The Spy Walks

There was no Dead Poets Society. That was just a movie – but there were those years teaching English at a prep school in upstate New York – close enough. That did, however, have to end. There’s simply a time to move on, and in June, 1981, after giving the commencement address at that final graduation, it was off to the real world, to Southern California, and a new career of sorts. That new career seemed to be in aerospace. Not really – the position was in Training and Organizational Development – not that different than teaching and coaching. It’s just that odd things were going on, on campus. These guys were building satellites, communication satellites everyone could talk about, and military satellites no one was allowed to mention. Two buildings over, they were building fire-control radar for jet fighters and bombers. Down the road they were building guidance systems for all of our nuclear missiles. They were probably doing lots of other stuff no one knew about, and this was a cultural shock. The James Bond movies with all the gizmos, and the inevitable shadowy evil genius who grabbed some nuclear weapons or something even worse, were one thing. This was the real thing – and then there was the matter of obtaining a security clearance.

“Confidential” isn’t much of a clearance – about ten steps below “Secret” and a hundred steps below “Top Secret” – but the mysterious men in dark suits showed up to talk to friends and neighbors and all the rest. Then there were the security briefings – how NOT to be recruited by agents of a foreign government – who to talk to if felt like you were being recruited by an agent of a foreign government, not just a neighbor being mildly curious about how things were going that week.

That was odd. What if you don’t know anything? The government got it. They dropped those “Confidential” clearances a few years later. They’d been wasting a lot of time and money – but this was the peak of the Cold War. Reagan had been nattering away for a few years about the Evil Empire. They’d just been being careful. Then they decided to be smart. All of us low-level human resources people really didn’t matter at all – but for a time we did.

That wasn’t the only dislocation. There was the second marriage to the much younger tall-young-blond-former-model. Divorced men, in their mid-thirties, who move to California, do such things – that’s normal – but that came with a new father-in-law, an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, with a big office in the Pentagon and all that. These things happen too, and the visits to the Pentagon were surreal – small talk with admirals and generals. It had to be small talk. They couldn’t say anything about anything to someone who worked for a defense contractor. Someone who worked for a defense contractor shouldn’t say anything about anything to them. Baseball and the weather were safe. Frank Carlucci, a weaselly little man who was secretary of defense at the time, just smiled – he had all the power in the room. It was a bit unnerving. These guys were doing all they could to arm Saddam Hussein, probably sending him anthrax, so he could take care of Iran for us. These guys were probably doing lots of stuff. No one would ever know.

No one was supposed to know. The government runs on secrets. There are wheels within wheels and multiple levels of security clearances, and even then there are “need to know” restrictions no matter how high your clearance. That’s how things get done. You just have to trust these guys. They know the current good guys from the current bad guys, at the moment, before things reverse again – and they take care of those bad guys, in silence most of the time. You don’t have the proper clearance or the “need to know” to understand. Make small talk. That’ll do.

That seemed fine in 1985, but on November 21, 1985, Jonathan Pollard and his wife tried to gain asylum at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, and were refused by the Israeli guards there. FBI agents arrested Pollard as soon as he set foot off embassy property. Pollard had been spying for Israel – he sold them all sorts of highly classified stuff that the Reagan administration wanted to keep to itself, and much of it had nothing to do with Israel at all. All sorts of systems and methods and agents had been compromised. And then we caught the bad guy, who had been spying for our closest ally, who was spying on us.

No one knew what to make of this at the time. Was Israel our enemy now? Hasn’t every American president before Obama done exactly what Israel wanted and agreed with Israel on all issues, at least before Obama?

No, not really. Dan Murphy takes us back to those days:

Barack Obama isn’t the only American president to chafe at an Israeli prime minister trying to go behind his back to the US Congress on foreign policy. In September 1981, President Ronald Reagan welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin – who founded the Likud Party Benjamin Netanyahu now leads – to Washington, at a time that he was seeking approval of the sale of Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) planes to Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Begin was furious about it, saying it would irreparably harm Israel’s security and launching a full-court lobbying effort in Washington to upend the sale. “We can only repeat our position that it will endanger very seriously the security of Israel,” Begin said after touching down in the US.

