The date was Nov. 21, 1985.
A 31-year-old civilian U.S. Navy intelligence analyst specializing in counterterrorism and his wife were inside the gates of the Israel embassy in Washington, D.C., seeking asylum. The embassy guards refused them entry into the building, instead ordering them to leave. No sooner did they exit the gates than agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation descended on them and arrested the analyst, Jonathan Jay Pollard. Soon thereafter, he was charged with passing on sensitive intelligence data to a foreign government – the State of Israel.
Anne Henderson-Pollard, meanwhile, was allowed to leave. As yet, the FBI had no evidence on which to detain her. She was, however, followed from the embassy. A short while later, Henderson-Pollard lost her FBI tail and met up with Pollard’s Israeli handler, Aviem Sella. She told him what had happened. Sella and his crew of Pollard-runners left the United States before the FBI could close in on them.
The Jewish community here was dumbfounded by the accusation. Israel, the media were reporting, had asked an American Jew to spy on America for the Jewish state. Fears of an anti-Semitic backlash were rampant. Almost from the beginning, therefore, Jewish organizations openly condemned Pollard and disassociated themselves from him and his actions. They were less quick to condemn Israel, preferring instead to accept its claim that Pollard was part of a “rogue operation” for which it was not responsible. On Dec. 2, a telephone call from Prime Minister Shimon Peres reassured Secretary of State George Shultz that this was true. (Within a few months, Shultz would become disheartedened at what he saw as Israeli footdragging on the Pollard investigation.)
Less than a month after Pollard’s arrest, on Dec. 16, Vice President George H.W. Bush stood before an audience at Yeshiva University, where he was receiving an honorary degree. No one, he said, would even think of accusing the American Jewish community of dual loyalty; have no fear. His message was interpreted as “back off on Pollard, or else we will level the dual loyalty charge at you.” An editorial in The New York Jewish Week called Bush on this, but most Jewish organizations remained silent. They got the message.
Over the next months, leaks began to find their way into the newspapers. Pollard was a master spy. Pollard had passed on extremely sensitive material on the United States that threatened the security of the United States. Pollard had put the lives of intelligence agents and sources at risk. There was information so sensitive that only the judge would be allowed to see it.
On June 4, 1986, Pollard accepted a plea bargain. He would plead guilty to a single count of delivering classified material to a foreign government. The average prison term for that count was four years in prison.
On Feb. 15, 1987, three weeks before Pollard was to be sentenced, the Washington correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, Wolf Blitzer, published a jailhouse interview he did with Pollard. The story was picked up by The Washington Post, which ran it under the headline, “Israel’s master spy.” The interview was denounced by the government as a violation of the plea agreement.
That in itself was a strange development. As Pollard’s attorneys noted to the court at his sentencing, “The government approved Mr. Pollard’s application [for the interview], and two interviews took place inside the prison with government approval. Under the plea agreement, any interviews had to be approved by the Director of Naval Intelligence. Mr. Pollard had been led to believe that his written requests for authorization had received all necessary approvals within the government. Indeed, it would not have been possible for Mr. Blitzer to enter the prison at all, much less equipped with tape recorder and camera, without government approval.”
The court would hear none of it. On March 4, 1987, reportedly based on a secret “damage assessment” submitted to him in camera by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, U.S. Circuit Court Judge Aubrey Robinson Jr. sentenced Pollard to life. (As it turns out, the judge asked Weinberger to prepare that report, according to Weinberger in an interview with the late journalist David Twersky.) The harsh sentence began to change American Jewish attitudes. Something was amiss. Then as now, such a sentence was unheard of for someone guilty of spying for an ally. The average sentence for such a crime until then – and since then -is seven years.
Indeed, something was amiss. As it turns out, Pollard’s sentence was not due to secret information. He was not even close to being a “master spy”; Blitzer would use that label again, this time as part of the title of his book on the case. The only information he was passing on to Israel was information Israel by treaty obligation was supposed to receive from the United States, but was not being made privy to, such as Iraq’s chemical warfare potential. Rather, the judge was punishing him for having granted Blitzer the interview, his attorneys’ statement notwithstanding. (See accompanying article.)
Over the years, there has been a growing movement within the Jewish community to obtain Pollard’s release. Late last year, in fact, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism repeated its call for Pollard’s release following news reports that President Barack Obama had considered freeing him, only to be talked out of doing so by Vice President Joe Biden, who reportedly said he would see Pollard released “over my dead body.”
It is not the first time a Democratic president has been talked out of ending Pollard’s incarceration. President Bill Clinton reportedly was prepared to free Pollard in late 1998, as an incentive to win concessions from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Wye River Conference.
A public comment by Clinton that he was considering the release brought a storm of protest. The director of central intelligence at the time, George Tenet, threatened to resign. Howls of protest also came from Richard Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Melvin Laird, Caspar Weinberger, James Schlesinger, and Elliot Richardson – all former defense secretaries (and in one case, a once-and-future one). Clinton was forced to back off.
By the time this newspaper reaches subscribers, Pollard will have been in prison for 9,892 days. One month ago, on Nov. 21, he began his 28th year behind bars. If the CIA damage assessment is correct, Pollard may very well be this country’s longest-serving First Amendment prisoner.
Pollard is eligible for parole in late 2015 and could be released in November of that year. If he is paroled, or if his sentence is commuted before then, he likely would be deported to Israel.