Let Israel's Spy Go

January 28, 1998 - Kenneth R. Timmerman- The Wall Street Journal

When Benjamin Netanyahu met with Bill Clinton last week, he had another issue on his plate beyond the current stalemate in the Arab-Israeli peace process. The Israeli prime minister was also carrying a letter to the U.S. president calling for the release of former Navy intelligence analyst Jonathan Jay Pollard, who is serving a sentence of life without parole in an American jail for having passed classified documents on Iraqi weapons plants to Israel in the 1980's. (As it turned out, events at the White House required Mr. Netanyahu to deliver this letter to Vice President Al Gore instead.)

Given the bad blood between Messrs. Clinton and Netanyahu, it might appear unlikely that Mr.Clinton would acquiesce, especially since releasing Pollard would undoubtedly boost the popularity of the beleaguered Mr. Netanyahu with voters back home. Yet there are compelling reasons why Mr. Clinton should agree.

Over the past six months the life-without-parole sentence handed down against Pollard in March 1987 has finally become a cause celebre among American Jews, who for many years have shied away from defending Pollard out of fear they would be accused of divided loyalties. The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations announced last week that for the first time it would be calling on President Clinton to release Pollard.

Pollard's 13 years behind bars - seven of them in solitary confinement - weighed heavily in the balance. The U.S. justice system proclaims equal justice for all Americans. Yet Pollard has been punished with far greater severity than any other American who has spied for a U.S. ally. In 1996 another U.S. naval intelligence officer Robert C. Kim was sentenced to 10 years (with eligibility for parole) for selling classified intelligence documents to South Korea. Also in 1996, the Navy simply discharged Michael Schwartz without his serving a day in jail, despite a Navy grand jury indictment accusing him of turning over classified documents to Saudi Arabia from 1994 to 1996 - the same length of time Pollard worked for the Israelis.

What was Pollard's crime? He tried to convince his Navy Superiors that they should share intelligence on Iraqi weapons plants with Israel; when they disagreed, he illegally took matters into his own hands. History does not excuse his actions. But it does suggest that the punishment should fit the crime.

Justice is not the only reason that Mr. Clinton should pardon Pollard now, after having refused to do so on two previous occasions. For the first time the Israelis are publicly questioning the U.S. government's ability to serve as a reliable guarantor of Israeli concessions to the Arab side. Pollard is a symbol of a U.S. attempt to keep Israel in the dark about threats the U.S. knew it was facing. Pollard's release would go a long way toward convincing the Israeli public at large - not just Mr. Netanyahu's Likud Party - that the U.S. will not blindside Israel again.

Mr. Clinton also has domestic political reasons to release Pollard. Ever since the President's re-election, he has faced growing disenchantment among Jewish voters who feel he has sought to pressure Mr. Netanyahu into making unrealistic concessions in the Middle East peace process, while unfairly equating Jewish settlements with Palestinian terrorism. This could translate into lost votes for Mr.Clinton's anointed successor, Mr. Gore.

The U.S. intelligence community has lobbied vigorously against Pollard's release on the grounds that he has knowledge of top-secret intelligence sources and methods, which he could compromise once he became a free man. But the most frequently cited example - Pollard's alleged knowledge of the National Security Agency's eavesdropping against the Israeli Embassy in Washington - has recently been rendered academic.

On May 7, 1997, Washington Post reporters Nora Boustany and Brian Duffy astonished intelligence professionals by quoting an NSA intercept of a telephone conversation between a senior Israeli intelligence officer in Washington and a superior in Tel Aviv. The two were communicating using a top-secret encryption method, known as Silon, that the Israelis had developed for their most sensitive overseas communications. If Pollard had known the U.S. had cracked this code and told the Israelis, why would they continue to use it? And if he was waiting to be released to notify Israel about the code-cracking (Pollard denies knowledge of such codes), then the issue is irrelevant, because the world now knows of the compromised Israeli security.

In the years since his March 1987 sentence, which was based on a 46-page classified victim impact statement presented by then Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, intelligence sources have leaked insinuations that Pollard caused the death of U.S. agents operating in the Soviet Union. In fact, as we know now, those deaths were caused by an American traitor working at the CIA, Aldrich Ames.

In his preface to the victim impact statement, Mr. Weinberger claimed that Pollard's actions "threatened U.S. relations with numerous Middle East Arab allies." And yet, shortly after Pollard revealed U.S. secrets on Iraq to Israel, America waged a successful military campaign against Iraq with many of those same Arab allies.

Clearly, Pollard's spying did no harm to U.S. national security. Mr. Clinton has a golden opportunity to close this shameful chapter, while advancing the Middle East peace process and strengthening public support for his partner, Al Gore.

Mr. Timmerman is the publisher of The Iran Brief, a monthly investigative newsletter, and author of "The Death Lobby: How the West Armed Iraq" (Houghton Mifflin,1991)

  • See also: Pumped Up Over Pollard