I have thought a lot about the Jonathan Pollard case over the years. He was hired by the US Navy, gave classified documents to Israel, was arrested and sentenced while I was serving in the Navy's intelligence-gathering establishment. I actually had a professional connection to the case; I served on the damage assessment team prior to his sentencing. At the time, I was struck by two discrepancies. First, after the extensive reportage on him I wondered why he had ever been hired by the Navy in the first place. Second, when the damage assessment team unearthed that he was a minor 'desk jockey' who funnelled various intelligence summaries from other agencies to analysts within his agency, why was he touted as an 'Israeli Master Spy' and given a life sentence?
The answer to the first question became clear to me five years later when I was due a routine five-year update and background investigation. I found that I had to submit information going ten years back; because of the rapid build-up of the intelligence services in President Reagan's first term - during which Pollard was hired - the agencies investigating applicants for top security clearances were swamped beyond their capacity and often pencil-whipped the clearances if the applicant had no police record and there was no 'red flag' on the application. If my own SCI update was signed without investigation, my guess is that a new hire, a young man recently out of school, someone with some 'yichus' (his father was a prominent professor at Notre Dame who had surely done some work for the government at some point) would not attract close scrutiny. The Navy didn't know Pollard was something of a 'fruit-cake' because they didn't give him much of a look.
On the issue of the extent of the damage Pollard had done to national security, two factors certainly worked against him. The first was his, and his defense team's, own miscalculation. In jailhouse interviews to CBS' '60 Minutes' and the Jerusalem Post's Wolf Blitzer before sentencing, Pollard and his wife bragged about the high levels at which they worked within the Israeli establishment. The truth all along was that the Israeli agent 'running' Pollard was conducting something of a rogue operation. Why did the Pollards puff themselves up in the media? My guess (and this is only a guess, but I think a good one) is that they calculated they would force the US and Israeli governments at the highest levels to begin negotiations for the Pollards' release. The second factor was Secretary of Defense Weinberger's interference with the case. Weinberger, according to Lawrence Korb, his deputy at the time, seriously inflated the damage assessment to make it sound as if Pollard had made extremely damaging disclosures not only to Israel but to the Soviet Union and other states. And in an apparent attempt to manipulate the ire of the presiding judge, Aubrey Robinson who is an African American, Weinberger painted a picture of disclosures to (then Apartheid state) South Africa. Given all this, it is no surprise that the judge locked Pollard up 'and threw away the key,' and that Pollard spend some eight years in solitary confinement.
Over the years, I've had the sense that this was a very bad deal. Pollard is certainly no hero, although there are elements in Israel who see him that way. He was more like a village idiot. Given the undue meddling in the case at the highest levels, and the Navy's negligence in ever granting the guy a security clearance, I think that 25 years in prison for him is more than enough and have signed on to the effort to free him. Below is the text of the letter I recently sent to President Obama at the request of the Council of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations.
Honorable Barack Obama
President of the United States
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, DC, 20500
Dear Mr. President,
I am writing to you to add my voice to those requesting commutation of Jonathan Jay Pollard's sentence to time served.
I was serving on active duty in the U.S. Navy and working as a Cryptologist at the time Pollard was arrested. Working at the time for the G6 organization of the National Security Agency, the Middle East-North Africa section, I was chosen to participate on the team assessing the damage potentially caused by Pollard’s disclosures. My recollection matches those of Senator Dennis DeConcini, Dr. Lawrence Korb and Mr. R. James Woolsey, all of whom have suggested Secretary of Defense Weinberger seriously inflated the assessment of the damage done by Pollard in his report to Judge Aubrey Eugene Robinson, who presided over Pollard’s case. My own recollection is that there was nothing that we came across to indicate that Pollard gave information to any country but Israel. Further, the information he probably disclosed consisted primarily of daily operational intelligence summaries, information that is extremely perishable. It did not appear to me at the time that the information he gave Israel should have resulted in a life sentence.
This combines with my sense that the Navy was seriously negligent in even granting Pollard a security clearance. Had the Navy done the required background investigation, Pollard certainly would not have been hired in the first place. But when Pollard was hired it was at a time of very rapid expansion of our intelligence services; then it was fairly commonplace for clearance investigations to be dropped and the clearances granted if the investigators saw no ‘red flags’ on the application. I was due a routine five-year update of my clearance the year Pollard was hired; five years later, the Naval Investigative Service had to go back 10 years because of the omissions during the build-up during President Reagan’s first term.
These two factors – the giving of what appears to be only extremely perishable information to an ally, and the extreme unsuitability for the work to begin with – do not erase the guilt for the crimes Pollard committed. But it does lead me, as someone with a connection to the case on the government’s side, to add my voice to those of Senator DeConcini, Dr, Korb, Mr. Woolsey and the members of Congress who have recently asked you to consider commuting Mr. Pollard’s sentence to time served.
Thank you for your prayerful consideration of this matter, and may you and your family enjoy a blessed Christmas holiday.
Donald A. Levy
Rabbi, Temple Beit Torah
Chaplain, Major, USAF (retired)
What do YOU think?