornerstone of his foreign policy efforts. He succeeded in bringing the two sides to the negotiating table last June, but so far, there has been little real progress. Skepticism and intransigence have marked the talks. Last week, Israel refused to release a third round of prisoners as previously promised, causing the Palestinian Authority to threaten to end talks. The current deadline to reach an agreement or abandon discussions is the end of April.
Kerry appears desperate to save the talks, and is searching for some leverage to keep both sides at the table. Pollard is his latest pawn.
The stars may be aligning to give Pollard his golden get out of jail card. His reportedly failing health gives the Administration the cloak of “humanitarian reasons” for his release. Additionally, Pollard will be eligible for parole in November 2015, and officials may argue that with so little time left, releasing him now will cost a mere 19 months with the possibility of a huge pay off.
The plan is poorly thought out at best. While the Pollard case is a thorn in bilateral relations, there is no guarantee that Israel will see Pollard as a big enough incentive to continue to plug away at a process where there has been virtually no progress. Israel ultimately may not be willing to accept Pollard in lieu of land.
From the U.S. side, the precedent is disturbing. Not only is the Pollard case politically sensitive, it also raises the question of what to do with other spies, including Edward Snowden. If Pollard is OK, why shouldn’t the U.S. pardon Snowden?
After all, what is a little espionage between friends?