Jonathan Pollard: What the CIA said
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Jonathan Pollard: What the CIA said

Despite some blanks, a bit of clarity emerges

Jonathan Pollard has been in prison for over 28 years. That is enough time for a person to molder, shrivel, and die, at least from the inside.

Opinion has been sharply divided about whether there is any moral justice in this. Pollard was accused of spying for Israel in 1985 and imprisoned; in 1987 he was given a life sentence in return for a plea bargain after being assured that he would serve only a few years. His supporters say that he did no harm to the United States, and that many people convicted of having betrayed this country in ways that Pollard did not have been given far shorter sentences. His opponents say that his willingness to give the United States’ secrets away – or more accurately, to sell them – demands harsh reprisal. And, they say, federal officials, from Caspar Weinberger in the Reagan era to Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden earlier this year, have implied that there is still-hidden material that would make clear the depth of his crime and the danger inherent in his release.

image Jonathan Pollard

Many Jews see anti-Semitism and perhaps anti-Israel bias in the length of Pollard’s sentence, while others see in Pollard a Jew whose venality put other Jews at risk by opening us all to accusations of double loyalty.

The last big push to release Pollard based on new information ended in 2006, when his bid to have his sentence vacated and his new team of lawyers allowed to see classified documents was overturned.

We still hear about Pollard periodically – his supporters had pushed for clemency from President George H.W. Bush just before he left office, and then again last year, when President Barack Obama was compiling his Christmas clemency list. We heard about him a week ago, when he was rushed to the hospital from prison, and then sent back.

And now new information has surfaced.

It’s from a seemingly unimpeachable source – newly declassified parts of a 1987 Central Intelligence Agency damage assessment of the case, along with supporting documentation. It’s been published and is available online through the National Security Archive, a highly respected, 50-year-old nongovernmental organization that is funded by publication revenues, grants, foundations, and individual donors, accepts no money from the government, and is housed at George Washington University. (To find the documents, google National Security Archive and Jonathan Pollard.)

The documents now have been partially declassified because the National Security Archive filed a mandatory declassification review. That was denied, but the archive appealed, and it was released. Some sections still are blocked out, but a great deal of information is visible.

Despite all the emotion that has gone into the Pollard case, archive representatives pursued it because “it’s an interesting case,” according to Jeffrey T. Richelson, a senior fellow there. “When you know that there are documents like that, then it’s the archive’s charge to go after it.”

The documents in question hold the key to the puzzle of why the government felt compelled to hold Pollard as it did. In 2006, when Pollard’s new lawyers, Jacques Semelman and Eliot Lauer of the Manhattan law firm Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle, applied for the information, they were told that it was classified. At least five documents were partially sealed. “No member of the public could gain access to them,” Semelman, who lives in Bergen County, told the Jewish Standard at the time. (Semelman is still Pollard’s lawyer; after initially agreeing to talk to the Standard about the new developments, he later changed his mind. All quotes from him here are from 2006.)

“We need to see those documents,” Semelman said; they were believed to hold the reason the government was so adamant in demanding a life sentence. “[W]e know from the public court file that part of what is in the file are predictions by Caspar Weinberger as to possible outcomes based on what Pollard did. We would like to see what the predictions are, because it may be that at the time of the sentencing the judge read the predictions, became alarmed, and thought that the possible doomsday scenario justified life in prison. But if these predictions have not materialized, after all these years, the judge should take that into account.”

The site links to many fascinating documents; the one that seems to hold the most riches is document 11, the CIA damage assessment, which is different from the Weinberger document. It includes biographical data, which makes Pollard seem smart but eccentric at best, frequently troubled and often duplicitous, not a villain and also not a hero.

In general, the documents seem to prove Pollard’s case, at least as far as we can see.

According to the summary on the site, when Pollard spied for Israel in 1984 and 1985, “his Israeli handlers asked primarily for nuclear, military and technical information on the Arab states, Pakistan, and the Soviet Union – not on the United States.” One of the reasons most frequently given about why Pollard is still in prison is that he spied on the United States. These documents show that not to have been the case. Instead, Pollard’s CIA debriefers said that he cooperated “in good faith” with them.

Still, even in these only partially declassified documents, the story is somewhat murky.

According to the documents, one of the reasons for Pollard’s sentence was that he gave an interview to the Jerusalem Post. The implication is that the government reacted in a fit of pique, but that’s not necessarily fair, Richelson said. The reaction was because “one of the points the government raised was that he was providing classified information, and this showed that he was a recidivist. Even in those interviews some of the information he was providing was classified.”

Pollard’s attorneys insisted at the time that the government had approved Wolf Blitzer’s interview.

Some of the material in the documents is cinematic. There is a vignette involving Pollard and Rafi Eitan, who worked for an Israeli intelligence service called the Scientific Liaison Bureau, or Lakam. The narrative on the National Security Archive takes up the story. “According to Pollard, his case officer, standing behind Pollard, shook his head ‘no’ in response to many of Eitan’s requests – including those for information on the PLO’s Force 17, CIA psychological studies or other intelligence containing ‘dirt’ on senior Israeli officials, as well as information identifying the ‘rats’ in Israel (by which he apparently meant Israelis who provided information to the United States).” What this anecdote loses in clarity, it gains in drama.

There is no smoking gun in either direction in these documents, Richelson said. The documents are partially classified, which means that we still don’t know what the blanked out parts say. What’s new in them is “detail on what the Israelis wanted, particularly in regard to Syria. Also there are specifics about what they didn’t want – United States’ military plans, that sort of thing.”

So now we have a more detailed understanding of Jonathan Jay Pollard, and some idea that what he did, while certainly bad, might not have been nearly as bad as we had been led to believe.

And we have a 58-year-old man who has been in prison for 28 years and one month today, Friday, Dec. 21.

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One of the documents in the case against Jonathan Pollard. The boxed text is newly declassified. The empty spaces cover text that still is classified.
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