Jonathan Pollard, Jewish-American spy for Israel, going free after 30 years

Initially shunted aside but then adopted by Israel and demonized by parts of US defense establishment, agent finally being released Friday in a case that has haunted bilateral ties

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Jonathan Pollard in a December 17, 1997, photo with Israel's communications minister Limor Livnat, who visited him in prison in Butner, North Carolina (photo credit: AP/ Ayala Bar)
Jonathan Pollard in a December 17, 1997, photo with Israel's communications minister Limor Livnat, who visited him in prison in Butner, North Carolina (photo credit: AP/ Ayala Bar)

Jonathan Jay Pollard, the American-Jewish spy for Israel whose conviction on charges of espionage shaded the relations between the two countries and raised, yet again, the ancient allegation of Jewish dual loyalty, was finally to be freed on parole Friday after 30 years.

Pollard, a civilian intelligence analyst for the US Navy, spied for Israel for the span of 18 months. His capture and his subsequent treatment — by Israel, which threw him out of its Washington embassy and into the arms of waiting FBI agents, and by the United States, which agreed to a plea bargain and then sentenced him with uncommon severity — left him deeply embittered.

He was caught in November 1985 and given a life sentence two years later. There was no trial. Pollard, abiding by the prosecution’s terms, cooperated with FBI investigators and pleaded guilty to one count of espionage, conspiring to deliver national defense information to a foreign government. The prosecution honored its commitment and requested a “substantial” prison term rather than life behind bars. Judge Aubrey Robinson Jr., not bound by the prosecution’s plea bargain and apparently swayed by secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger’s damage-assessment brief, nonetheless sentenced Pollard to life.

The content of Weinberger’s memo remains classified until today.

Jonathan Pollard's U.S. Navy head shot (photo credit: United States Navy)
Jonathan Pollard’s US Navy head shot (photo credit: United States Navy)

For the first 11 years of his incarceration, Israel refused to acknowledge that Pollard had operated as an authorized spy. He was not granted Israeli citizenship until November 1995. Nor was he much of a cause célèbre. Two notable backers of clemency were Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale, New York, and Professor Alan Dershowitz of Harvard University, both of whom advocated for his release during the early nineties. At that time the vast majority of Jewish leaders in the US sought to distance themselves from the case, which, like the trial and execution of Jules and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953, was seen as corrosively toxic to the achievements of American Jewry.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the first Israeli leader since Pollard’s capture who presumably had no involvement in, or knowledge of, the case in real time, requested a presidential pardon from Bill Clinton in October 1998. Only Pollard’s release, he contended, would allow him to sign the second stage of the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians at Wye River, Maryland. CIA Director George Tenet, also present at Wye River, served Clinton with an ultimatum: he would quit if the president acquiesced.

Subsequently, a growing list of American leaders, Jewish and otherwise, called for Pollard’s release. The US assistant secretary of defense at the time of his capture, Lawrence Korb, said in 2010 that “an injustice was done to Pollard” and that he should be released “before it is too late.” Former secretaries of state George Shultz and Henry Kissinger echoed that call. None, though, spoke as firmly as former CIA director James Woolsey, who hinted at anti-Semitism as a root cause of his lengthy incarceration: “There is absolutely no reason for Pollard to be imprisoned for as long as [Aldrich] Ames and [Robert] Hanssen, and substantially longer than spies from other friendly, allied, and neutral countries,” he wrote in 2012 in a letter to the Wall Street Journal. “For those hung up for some reason on the fact that he’s an American Jew, pretend he’s a Greek- or Korean- or Filipino-American and free him.”

Donald Rumsfeld, early in his tenure as secretary of defense under president George W. Bush, wrote a memo that encapsulated the sentiment of the anti-clemency camp. “Representatives of the Israeli government are coming to Washington DC to meet with you,” he opened a March 2001 memo to Bush. They would likely ask for Pollard’s freedom, he wrote dryly. “Indeed it tends to happen repeatedly during the course of an Administration.” Rather than merely saying no, Rumsfeld suggested that Bush say: “…definitely no – no today, tomorrow and the next day, and that it is not a matter that you would consider during your administration. The advantage of being forceful the first time they visit the subject is that it might set them back on their heels and give them pause about bringing the subject up to you ever again.”

Esther Pollard, Jonathan's second wife, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on November 24, 2014 (photo credit: Haim Zach/ GPO)
Esther Pollard, Jonathan’s second wife, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on November 24, 2014 (photo credit: Haim Zach/ GPO)

A commitment to Israel’s security

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 book “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 apparently genuine — there have been doubters, citing offers Pollard allegedly made to trade classified documents to the governments of South Africa, Argentina, and Taiwan before ever coming into official contact with Israel — was not rooted in entirely stable 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.

Lieutenant Commander David G. Muller, Jr., who ran an analytical section at the US Navy’s Field Operational Intelligence Office in Suitland, Maryland, told Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker in 1999 that when he first met Pollard, during a job interview in the early eighties, the future spy had come late for the interview and told him a complicated tale about how his then fiancé, Anne Henderson, had been kidnapped over the weekend by IRA operatives. “I ought to have gone to the security people and said ‘hey, this guy’s a wacko,” Muller said.

