It’s unclear whether Jonathan Jay Pollard will be released before Passover this April. It’s unclear whether he has been held for so long in such difficult conditions in the United States because of a misunderstanding or disagreement about the nature and ultimate destination of the intelligence he passed on to Israel, or vindictiveness, or, even, as Pollard has claimed, an institutional anti-Semitism within the corridors of the defense community in Washington DC.
But it is abundantly clear, and well worth remembering in Israel as the Obama administration ponders a commutation for the former US Navy intelligence analyst, that, operationally speaking, the manner in which Pollard was run was a fiasco. Depending on one’s perspective – and Pollard will surely have his say on the matter when he is released – his handlers were either amateurishly irresponsible or cruelly negligent. The distinction hinges on whether his handlers from Lakam, the Defense Ministry’s Office of Science Liaison, saw him as a combatant – a Jew doing ideological work for the state of Israel – or an asset that could be used and discarded. The evidence, sadly, would seem to suggest the latter.
Pollard, known to his friends and colleagues as Jay, was raised in South Bend, Indiana, where, according to de-classified CIA documents, he lived a childhood “marked by material sufficiency, strong intellectual stimulation within a closely knit family and some bruising experiences as a member of the Jewish-American minority growing up in middle-America.”
The Klan, he told Wolf Blitzer in the latter’s enduringly excellent “Territory of Lies,” “was well organized in my city.”
A trip to Dachau, followed by a summer in Israel at a science camp at the Weizmann Institute, cemented in his mind a commitment to Israel’s security.
The commitment, though, while genuine, was not rooted in entirely solid ground. In college, at Stanford University, he claimed to work for the Mossad. On one occasion, he waved a pistol in the air “and screamed that everyone was out to get him,” according to the CIA papers.
The CIA described him as “a capable – if eccentric – scholar,” the son of a world renowned microbiologist whose “personal and employment history is replete with incidents of irresponsible behavior that point to significant emotional instability.”
In November 1985, as the noose of suspicion cinched around Pollard’s neck, Lanny McCullah, the Navy’s top counterintelligence official, is depicted in the 1989 “Territory of Lies” as saying of the Israeli agents running him, “Are they really that stupid that they would hire Jay, of all people?”
Some of this should have been evident to Col. (ret) Aviem Sella – as it was to AIPAC employees, who deemed him “strange” and refused to hire him in 1981. But Sella, a brilliant aviator and war hero, a fighter pilot who downed a Soviet-flown Mig-21 in 1970 and participated in the attack against Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor 11 years later (as an F-15 pilot on the periphery of the strike), knew nothing about espionage. He was in the US to complete a doctorate at NYU. Occasionally he gave talks at the NYSE, trying to drum up interest in Israel Bonds. When one of those stockbrokers, awed by his presentation, contacted Sella and said he had a family friend who worked as an intelligence analyst in the US Navy and wanted to meet him, Sella, already being considered as a future IAF commander, had a sense of what might be afoot. He sent word back to Tel Aviv.
The Mossad, keenly aware of the standing prohibition against using US nationals as spies within the US – especially if they were Jewish – said “we have no interest in meeting him,” according to Blitzer’s account.
Lakam commander Rafi Eitan did not follow suit. In the first interview he ever gave about the Pollard affair, Eitan, a former senior Mossad and Shin Bet officer who commanded the team that nabbed Adolf Eichmann in Argentina in 1960, told Yedioth Ahronoth in 2006 that “in intelligence [work], as in war, you go to battle, and when you go to battle you also make mistakes.”
But what transpired from May 29, 1984, when Pollard and Sella first met at a corner table of a café in the Washington DC Hilton Hotel, until November 21, 1985, when Jonathan and Anne Pollard were thrown out of the Israeli embassy grounds and into the waiting arms of FBI agents, was more than just a few unavoidable mistakes. It was, at best, the product of a series of callous miscalculations.
Pollard was asked to deliver hundreds of thousands of pages of classified and Top Secret documents to Sella and, later, for the majority of his 18-month tour of espionage, to Yossi Yagur, a Lakam officer at the embassy. At one point, he showed up with five suitcases of classified material. This voluminous paper trail, Eitan had to have known, especially of documents that were unrelated to Pollard’s job at the Navy’s Anti-Terrorist Alert Center, would eventually trigger suspicion. And as the Eli Cohen story indelibly proved to Mossad officers, it is not the spy in the field who must staunch the flow of information but the case officer. He or she sees the situation clearly, and Pollard, who was getting none of his work done and attracting considerable scrutiny from his boss, should have, at the very least, been terminated well before November 1985.
His sudden excess in spending money, too, was backed up by a feeble cover story, revolving around a wealthy and fictitious uncle named Joe Fischer – a story that could never hold up under questioning and likely was not meant to.
Finally, most appallingly, there was the issue of escape. Pollard, for all his apparent shortcomings as an intelligence officer and spy, deeply and blindly believed in the state of Israel. It never occurred to him that he might be abandoned. But that is precisely what happened.
When he was first detained for questioning on Monday, November 18, 1985, he called his wife and used the code word “cactus.” That meant get rid of all incriminating evidence. She did not succeed in that mission, but she did manage to shake FBI surveillance and meet with Sella, later that night, at a fish restaurant called O’Donnell’s. At this point Sella was not running Pollard. He had simply come back into town to check in on him. And what he saw made him nervous. Both of the Pollards had gained weight and were spending way too much money. The maître d’ at a swanky DC restaurant, Blitzer noted, knew the couple by name. When Anne told Sella that Pollard was in serious trouble, he excused himself and went to use a pay phone. Asking Yagur what the contingency plan was for immediate escape, he was told that there was none. “You better get out of there,” Yagur reportedly told Sella.
Sella, before picking up his wife from their hotel and sprinting out of the country, asked Anne Henderson Pollard if she would like to leave with him. She said she could not leave her husband. Sella told her not to worry, instructed her to forget his name and his very existence, and assured her “that we’ll take care of everything.”
The next day, Pollard called Yagur, who allegedly told him that there was a team in the country standing by to rescue him.
On the Tuesday and Wednesday, Jonathan Pollard sent his wife out of the house several times to walk around the neighborhood. He was certain that an Israeli agent would make contact and deliver the details of the escape plan. No one did. Moreover, Eitan, operating in the name of the state, had ordered a resistant Yagur and the rest of the team out of the country immediately. When Pollard called Yagur on Wednesday, he received an automated response, telling him that the number was no longer in service.
On the Thursday, nerves frayed, Jonathan and Anne Pollard drove to the Israeli embassy in Washington DC. Anne had packed their passports, marriage certificate, wedding album and cat. They thought they were leaving the country for good.
Jonathan drove their green Mustang into the driveway of the Israeli embassy, squeezing in behind the car of the embassy’s number two diplomat, Elyakim Rubinstein, today a Supreme Court Justice, who, at the time, was not in the car. With dozens of FBI agents surrounding the premises, the embassy’s security officer went inside, consulted with whomever he called, and told the Pollards to “get out!”
Speaking to Blitzer from prison, Pollard said, “I did everything I was supposed to do [buying time]. It just never dawned on me that I was supposed to act as an expendable rear guard since the fundamental rule of such affairs is to pull the agent out of harm’s way as quickly as possible.”
Pollard likely used the word agent without a second thought. But in the Mossad, for example, there is a great gap between a combatant – one of ours – and an agent – someone who works for money or some other incentive. It would seem that when the structure began to collapse, Pollard was deemed the latter and cut loose.