New documents forced from a reticent CIA suggest the case of this American, sentenced to life in prison for spying on behalf of Israel, may be more complicated.


Deciding who is a spy and who isn’t—and who is a good spy or a bad one—is highly subjective. For the longest time, anyone from your side caught behind enemy lines either was just doing his or her job, or, we were told, was innocent of the charges. We see that phenomenon every time the US media reports—usually with transparent relief, even joy—that Americans accused of spying in foreign countries have been sent home and reunited with their families.

The whole business of what constitutes spying has become far murkier with the rise of the post-9/11 security state. There have been numerous examples of Americans, like the  soldier Bradley Manning, the CIA officer John Kiriakou, and the NSA analyst Thomas Drake, accused of traitorous behavior for acts that others might consider patriotic in the best sense. The most recent example is Barrett Brown, facing a potential hundred years in prison under the Espionage Act for posting links to documents that reveal troubling information to his fellow Americans about their own country.

But perhaps no spy case in recent decades has more sharply divided opinion than that of Jonathan Pollard, the American accused of spying on the US for Israel. Pollard is described in the subtitle of one book as “one of the most notorious spies in American history” and by others as no actual threat to the United States at all. Pollard was given a life sentence in 1987, and has thus far spent a quarter century behind bars. To some, the whole thing seemed a little strange, given the close relationship between the United States and Israel. How seriously could friends damage each other by “spying” on one another?

Now, new evidence raises doubts about whether the public was told the truth about Pollard, and the reasons he was prosecuted and given such a draconian prison term.


The Jonathan Pollard spy case was a huge international incident back in 1985, when the US Naval Investigative Service analyst was arrested and charged with spying for Israel. He clearly was no angel—among other things, he had taken the initiative of offering Israel his services, and accepting compensation for them. His primary motivation was seen as ideological, though, not financial.

Those who believed that allies could not exactly spy on allies, or thought that Israel always had the ability to get its way with the American establishment— were astonished by Pollard’s life prison sentence. His supporters argued at the time—and have argued since—that he was not harming the United States, and that his sentence was cruel and excessive. Many continue to carry the torch for him.

Now, documents that the CIA has been fighting to withhold for years, released to relatively little public notice in recent months, show that Pollard’s advocates may have been right. The documents were obtained and released by the nonprofit, private, National Security Archive. A federal panel agreed with the Archive that the CIA had no basis for continuing to withhold its 1987 Damage Assessment.

The whole idea behind Pollard’s conviction and life sentence was that he was harming the United States by spying on it for Israel. But one recently-released CIA document, a “damage assessment” of the case from 1987, suggests that the crux of what he was collecting for Israel was not about the United States at all.

The CIA document shows that Pollard’s Israeli handlers were particularly keen on getting information that they believed vital to Israel’s defense, including material on Egyptian missile programs, Syrian unmanned planes, and Soviet air defenses. They were especially interested in what Soviet advisers were talking to their Syrian clients about.

The new revelations are important because they cast a more nuanced light on a hot-button issue—and give credence to the notion that even allies constantly seek to obtain information from each other that they believe essential to their own security—regardless of how they obtain it.

The United States, naturally, never offers to discuss its constant spying on its allies, including for example, eavesdropping on them. During the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the US spied on its allies with the help of Britain. In another instance, according to a former US military communications intercept officer, it spied on Britain itself—or rather on its then-leader, Tony Blair.

How was all this treated? Here’s ABC News’s site on the latter impropriety:

Collecting information on foreign leaders is a legal and common practice of intelligence agencies around the world but under a long-standing agreement, the U.S. and Britain have pledged “not to collect on each other,” according to several former U.S. intelligence officials.

The NSA works extremely closely and shares data with its British counterpart, the GCHQ, Government Communications Headquarters.

“If it is true that we maintained a file on Blair, it would represent a huge breach of the agreement we have with the Brits,” said one former CIA official.


A website dedicated to Pollard’s cause has asserted that Pollard was in no way harming US interests, and that, in fact, Israel was entitled, based on a 1983 memorandum of understanding, to the information—which was deliberately and wrongly withheld by factions in the US establishment hostile to Israel. (Contrary to popular sentiment, there have long been substantial elements in the government less than enthusiastic about Israel, starting with the State Department’s famous and long-running “Arabist” orientation, and continuing through the Bush family’s close ties to the Saudi royals.)

What was the real reason for the decision to prosecute Pollard, and to seek such draconian punishment? All sorts of explanations have been proffered, including a supposed concern that Israeli intelligence had been penetrated by other foreign powers. One can only guess at the agendas in play.

M.E. Spike Bowman, a former counterintelligence official who was a top legal adviser to the Navy at the time of Pollard’s arrest and has continuously opposed Pollard’s release, told WhoWhatWhy that it all came down to one memo:  “He wasn’t particularly aggressively prosecuted and the sentence was purely that of the judge after reading the classified affidavit that explained just what Pollard had compromised.”

That affidavit was submitted by Caspar Weinberger, Defense Secretary for the Reagan-Bush administration. Weinberger is remembered in part for his role in the tangled Iran-Contra scandal, and served for years as a top official with Bechtel, the engineering firm that virtually built modern Saudi Arabia. Presumably, Weinberger would have known of the CIA damage assessment, raising additional questions about why Pollard’s sentence went unchallenged. But it is interesting to note that the Iran-Contra scandal—which involved US-Israeli cooperation in the secret and illegal supply of weapons to bolster a faction in Iran—was exploding in the media at the same time that the media also zeroed in on Pollard and his illegal work for Israel “against” the United States. Was Weinberger’s “indignation” at Pollard and Israel in furtherance of cynical ends? Weinberger is deceased, so we cannot ask him.


As of now, most Americans have only heard the original story of Pollard’s infamy. But the new developments in the Pollard affair are likely to gain greater media attention when President Obama makes a planned visit to Israel later in March. Less certain to generate public discussion is the crucial question of what citizens are told about such matters, which are covered sensationally but superficially in the media, with a government-biased slant that often obscures the truth altogether.

It was only because President Clinton established the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel in 1995 that the privately financed and operated National Archive was able to secure the eventual release of the Pollard damage assessment. As recently as 2006, the CIA asserted that 147 pages of the report would have to be totally redacted —- which left not a single line of text.

Many organizations have argued for years that government agencies, particularly those associated with the vaguely defined term “national security,” employ over-broad classification procedures to hide material that ought to be released. (For another egregious example – in which the Obama Administration continues to block the release of long-held documents pertaining to the assassination of John F. Kennedy — see this WhoWhatWhy article.)

We’ve clearly entered a time when the term “national security” should no longer be accepted at face value. As the Internet mantra insists, “information wants to be free.” – and the lifeblood of democracy is open access to information that citizens need to carry out the obligations of citizenship. Draconian sentences based on secretive proceedings, whether imposed on the Israeli sympathizer Pollard or brandished at the low-level Jihadists languishing uncharged at Guantanamo, deserve our scrutiny. This is not about taking sides or choosing ideologies. It is about constancy and fairness.

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  • Russ Baker

    Russ Baker is Editor-in-Chief of WhoWhatWhy. He is an award-winning investigative journalist who specializes in exploring power dynamics behind major events.

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