Jonathan Jay Pollard sold thousands of sensitive American secrets to Israel while employed as an intelligence analyst in the Naval Investigative Service Command. Pollard was ideologically committed to becoming a spy for Israel, and after he was captured claimed he considered himself “a frontline soldier forgotten deep in enemy territory.” Pollard pled guilty to espionage against the US in June of 1986. During Pollard’s sentencing the initiative to win a slap on the wrist and one-way ticket to Israel began.
Perhaps the most interesting argument for leniency filed during Pollard’s sentencing was a quote from the New York Times that, “…the FBI knew of at least a dozen incidents in which American officials transferred classified information to the Israelis." The filing concluded, "yet the Justice Department did not prosecute any of the officials. The article, if true, would strongly suggest that it was the established policy of the Department of Justice not to prosecute US citizens for espionage activities on behalf of Israel, even though, according to the same article, the Israeli intelligence service was the most active in the United States, second only to the Soviets.” Pollard’s counsel speculated leniency was due to, "the damage from providing classified information to Israel is far less severe than if the information were passed to the Soviets."
Before Pollard, many more than "a dozen" Americans engaged in espionage and covert operations against the US. Hundreds of operatives in a network stretching from the East coast to Hawaii purchased tons of surplus WWII conventional weapons from the US government on false premises as scrap and smuggled them to Jewish fighters in Palestine in the 1940s. One of these smugglers, Adolph "Al" Schwimmer, left the US and started a career in Israel founding Israeli Aircraft Industries. The handful of low-level operatives prosecuted for violating arms export controls and the Neutrality Act received light sentences.
In the 1960s naval nuclear propulsion pioneer Zalman Shapiro met clandestinely with Israel’s nuclear weapons development team leaders and top Israeli covert operators. The company he formed, NUMEC, "lost" more highly enriched uranium than any other US government contractor, some of which wound up at Dimona. The now defunct Atomic Energy Commission covered for Shapiro by engineering the buyout of NUMEC and transferring him away from positions that involved classified nuclear weapons technologies. Shapiro and his cohorts left behind a toxic mess still undergoing a half-billion-dollar taxpayer funded cleanup in Pennsylvania.
Two decades later, a network of companies owned by Hollywood movie producer Arnon Milchan smuggled 810 nuclear weapons triggers to Israel in an operation code-named "Project Pinto." The team included American scientist Richard Kelly Smyth and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu. Smythe was indicted, but fled the US, only to return after decades abroad when he was apprehended after filing for Social Security in Spain and then extradited to face justice. Justice never came since he was assessed to be too aged and frail to serve a lengthy prison term.
What was different about Jonathan Pollard? Why was he – uniquely – compelled to serve a well-deserved prison sentence commensurate with the magnitude of his crime?
One reason is that on March 3, 1987, Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger submitted a four-page statement in aid of sentencing claiming, “It is difficult for me, even in the so-called “year of the spy,” to conceive of a greater harm to national security than that caused by the defendant in view of the breadth, the critical importance to the US, and the high sensitivity of the information he sold to Israel.” Weinberger went on to note Pollard’s breaking the terms of a plea deal through his ongoing release of classified information, in one example for a Wolf Blitzer story published in The Washington Post. Weinberger ruled out leniency. "His [Pollard’s] loyalty to Israel transcends his loyalty to the United States…"
The Israeli government wanted the "Pollard affair" swept under the rug – as was the established norm. An early letter to the court filed December 5, 1985 by a "Minister without Folio" in Israel, insisted "Pollard did not jeopardize the position of the United states by any means, but assisted Israel against her hostile Arab enemies…this man has cast a dark, dark shadow on US Israeli relations." Other Pollard defenders claimed the US owed Israel any and all intelligence that could be used for its defense. But Weinberger’s much lengthier classified aid to sentencing convinced Judge Aubrey Robinson to give Pollard life in prison on March 4, 1987.
In 1995, Pollard was given Israeli citizenship and Yitzhak Rabin became the first Israeli prime minister to ask Bill Clinton for Pollard’s release via presidential pardon. Benjamin Netanyahu, participant in the Project Pinto nuclear espionage caper against the US, attempted a more coercive approach. During the 1998 Wye River conference, Netanyahu recalled saying, "if we sign an agreement with [Yasser] Arafat, I expected a pardon for Pollard."