Reagan writes in his autobiography of meeting Begin on that trip, and of the Israeli’s objections to the AWACS deal. Reagan told Begin that the US thought the deal wouldn’t harm Israel’s security, and might open a deal to a peace deal with Saudi Arabia, much like the one recently signed with Egypt.

Murphy quotes Reagan on how that went:

Although I felt that our relationship had gotten off to a good start and that I had Begin’s confidence that we would do whatever it took to ensure the safety of Israel, I learned that almost immediately after he left the White House, Begin went to Capitol Hill and began lobbying very hard against me, the administration, and the AWACS sale – after he had told me he wouldn’t do that.

I didn’t like having representatives of a foreign country – any foreign country – trying to interfere in what I regarded as our domestic political process and the setting of our foreign policy. I told the State Department to let Begin know I didn’t like it and that he was jeopardizing the close relationship or our countries unless he backed off. Privately, I felt he’d broken his word and I was angry about it.

Of course he was, and Murphy adds this:

The bad taste this episode left probably contributed to Reagan’s cutting off of supplies of cluster-bombs to Israel the next year, and to the decision in early 1992 by Reagan’s vice president and successor, George H. W. Bush, to withhold $10 billion in loan guarantees for Israel until the country agreed to freeze settlement expansion, something Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin agreed to that July, though settlement expansion continued.

As for Reagan, he went public:

On Oct. 1, an angry Reagan told a press conference that “it is not the business of other nations to make American foreign policy.” When asked if that meant Israel, he responded. “Well… or anyone else…”

Israel ended up spying on us. We caught the American citizen they had turned. We sentenced him to life in prison, and then things got interesting:

Until 1998 Israel’s official position was that Pollard worked for an unauthorized rogue operation, and was never an Israeli agent.

In 1988 a three-way exchange was proposed, wherein Pollard and his wife would be released and deported to Israel, Israel would release Soviet spy Marcus Klingberg, and the Soviet Union would exercise its influence with Syria and Iran to release American hostages held there by Syrian- and Iranian-sponsored terrorist groups.

In 1990 Israel reportedly considered offering to release Yosef Amit, an Israeli military intelligence officer serving a 12-year sentence for spying for the United States and another NATO power, in exchange for Pollard. Sources conflict on the outcome: According to one, Amit made it known that he had no wish to be exchanged. By another account, Israeli officials nixed the idea, fearing that it would only stoke more anger in the United States…

In 1995 Israel attempted to orchestrate another three-way exchange, this time involving American spies imprisoned in Russia. Israel would release Klingberg, the Russians would release U.S. agents who had remained in prison since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the United States would then free Pollard.

In May 1998, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally admitted that Pollard was an Israeli agent, and that he had been handled by high-ranking officials of the Israeli Bureau for Scientific Relations. The Israeli government paid for the services of at least two of Pollard’s trial attorneys – Richard A. Hibey and Hamilton Philip Fox III – and continues to petition for his release. During campaigning leading up to the 1999 Israeli general election, Netanyahu and his challenger Ehud Barak exchanged barbs in the media over which had been more supportive of Pollard. In 2002 Netanyahu visited Pollard in prison. In 2007 he pledged that, if re-elected Prime Minister, he would bring about Pollard’s release.

Netanyahu got what he wanted:

In July 2014, after Jonathan J. Pollard had served 29 years of a life sentence for spying on behalf of Israel, his hopes for freedom were thwarted when a federal panel denied his request for parole.

But that hearing set in motion an intense scramble by lawyers for Mr. Pollard to ensure a different result a year later, when he would be eligible for parole after serving 30 years. They wrote letters, cited statistics and introduced evidence that their client met two legal standards for parole: that he had behaved well in prison, and that he posed no threat of returning to a life of espionage.

On Tuesday, the effort finally succeeded, as the United States Parole Commission announced that Mr. Pollard, 60, met the legal standards and would be released just before Thanksgiving. Mr. Pollard, one of the country’s most notorious spies, will walk out of federal prison in Butner, N.C., on Nov. 20.

Something is going on here, or it isn’t:

Mr. Pollard’s lawyers and American officials insisted Tuesday that the parole decision was not an effort to ease friction between Mr. Netanyahu and President Obama over the agreement that world powers reached this month with Iran to curb its nuclear program. Mr. Netanyahu has said the deal will lead Iran to construct a nuclear weapon.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who testified before Congress on Tuesday on the Iran deal, told reporters after the hearing that there was no connection between Mr. Pollard’s parole and the agreement. “I haven’t even had a conversation about it,” he said.

