According to The Washington Post, the Obama administration is considering releasing convicted spy Jonathan Pollard from a federal penitentiary, and using him as a bargaining chip in the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. It is important to review the facts of the case that led to Pollard’s life sentence.
According to a lengthy article in The New Yorker by Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh (who broke the My Lai Massacre story), after graduating from Stanford, Pollard tried to join the CIA. However, after a lie detector test and other investigations, the agency concluded that he was a “blabbermouth” and had misrepresented his drug use.
Eventually Pollard got a job as a GS-14 intelligence analyst for the U.S. Navy, working as a research analyst in the Field Operational Intelligence Office. In 1983, after the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, the Navy created the Anti-Terrorist Alert Center, where Pollard was assigned as a member of the unit’s Threat Analysis Division. Months later, he was recruited by Israeli intelligence, and was eventually arrested in November 1985.
Like most American espionage cases, Pollard’s case never went to trial. Indeed, in such high-profile cases, the stakes are just too dire: at trial, the government would have had to expose the classified evidence to the finder of fact——and thus risk further public exposure; the defendant, on the other hand, would be facing a potential death sentence.
The investigation and pre-sentencing proceedings did provide a glimpse into what Pollard sold to the Israeli government. Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger provided two sworn declarations to the trial judge: one classified and one unclassified. According to M.E. “Spike” Bowman, a former distinguished intelligence professional intimately familiar with the case, the classified declaration told the judge the categories of information compromised, the harm of those compromises, and the significance of those deceitful acts. In a speech at the National Press Club last month, Bowman said that Pollard is among the four espionage cases (John Walker, Aldrich Ames and Bob Hanssen that “did the most damage to the United States.”
Pollard’s crimes included turning over to the Israelis the daily report from the Navy’s Sixth Fleet Ocean Surveillance Information Facility in Spain. According to Bowman, that “top secret document [was] filed every morning, [and] report[ed] all that occurred in the Middle East during the previous twenty-four hours, as recorded by NSA’s most sophisticated monitoring devices.” Pollard also provided a years’ worth of messages full of human intelligence data.
The most serious disclosure, however, was that of the Top Secret NSA RAISIN manual, which, according to Bowman, “lists physical parameters of every known signal, notes how we collect signals around the world, and lists all the known communications links then used by the Soviet Union.” According to Hersh, the Soviets came into possession of some of the Pollard disclosures.
Pollard pled guilty to violating the most serious subsection of the Espionage Act (18 U.S.C. § 794(a)), which involves conduct which resulted in the death of a U.S. agent or which “directly concerned nuclear weaponry, military spacecraft or satellites, early warning systems, or other means of defense or retaliation against large-scale attack; war plans; communications intelligence or cryptographic information.”
Because Pollard was sentenced to life under the sentencing scheme in place in the 1980s, he will be eligible for consideration for parole in 2015. But given the gravity of his crimes and the damage he did to the United States, it is highly unlikely he will be granted parole.
Using Pollard—one of the nations’ most damaging spies—to salvage a flawed peace process shows the weakness of the administration’s efforts, as well as a desperation to achieve anything approximating a “win.”