I Spy A Clear Double Standard

May 23, 1997 - Richard Chesnoff - The New York Daily News: Op-Ed Page

Washington has decided to beat up on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Annoyed by his slower pace on the peace process, the Clinton administration has ditched any semblance of a honeymoon relationship with Bibi and opted for a little spousal abuse.

First there was the organized outrage over that new Jerusalem housing development, the one Netanyahu's building on unused land that's been mostly Jewish-owned for more than 50 years, the one that's part of a plan to build homes for both Arabs and Jews.

Then there was the fury over a United Nations report that Israel employs tough physical measures in questioning suspected terrorists. Torture is an abomination, but I don't have too many problems with shaking up some thug if it sways him to reveal plans to blow up another busload of civilians.

Then came the topper: a Washington report that those treacherous Israelis are spying on America again. The report revealed U.S. spying on Israel - including the tapping of diplomatically inmmune phones and facilitating publication of Israeli secret codes, all in order to suggest that an ally may have a mole in the upper reaches of the US government.

The Israelis deny the story, even disparage it. I don't know if they do or they don't have an agent in sensitive places. Seems to me that after the Pollard affair of 12 years ago, that's one stupid mistake they wouldn't want to repeat. But I do know, that when it comes to Israel, and Netanyahu, elements within the Washington intelligence community often have their own agendas. Just look at the inequitable handling of convicted spy Pollard, for whom Netanyahu had promised to seek amnesty.

I've just had my own experience with that. Last year I applied on behalf of US News & World Report for permission to interview Pollard, the former Navy intelligence aide who was caught passing US security information to Israel. He's now serving a life sentence for that crime - by far the toughest punishment ever meted out by America to anyone found guilty of spying for a friendly, allied nation.

Both Pollard and the federal prison authorities at Butner, North Carolina, where he's imprisoned, readily agreed to the interview request. But then I was passed on to Navy intelligence people. They demanded to know all my questions in advance, to monitor the interview -- and to break it off if they thought it was touching on "security sensitive issues". They also insisted that all my interview tapes and notes become US government property.

I've faced less stringent conditions interviewing Libya's Muammar Khadafy!

The Navy justified its conditions by citing the terms of Pollard's plea bargain with the government -- which the US reneged on when they sentenced Pollard to life in prison. And they claimed "national security considerations", though it's hard to believe that someone who's been isolated in prison for more than a decade still has access to information that could endanger national security.

Nonetheless, I did agree to some security checks. What I would not -nor could not agree to was turning over any tapes or notebooks over to the government. That's a blatant infringement on press freedom -- not to mention Mr Pollard's civil rights.

Pollard, who gave the Israelis secret information about Iraq and other Arab states who threatened Israel, was wrong to do so, no matter what his motivation. And it was both stupid and wrong of the Israelis to have employed him. But if convicted Soviet super spy Aldrich Ames - whose treachery reportedly ended in the deaths of US agents - can speak freely to the press, why can't Jonathan Pollard?

Yesterday at a Daily News Editorial Board meeting, I asked Secretary of the Navy John Dalton to explain. Amazingly, he expressed unfamiliarity with Pollard's case, but promised to look into it.

Pollard is certainly not immune from sharp scrutiny. Nor are Israel and Netanyahu immune from criticism. Still, there is such a thing as balance.

Washington has had much to say about Israeli housing and tough treatment of suspected terrorists. But consider this: Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority recently proclaimed a death sentence for any Palestinian guilty of the "crime" of selling property to a Jew. So far, two Palestinian land dealers have been brutally executed.

And all we've heard from the White House is some mumbling.