The Spy Who Couldn't Keep His Mouth Shut

(Photo: AP/Bryan R. Smith)

Jonathan Pollard, who served 30 years for selling intelligence to Israel, leaves the federal courthouse in New York on November 20.

In the fall of 1985, I was a night news editor at The Jerusalem Post. The stress of the job was greater than usual, because the FBI had arrested an Israeli spy named Jonathan Pollard.

Every evening we'd design the next day’s front page, with a big rectangle at the top of Page 1 reserved for the spy affair, and then we'd wait. Because it was seven hours earlier in Washington than in Jerusalem, the last possible moment for our Washington correspondent to file his story was 5 p.m. on his wristwatch, midnight our time, and the last minute was usually when it came. Then it was my job to phone the military censor's office, read the story aloud to the duty officer, and listen to him bar publication of all the important parts. It would be another few years before the Israeli Supreme Court drastically curtailed the censor’s powers.

One night, as I recall, the officer said "Scratch that!" after every paragraph I read, his voice rising paragraph by paragraph as he destroyed my front page—until I got to the part about Pollard having told friends, before he ever became a U.S. Navy intelligence analyst, that he was a colonel in the Mossad. The censor officer laughed, perhaps because the Mossad doesn’t use such ranks, and perhaps because one way to know that someone doesn't work for the Mossad is that he says he does. I could print that part, he said. I don't remember whether we did. I thought it was pretty weak for the top of Page 1.

Thirty years later, Jonathan Pollard has just been released on parole. In hindsight, both the duty officer at the censor's office and I goofed: That, Pollard’s bizarre boast, was the most important and damaging part of the story.

Much of what’s been said about the Pollard affair, for over three decades, has been sanctimonious at worst or rooted in ignorance at best. This includes the expressions of horror that a country would spy on a friendly country; the counter-horror that America hadn't shared freely with Israel the information that Pollard passed on; and the angry disbelief that he’d been sentenced to life. What should inspire shock is that America protected its secrets so poorly and that Israel stole them so clumsily—in other words, that American and Israeli intelligence agencies ever had anything to do with Jonathan Pollard.

First, some groundwork for a sensible discussion: Countries have good reason for being selective about what information they share with friends. Even among allies, interests differ. More important, any time you pass intelligence to a friendly government, you increase the risk that it will fall into unfriendly hands as well. Your ally’s security measures may not be as good as you’d like. If you share intelligence data, you risk more than the information itself. Especially in its raw state, it provides clues as to its sources. When laypeople hear “source,” they tend to think of secret agents and informers. The bigger risk, though, is that the enemy may learn how you’ve broken into its communications, which could cost you all the years you spent doing so and all the intelligence you could have gathered in the future.

For pretty much the same reasons, countries do in fact spy on their friends, whose interests differ and who may withhold valuable information. Up until America entered World War II, Britain’s signal intelligence agency, then known as the Government Code and Cypher School, broke U.S. diplomatic codes and read as much American radio and cable traffic as it could. America’s Lend-Lease supply of arms to Britain did not provide immunity. After Pearl Harbor, Prime Minister Churchill told President Roosevelt (in a burn-after-reading note that wasn’t burned) that such work had stopped. If it really had, it was partly because Churchill had to admit to breaking American codes in order to warn Roosevelt that the Axis had probably done the same. And by that time, American and British interests were aligned more closely than U.S. and Israeli interests ever have been.

“Gentlemen do not read each other's mail,” Secretary of State Henry Stimson proclaimed in 1929 when he shut down the State Department’s Cipher Bureau, also known as the Black Chamber. When he returned to the cabinet as secretary of war in 1940, he was no longer so naïve, and presided over a great deal of mail-reading.

It’s possible, though, that when it comes to friendly countries, gentlemen try to stick to reading their mail and avoid recruiting human sources. To the best of my knowledge (reader's corrections invited!), Britain was not running agents in Washington, even before Pearl Harbor. But if it did, records about it will remain secret roughly forever. Even now, it would look like bad form to have persuaded an ally’s official to trade loyalties. And in espionage, the greatest source of shame is getting found out.

This brings us back to Pollard. It isn’t a violation of the rules of the game for Israel to spy on the United States electronically, if it manages to do so. The same is true for America eavesdropping on Israel. It may have been a violation of those rules to recruit an American intelligence analyst. The total professional failure, though, was for Israel to recruit this particular man—a failure matched only by the U.S. Navy hiring him in the first place, and giving him access to material at the very highest level of secrecy, still dripping with evidence of how it was gathered.

A person psychologically suited to work in intelligence—as I realized while interviewing such a person once, in a hotel lobby, not knowing his name—does not want public glory. He or she is the opposite of musicians, actors, politicians, journalists, and nearly everyone else. She believes that the measure of her work’s value is how few people know about it.

Pollard, who fantasized about being an Israeli James Bond and who told people he was one before ever meeting the real thing, was definitely the wrong guy for any job related to intelligence. Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger may or may not have been right when he wrote to the court trying Pollard that it was hard to imagine “greater harm caused by national security than caused by the defendant.” But with that letter, it would have been honorable for him to write another to President Reagan, taking ministerial responsibility for the snafu on his watch and resigning.

All of this is just as true for the people who accepted Pollard’s offer to spy for Israel, and for those above them in the Israeli intelligence hierarchy. To the sin of taking on a flagrantly dangerous source must be added the crime of accepting a local Jew to steal his country’s secrets. That has been strictly against Israel’s own espionage rules ever since Egyptian Jews recruited by Israel were caught in the early 1950s, endangering their community and setting off a political earthquake whose aftershocks brought down Israeli governments for years.

As for Pollard’s sentence: All American sentencing looks excessive and vindictive in Israeli eyes, whether it’s for drug use or espionage. But the claim of Pollard’s supporters that he should have been shown leniency because he helped an ally that deserved to get the information doesn’t hold up. It's not the job of each intelligence analyst or official to decide which ally is entitled to what data, or to weigh the risks of sharing it. Precisely because someone else could get the impression that freelancing for an ally isn’t morally reprehensible, that it isn’t really treason, a stiff deterrent sentence made sense. (Let’s leave for another time the debate about leaking to the public of one’s own country that it’s being spied on. Pollard was not a whistleblower.)

In honor of Pollard’s release, the citizens of both countries should get a reprieve from hypocrisy. Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters reportedly eavesdropped on foreign participants in the G20 talks in London in 2009. Germany allegedly helped the United States listen in on France’s foreign ministry and presidential palace. If German Chancellor Angela Merkel really was “incensed” that NSA listened in on her cell phone, it was presumably because her security services had done a bad job of protecting her communications—and because America embarrassed her by failing to keep its spying a secret. Likewise, the real scandal in the Pollard affair was, and remains, that America's and Israel's spooks botched their jobs so badly.

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