Longtime observers of the Iran negotiations said it would have been a mistake for Mr. Obama to try to connect Mr. Pollard’s release to the nuclear deal, especially since the fate of four Americans who are being held prisoner in Iran is not addressed by the agreement.

“Any perception that an Israeli spy was released as a result of the Iran deal and not the Americans in Iranian jails would have been a PR disaster,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East adviser to Democratic and Republican administrations. “Netanyahu would have had to protest even harder against the agreement to make sure nobody thought he was being bought off.”

But this guy has been a pawn before:

In 2014, before the parole commission rejected Mr. Pollard’s request that year, Obama administration officials reportedly discussed the possibility of releasing him as a way to avert a collapse in peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Officials said at the time that Mr. Kerry considered the possibility that the early release of Mr. Pollard might coax additional concessions from Mr. Netanyahu in the peace talks. Among the sticking points was whether Israel would release Palestinian prisoners.

The peace talks eventually broke down, leaving the parole commission as Mr. Pollard’s only real hope for freedom.

Well, he is getting his freedom now although Ilene Prusher reports that no one is happy:

The week after the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program was signed in Vienna, Defense Secretary Ashton Carton visited Israel to speak about strengthening security cooperation between the two countries. The visit came amid reports that the Obama administration would offer some kind of package to soften the blow of a deal that Israel adamantly opposes, along with Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. But Israeli officials said they weren’t prepared to discuss additional aid or “compensation,” and would instead focus on lobbying Congress not to pass the deal.

Whether coincidental or conceived, the timing of Pollard’s release is being read by many here as a sort of peace offering.

“As far as Israel’s leaders are concerned, the timing of the announcement unavoidably gives the liberation of Pollard the feel of a consolation prize – and a poor one at that,” writes Allison Kaplan Sommer, a columnist for Israel’s Haaretz news site. “The move feels like a power play rather than any kind of grand gesture – an effort to dissuade Israel and its American supporters from applying maximum political pressure on the Iran deal out of gratitude – or even fear that the release could somehow be disrupted.”

There are wheels within wheels:

It would probably be an exaggeration to say that Pollard will receive a hero’s welcome if and when he arrives in Israel, as the spy scandal is viewed by the Israeli public as an embarrassment caused by senior intelligence officers who recruited Pollard to steal top secret American material. But many Israelis believe that Pollard’s sentence was unduly harsh, and they note that no other American was ever given a life sentence for passing classified information to a US ally.

Regardless, Netanyahu will likely be given credit by Israelis for having helped win Pollard’s freedom, a goal that successive Israeli prime ministers have sworn themselves dedicated to achieving but failed. “I have consistently raised the issue of his release in my meetings and conversations with the leadership of successive US administrations,” Netanyahu said late Tuesday. “We are looking forward to his release.”

According to Israel’s state-run radio, Netanyahu was due to meet Wednesday with Effi Lahav, the head of the campaign to free Pollard, and Esther Pollard, who married the spy after his conviction.

“Obviously she’s thrilled, and Jonathan is thrilled for her,” Eliot Lauer, one of Pollard’s lawyers, told TIME. “She has led the campaign for many, many years, to keep up the case in the public eye, and it’s a wonderful thing that they’ll be together.”

One makes the best of these things, but Ronen Bergman, a senior political and military analyst for the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot, doesn’t think that’s Israel:

The use of Mr. Pollard as a carrot reveals that Obama administration officials grasp the importance of the prisoner to the Israeli public. They also understand that there would be no better move than freeing Mr. Pollard to sweeten the bitter pill of the Iran deal that Israelis are being asked to swallow.

On the other hand, the way the Israeli leadership and the public have reacted to Mr. Pollard’s 30-year imprisonment is an excellent example of their profound misunderstanding of American values and thinking.

Go back in time:

“I couldn’t resist the temptation,” Rafi Eitan, who recruited Mr. Pollard, told me in 2006. “We’re talking about material that was of such high quality, so accurate and so important to the security of the state. My appetite for getting more and more of it got the better of me.”