Pollard’s defenders in the US, most notably Alan Dershowitz, lobbied intensely for his release, demanding he get the same US forbearance as the terrorist Orlando Bosch. If the Miami Cuban exile lobby could win that, argued Dershowitz, the American Jewish community could certainly come together on Pollard’s behalf. But the National Review’s David Klinghoffer, in a famous debate with Dershowitz, debunked the idea of any unanimous support for Pollard’s release within the organized Jewish community.
In 1998, Dershowitz attempted to have his friend President Bill Clinton spring Pollard, comparing Clinton’s October impeachment over the Lewinsky affair to the alleged injustice suffered by Pollard. According to Dershowitz, Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr was out to get Clinton by any means necessary by operating beyond the reach of Clinton’s legal defense team. The sentencing of Pollard was unjust , according to Dershowitz, because Pollard’s legal team was never allowed to cross-examine Weinberger or his damage assessment much less pick through the mountain of intelligence released by Pollard in order to make an independent determination of harm. Clinton, in principle, did not appear to be against forgiving Israeli spies – he pardoned fugitive financier Marc Rich and even Al Schwimmer. But Clinton did not apparently find Pollard to be worth the trouble.
During the George W. Bush administration, the campaign to free Pollard gathered steam. In January 2008, longtime Pollard legal team Eliot Lauer and Jacques Semmelman pressured Attorney General Michael Mukasey to give them access to the classified Weinberger sentencing memo. That request was denied by Acting Assistant Attorney General J. Patrick Rowan. The same month Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert brought up Pollard clemency during Bush’s first visit to Israel as president. Nothing happened.
The "free Pollard" drive resumed with even more ferocity during the Obama administration. On November 18, 2010 a joint congressional letter signed by 39 members addressed to President Obama argued that 25 years in prison was a sufficient amount of time to punish Pollard. In December 2010, former Senator and top Israel lobby stealth PAC recipient Dennis D. DeConcini of Arizona lobbied President Obama to pardon Pollard, claiming, "I am well aware of the classified information concerning the damage he caused. Pollard was charged with one count of giving classified information to an ally, Israel. He was never charged with nor to my knowledge did he ever give any information to a third country.” This assertion was factually incorrect. As reported in The Jerusalem Post four years earlier, Pollard had also passed stolen classified US information to Pakistan and Australia. Some US intelligence officials believed Soviet spies could readily obtain US secrets from Israel, if in fact portions of the Pollard cache were not being proactively used as "trade goods" to secure the release of Soviet Jewish émigrés bound for Israel.
Benjamin Netanyahu once again attempted coercion, demanding Pollard’s release in return for Israel halting West Bank settlement building for three months. Two weeks later, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey also directly lobbied Obama for commutation on the basis of his own public service and the growing popularity of Pollard’s cause among the ranks of fellow elites. "My purpose here is not simply to add one more letter to the stack, or simply to invoke my own public service in aid of this request. Rather, it is to focus attention on a few of the many letters you have already received from people knowledgeable of the underlying facts, and to add the perspective of a former district judge and a former Attorney General.”
Former Secretary of State George Schultz also touted the wisdom of crowds – by then including former CIA Director James Woolsey – arguing for release on the basis that Pollard had served enough time.
In February, Israel affinity organizations and their leaders finally appeared in the foreground. Letters from the heads of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Elie Wiesel, Agudath Israel of America, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Zionist Organization of America, B’nai B’rith International, Hillel and 527 rabbis were filed with the office of the U.S. Pardon Attorney.
Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb was particularly active, signing letters and writing articles such as "Free Jonathan Pollard: the former US naval intelligence analyst has already served far too long for giving classified information to Israel," published by the LA Times. Netanyahu surfaced yet again submitting a formal request for clemency to Obama on January 4, 2011.
The ever-itinerant international shuttle diplomatist Henry Kissinger at last jumped into the fray in March 2011. Kissinger first confessed, "I felt I did not have enough information to render a reasoned and just opinion." But, on the basis of the prominence of fellow bandwagoners, "I find their unanimous support for clemency compelling. I believe justice would be served by commuting the remainder of Pollard’s sentence of life imprisonment.”