The CIA described him as “a capable – if eccentric – scholar” whose “personal and employment history is replete with incidents of irresponsible behavior that point to significant emotional instability.”

Rafi Eitan, the spymaster who, as head of the Bureau of Scientific Relations (Lakam) within the Defense Ministry, ran Pollard, recalled in a December 2014 episode of the Israeli investigative news program “Uvda” that he was “a man with intellectual powers of the highest order.”

Reams of secret material

Col. (ret) Aviem 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 covering the eight F-16 strikers), knew nothing about espionage. He was in the US to complete a doctorate at NYU. Occasionally he gave talks at the New York Stock Exchange, 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 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 the Yedioth Ahronoth daily in 2006 that “in intelligence [work], as in war, you go to battle, and when you go to battle you also make mistakes.”

Rafi Eitan, the man who ran Pollard and later became a minister in government, on September 6, 2006 (photo credit: Orel Cohen/ Flash 90)
Rafi Eitan, the man who ran Pollard and later became a government minister, on September 6, 2006 (photo credit: Orel Cohen/ Flash 90)

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, appears to amount to more than just a few unavoidable mistakes. It was, at best, the product of a series of callous miscalculations.

Pollard was asked to deliver reams 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. Eitan had to have known that this voluminous paper trail, especially of documents that were unrelated to Pollard’s job at the Navy’s Anti-Terrorist Alert Center, would eventually trigger suspicion.

It was indeed “very clear” that Pollard could only be used for “a very short period of time,” Eitan, 88, told “Uvda” in 2014. In August 1985, he said, “there were already thoughts of freezing Pollard.”

Only a specific and urgent request from an officer in the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate, regarding intelligence about Iraq, he said, caused him to capitulate and run Pollard for a few more months. “And then what happened, happened,” he said.

The arrest

Pollard was first detained for questioning on Monday, November 18, 1985. Immediately, 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 payphone. 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 on the first possible flight, asked Anne Henderson Pollard if she would like to flee with him. She refused to 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 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 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.

Anne Pollard, who was arrested in 1985 as an accomplice to her then-husband Jonathan Pollard, in Modiin, Israel, on Tuesday, April 1, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Ariel Schalit)
Anne Pollard, who was arrested in 1985 as an accomplice to her then-husband Jonathan Pollard, in Modiin, Israel, on Tuesday, April 1, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Ariel Schalit)

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 and put in a call to Eitan.

“Right away I said: throw him out,” Eitan recalled.

He said the decision was made “in accordance with the interests of the State of Israel” and that anyone “who is in a role such as mine and decides otherwise, is mistaken.”

He further alleged that Pollard had an escape plan which he failed to execute and that “the moment he decided to come to the embassy, as he decided to come, he decided on his own that he was going to prison.”

Eitan also made abundantly clear that prime minister Shimon Peres and defense minister Yitzhak Rabin knew well of the Jewish American spy and that the operation was neither rogue nor un-authorized.


Pollard served out his time in a series of maximum and medium-security prisons. At first, post-sentencing, he was sent to a federal prison hospital in Springfield, Missouri, where “he was routinely deprived of his clothing and his eyeglasses in attempts to humiliate and ‘break’ him,” according to the Pollard family’s authorized website. In June 1988 he was transferred to a maximum security prison in Marion, Illinois, where he remained in solitary confinement until 1993, when he was moved to a medium-security facility in Butner, North Carolina.

Prime minister Yitzhak Rabin first asked president Bill Clinton for clemency for Pollard in November 1993. The 42nd president refused the request, as did every subsequent president.

Religious Jews in Israel, the most vocal and consistent backers of clemency for Pollard, during a March 19, 2013 protest (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/ Flash 90)
Religious Jews in Israel, the most vocal and consistent backers of clemency for Pollard, during a March 19, 2013, protest (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/ Flash 90)

In December 2013 US Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly raised the idea of freeing Pollard as compensation for Israel releasing 26 longtime Israeli Arab prisoners in the fourth and final phase of an agreed series of prisoner releases related to the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Neither Pollard nor the Israeli Arab prisoners were released. The talks collapsed.

Pollard, a strong advocate of Jewish settlement in the West Bank, reportedly rejected the notion of gaining his own freedom through either a prisoner exchange or an Israeli land concession.

Over the more than 10,000 days of his incarceration, his exasperation at, and anger with, Israeli officialdom seldom waned. “History will show that the Government of Israel has repeatedly avoided its responsibility to free me,” he wrote to president Moshe Katsav in October 2000. His death in prison, he added, was an event that was “eagerly anticipated by both the Israeli and the American governments… as the most expedient solution to the ‘Pollard problem.’”

Finally, after claiming that Israeli representatives had threatened him and his wife with death and encouraged him to take his own life in prison, he likened himself to the biblical Joseph. Fifteen years ago, he wrote in 2000, “my Israeli brethren threw me into a pit and left me to die.”

While the US had repeatedly barred Pollard’s release from prison, when he came up for parole in July this year after serving 30 years of his sentence, the Justice Department did not object. Pollard is said to be willing to renounce his US citizenship in order to immigrate to Israel.

While Pollard’s attorney had expressed hope that the president would use his executive powers to let his client leave the US, administration officials said last week that Obama would not intervene. The White House said that Obama had no intention of altering Pollard’s terms of parole.

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