CIA Director Threatened to Quit if Pollard Was Released

November 20, 1998 - Yatec Ne'Eman - by Yaacov Kornreich

The plight of Jonathan Pollard, the Israeli spy who has been serving a life term in a federal prison for thirteen years, returned to the headlines last week. The New York Times reported that CIA Director George Tenet threatened to resign on the last morning of the Wye summit conference last month if President Clinton went through with his promise to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to release Pollard.

Tenet told Clinton that the U.S. intelligence community feels so strongly about Pollard's case that Tenet could not continue in his job at the CIA if he were to allow Clinton to set him free. Since Tenet and the CIA are playing a key role in the implementation the accords, Clinton was forced to renege on his promise to Netanyahu to release Pollard, almost wrecking the Wye talks at the last minute.

According to reliable press reports, Pollard's fate came up at the very end of the Wye talks, when Yasser Arafat suggested that his freedom be exchanged in return for Israel allowing one of Arafat's security officials accused of masterminding terrorist attacks to remain free.

President Clinton's 3 AM promise to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that he would release Pollard was the final piece to fall into place completing the Wye accords. But a few hours later, when Clinton went back on his promise to Netanyahu to free Pollard, the betrayed Israeli negotiating threatened to go home without an agreement and called a news conference to explain their decision to the press corps covering the Wye talks.

Those press reports then triggered furious behind the scenes activity by Pollard's enemies in the US intelligence community. They planted violently anti-Pollard public statements by Republican congressional leaders, including many of the exaggerations and distortions of the facts that have marked the reporting on Pollard's case since the beginning, to pressure Clinton not to give in to the Israeli demands.

In the end, Clinton reportedly threatened the Israelis that he would recognize a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state in May, unless Netanyahu agreed to sign the Wye accord securing Pollard's release. Clinton agreed only to a review of Pollard's case but never promised that he would be freed.

After the New York Times story about Tenet's threat to resign broke, White House spokesman David Leavy repeated the official story that President Clinton had never agreed to Pollard's release. He also denied that Clinton had to be talked out of freeing Pollard by Tenet, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger or others.

"The president at no point made a decision to release Mr. Pollard," Leavy said. When Netanyahu made his strong feelings about Pollard's release clear toward the end of the talks at Maryland's Wye River Conference Center, "the president took that on board.

"He consulted with Mr. Tenet, with Mr. Berger and others. It was clear that this was something the president wasn't willing to do at that time."

"The issue of Pollard was something [the late] Prime Minister [Yitzchak] Rabin raised with the president in almost every meeting," Leavy said.

"Prime Minister Netanyahu raised it with the president almost every meeting. It was not a surprise to us at Wye. It came up early. At the end of the negotiations the prime minister felt very strongly he needed some progress on the Pollard issue. The president talked to Mr. Tenet, he talked to Mr. Berger, he talked to his other advisers. It became clear it was not something he was prepared to do at that time, but given the request of the prime minister he told him he would take a fresh look," Leavy said.

Pollard's fate has been a growing concern for the Israeli government and American Jewish groups, who feel that he has suffered enough for his crime of handing over top-secret documents to Israel in 1984 and 1985. Those who now advocating Pollard's release freely admit that his spying was wrong, but argue that on a humanitarian basis alone he should now be allowed to go free.

Soon after he was arrested, Pollard had negotiated a plea bargain with the federal government in return for a guilty plea to a lesser charge, but the government betrayed him, and persuaded the judge to sentence Pollard to life in prison, the harshest sentence ever given to an American convicted of spying for a friendly nation. Since then, Pollard has suffered unusually harsh treatment in prison, including several years in solitary confinement.

His case was an embarrassment to the Israeli government, which, for many years, denied that he was one of their agents. However, the Netanyahu government has finally acknowledged that Pollard as an Israeli agent, even if his mission, in retrospect, was a serious mistake. Several Israeli cabinet ministers have visited Pollard in his North Carolina prison and have asked the US government to allow him to come to Israel, where he is now a citizen.

Unexplained motives

The biggest unanswered question is why the American intelligence agency is so obsessed with keeping Pollard in prison. After 13 years in prison, without access to secret American material, what further threat could his release now pose to US security? That question has led many Jewish leaders to suspect that anti-Semitism or anti-Israel bias may be a factor in the harsh treatment that he has suffered.

No one has ever proven that the material that Pollard gave to Israel ever fell into unfriendly hands, or led to the death or compromise of American agents in the field. Pollard's enemies have impugned his motives and grossly exaggerated the amount of material that he turned over Israel, and the damage that he did to American security. They have never explained why Pollard should continue to be treated in a far harsher fashion than other spies such as the Walkers or Aldrich Ames who did far more serious damage to American security by betraying secrets and the identity of American agents to the Soviet Union.

An American double standard

Recently, some American Jewish commentators have challenged the American government's position on Pollard's release as a double standard. They point to US insistence that Israel release Palestinian terrorists who have committed murder and done serious damage to Israeli security. If the US wants Israel to release these Palestinian terrorist, why is it unreasonable for Israel to ask the United States to release Pollard, especially in the context of the overall peace agreement between Israel and Palestinians, which is itself very important to US security and diplomatic interests.

But those who remains obsessed with Pollard's continued incarceration and Blocked his release last month apparently are not interested in America's security and diplomatic interests. They choose to deal in rumor rather than facts, and last minute betrayals of trust, and they are still unwilling to tell us the real reason why it wants Pollard kept in jail.