A final pressure wave crested and surged into the Obama administration during 2014-2015 with an outpouring of letters from elected officials such as David Durenberger, Charlie Rangel, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and Bill Richardson. But Obama was frugal with pardons and commutations. Perhaps also feeling burned by Israel and its lobby’s constant meddling to thwart the administration’s signature Iran nuclear deal, Obama resisted the Pollard pardon drive. By that time, it would mostly have been a face-saving gesture for Israel. Pollard was finally granted parole and released in 2015 after fully serving a 30-year sentence. But his movements were electronically monitored, use of computers restricted and he was not allowed to leave the US.
The Trump administration has – with the exception of bombing Iranian nuclear sites which it could well do before leaving office – largely granted Israel’s every wish in international and US affairs making Israel lobbying and espionage redundant. The Trump administration lifted strict travel restrictions placed on Pollard, finally allowing him to travel to live in Israel.
Why did it take so long?
Much of the resistance to a presidential pardon came from the US intelligence community which was never shy about going public with its opposition. Donald Rumsfeld, former CIA director George Tenet and Dick Cheney all opposed clemency. The cost of Pollard’s crime ran into the billions of dollars, according to former intelligence officer Ron Olive who investigated and interrogated Pollard. Fearing its compromise, the US ostensibly had to replace the RASIN or radio signals notation system used for critical electronic intelligence gathering and counter measures against the Soviet Union and within the Middle East during the Cold War.
According to former Deputy National Counterintelligence Executive Marion "Spike" Bowman, Pollard stole "enough information to occupy a space that would be six feet by six feet by ten feet… We never got the documents back from the Israelis… Now they did give us a few documents back, they gave us a couple of thousand back."
Was it the high price tag of Pollard’s actions that led to an unprecedented fully served prison sentence? No. The Israeli government and American Israel Public Affairs Committee, AIPAC, operatives – including Steven J. Rosen – exacted a much higher price tag by conducting a joint espionage pincer movement in the mid-1980’s that defrauded American industries by subverting their objections to the "first and worst" performing bilateral "free" trade agreement. In 1987, despite an excellent case, given Israeli diplomatic immunity claims investigators refused to refer the matter for criminal prosecutions. Through 2019, that corrupt deal produced a $182 billion cumulative trade deficit, adjusted for inflation.
Was it Pollard’s undermining US national security? No. Incessant and unpunished Israeli nuclear weapons espionage against the United States has rendered US moral credibility in non-proliferation utterly meaningless. Israel has, by becoming the Middle East’s leading state sponsor of nuclear proliferation through theft from the US, emasculated the moral standing of its principal benefactor.
In 2001 investigators uncovered compelling new evidence of Hollywood movie producer Arnon Milchan’s participation in the "Project Pinto" nuclear weapons trigger smuggling ring. But the US Department of State, after initially trying to boot Milchan out of the country, finally extended him a long-term US resident visa after intense interventions by Benjamin Netanyahu.
Though unwilling to pardon Pollard, the incoming Obama administration in 2009 quickly quashed the prosecution of AIPAC’s Steven J. Rosen and Keith Weissman over their 2005 espionage collaboration with convicted spy for Israel Colonel Lawrence Franklin. The AIPAC duo had attempted to use stolen Department of Defense information to wage a public relations campaign aimed at pivoting the US military from Iraq to Iran. Franklin got off with a slap on the wrist and served no prison time. Predictably, there have nevertheless been repeated – though unsuccessful – attempts to win a presidential pardon for Franklin and restoration of his government pension.
As Jonathan Pollard finally leaves "enemy territory" to begin life anew in his adopted country, it is useful to pause and consider the many other individuals that committed massive, costly, highly damaging crimes on behalf of Israel against the United States. The orchestrated clemency drives – public and private – by Israel affinity organizations means that most remained above the law. Increasing numbers of Americans now know this was the result of the Israel lobby’s massive campaign contribution slush fund, incessant influence peddling and an ideology that brooks no space, rational debate or dissent. Pollard’s defense that it is “… the established policy of the Department of Justice not to prosecute US citizens for espionage activities on behalf of Israel” is true. His own fully served sentence is merely the exception that proves the rule.
Grant F. Smith is the director of the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy in Washington which is co-organizer of the 2021 Transcending the Israel Lobby at Home and Abroad conference at the National Press Club and 2020 IsraelLobbyCon EXTRA! webinars.