The Jonathan Pollard Affair: Unanswered Questions Abound

Jonathan Pollard’s release from federal prison on November 20 has triggered a flood of superficial stories in the establishment media. Few of them address lingering mysteries or contextualize huge changes in U.S.-Israel relations. Pollard was charged with (PDF) “Gathering or delivering defense information to aid foreign government” in 1986. The spy used his courier status and security clearances as a U.S.-Navy intelligence analyst to deliver a huge volume of U.S. intelligence to Israel from the NSA, CIA and DIA. The Defense Intelligence Agency – Israel’s biggest victim – even used the Pollard affair as the case study for a counterintelligence training video.

Yet in court, Pollard expected to be treated with extreme leniency and be merely slapped on the wrist and deported to Israel.  In his own words "…it was the established policy of the Department of Justice not to prosecute US citizens for espionage activities on behalf of Israel." A huge public relations campaign, some spurred on by former AIPAC Near East Report editor Wolf Blitzer, framed the boundaries of acceptable public debate about Pollard while calling into question aspects of the criminal investigation.

Pollard was therefore shocked to receive a life sentence in 1987 from Judge Aubrey Robinson. This immediately followed a classified memorandum in aid of sentencing from Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger that had a huge impact on the judicial decision. Yet three decades later, core questions about conduct of government with huge relevance to Americans remain unaddressed:

Who was Mr. X or “MEGA”? Jonathan Pollard was tasked to obtain secret files by “date and document control number.” He was shown by his Israeli handlers US secrets so highly classified that even he did not have access to them. The FBI opened an investigation “to determine whether a senior US government official has been passing highly sensitive information to the Israeli government” according to the Washington Post. WAPO even speculated that Pollard was burned to protect an even more valuable agent. Was Mega ever unmasked? Or, as is usually the case, was there finally an internal political intervention to close down the investigation? When Israel is the subject of investigation, internal and external lobbying for closure usually manages to short-circuit accountability.

Why no “accessory after the fact” indictments?  The Jonathan Pollard constellation was orbited by helpers who – unknowingly claim all – aided the massive logistical undertaking. Israel Bonds promoter Steven E. Stern was the original matchmaker between Jonathan Pollard and Avi Sella. Harold Katz, legal counsel to the US-Israel Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation (BIRD) provided an apartment where documents were reproduced and was suspected of involvement. Significant Israel affinity organizations subsequently began to lobby for his release. But while the Naval Criminal Investigative Service proclaimed that the “investigation will remain open until all leads concerning the subject and his Israeli handlers have been completed” recently released files show absolutely no indication such investigations ever occurred, or even that the bulk of information stolen by Israel was returned to the United States.

What was the monetary value of the secrets compromised by Pollard? One of the biggest fruits of the Israeli heist was the so-called “RASIN Manual,” a handbook that described all of the communications capabilities and frequencies of entities operating across the Middle East and how the NSA could attack them. How much did Pollard’s compromising that single item cost the US government? Was such information then used by Israel as “trade goods” to increase the flow of Soviet émigrés to Israel? Or was this damage estimate overblown because other spies, such as the FBI’s Robert Hanssen and CIA’s Aldrich Ames were Soviet agents directly delivering secrets to their handlers?

Although in 2007 Israel was secretly designated as a top espionage threat against the US government by the National Security Agency, President Obama has recently boasted of boosting intelligence aid to Israel. What assurances has Israel given the newly generous administration that it is not still simply taking whatever it wants and selling it with the highest bidder? How does total US taxpayer-funded intelligence aid – now finally the subject of a FOIA lawsuit – compare to the inflation-adjusted value of what Israel took from the United States?

News consumers should not soon expect any deep investigative reporting on these topics. Like the members of the US Congress who signed endless petitions to spring Pollard through a pardon or commutation, big media reporters have shown little interest in displeasing powerful interests by diving too deeply into the story.

Grant F. Smith is the author of DIVERT! NUMEC, Zalman Shapiro, and the diversion of U.S. weapons-grade uranium into the Israeli nuclear weapons program. He currently serves as director of research at the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy in Washington (IRmep), D.C. Read other articles by Smith, or visit the IRmep website.