Perhaps one can understand the motivation of Mr. Eitan, one of Israel’s top spies who devoted his whole life to obtaining information. But it’s far more difficult to understand the thinking of those who worked above him, including the former prime ministers Yitzhak Shamir, Shimon Peres and especially Yitzhak Rabin, who had served as ambassador to Washington. They knew very well that Israel was running a spy at the heart of the country’s closest ally, and failed to stop it.

Mr. Eitan took responsibility by resigning; his superiors did not. And this unfortunate episode continues to cause grave damage to relations between the two countries to this day.

That’s the profound misunderstanding of American values and thinking. We don’t like our friends spying on us, or back in the day, and this year, telling us our president’s a fool and Congress out to neuter him, if they love Israel – because sometimes you have to choose which country is more important, and which is really “your” country. The Israelis have been playing the game since the eighties. Trust Menachem Begin or Ronald Reagan – choose. Trust Benjamin Netanyahu or Barack Obama – choose. Admire this clever spy or be outraged that your closest ally is spying on you – choose. Those are the choices? Bergman seems to think Israel should stop such nonsense before we walk away.

And this wasn’t a clever spy:

In retrospect, it’s hard to believe that a person like Mr. Pollard was ever recruited to sensitive positions in either country. At school, Mr. Pollard used to fantasize to his friends that he was a Mossad spy. He was accepted into American intelligence and promoted, despite documented instances of lying, cheating, flagrant security breaches and problematic psychological diagnoses. While employed in naval intelligence, Mr. Pollard and his first wife, Ann, took part in drug-fueled parties and became embroiled in debt.

Mr. Pollard first offered his services to the Mossad, which was apprehensive about him. He also tried non-Israeli actors, until he finally lit upon Lakam, the Israeli Defense Ministry’s military and nuclear espionage arm, which made him an agent despite his problematic character. Mr. Pollard acted irresponsibly, stealing suitcases full of naval intelligence documents indiscriminately, some of which didn’t pertain to Israel. It was clear he would eventually be caught.

The Israelis who employed Mr. Pollard also failed to take into account the risk he posed to the American Jewish community, which was subsequently suspected of disloyalty. Documents from the CIA reveal that the agency viewed Mr. Pollard as an American Jew who had translated his support for Israel into two alternatives: immigrate to Israel or spy for it. For years afterward, the Pollard affair made it difficult for Jews in the United States government to get security clearances for sensitive jobs.

And that’s not the half of it:

When the case blew up, the Israelis did the opposite of what was needed to placate the furious American administration – they continued lying and concealing essential facts from the FBI investigators who came to Tel Aviv. These lies were easily discovered and caused further damage.

Moderate elements in Israel wanted to end the affair quietly. A Public Committee for Mr. Pollard was set up, through which the state channeled large amounts of money to top-flight lawyers who tried to improve his jail conditions and secure an eventual pardon. In order to achieve this, Mr. Pollard needed to keep a low profile, admit his wrongdoing and ask for forgiveness. But this measured approach was trampled by certain cabinet ministers and right-wing Knesset members who began to make pilgrimages to Mr. Pollard’s jail cell. …

The Israeli government even issued Mr. Pollard an Israeli identity card and published a public admission that he spied for Israel – the opposite of what should have been done to speed his release.

The Israelis don’t get it:

If Israelis celebrate his release and possible “homecoming” there must be a responsible adult in Israel who understands how turning a spy into a returning hero will be interpreted in Washington. Israelis must realize, even if 30 years too late, that Americans see Mr. Pollard as a traitor of the worst kind and that celebrating his release will only further harm Israel’s already strained relations with America.

That may be a misreading of things here, at least with the current Republican Party, some of whom can’t decide which flag pin to wear as the next presidential election approaches – the Confederate battle flag or the flag of Israel. They forget a lot of their history. Even Ronald Reagan was fed up with these people. That’s why Jonathan Pollard was in jail in the first place – even if no one at the time knew what the hell was going on. Those with the right security clearances knew. That’s how the world works. Some people get to know things. Others don’t. The eighties were an education. But don’t tell anyone. It’s classified.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to The Spy Walks

  1. carl says:

    Pollard must have really delivered the goods to get such sustained and substantial support from the Israelis.

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