Jonathan Pollard: Israel's odd American spy

From modest beginnings in suburban Indiana, the CIA-reject became one of the most effective and damaging anti-US agents, stealing vital secrets about sources and methods during the Cold War. Now he is, once again, a bargaining chip in peace talks.

Kagan McLeod for The National
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He is the American citizen who was caught selling secrets to Israel, the spy jailed for life for betraying his nation's security. Is Jonathan Jay Pollard a greedy traitor who made a lot of money while jeopardising America's safety in the Cold War and then tried to sell his services on to other countries? His supporters do not think so. They say he is a Jewish patriot who helped Israel only because of his strong faith in the Zionist cause. They add that the years he has served in prison since his arrest in 1986 are long enough considering he was helping a close American ally. His sentence was disproportionate. He is a victim of anti-Semitism. Either way, Pollard's fate may be linked to bringing peace to the Middle East, and once again he has become a bargaining chip in the torturous negotiations to end the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

On Monday, Israel's Army Radio reported that the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, may seek his release in exchange for extending the freeze of settlements in the West Bank. It would be an opportunistic move considering the buildings are illegal under international law anyway. Tomorrow, the 10-month moratorium on construction expires, and the Palestinians are threatening to pull out of the current peace talks unless the freeze continues. Allowing Pollard to go home may help Mr Netanyahu sell the idea of a settlement freeze to his coalition of right wing and religious parties. But Pollard's biggest obstacle is not the Palestinians or sceptics in Israel. It is the American intelligence community that has long balked at the idea of any kind of leniency. The idea may just be a kite flown more in hope than any real expectation that the Americans would agree to such a deal. The US administration has made no comment.

On his 56th birthday in August, he allowed a private letter written by his second wife Esther to be published in an Israeli online publication. Esther expressed her devotion, couching their difficulties in spiritual language and his punishment as part of a greater Jewish struggle. "People who have no concept of eternal life have no way to grasp that you volunteered for this mission long ago in the world of souls, and I volunteered to go with you. The sorrow, the frustration, the suffering, the anguish, the depression, the despair and the anger are actually fleeting in terms of eternity. But in terms of a human lifetime they have been overwhelming, relentless and unending." Being Pollard's wife must be quite an undertaking, since the couple have never lived together or indeed seen each other outside prison walls. Esther is a former schoolteacher from Toronto who wrote letters to him in jail, which is where they got married in the 1990s.

His marriage is one of the many oddities in what started off as a fairly uneventful life in suburban Indiana. Pollard was one of three children and their father, Morris, was a microbiologist. Jay was bullied as a child. His first exposure to Israel came at age 16 when he spent a happy summer there at a camp. He graduated from Stanford University, but he was rejected when he applied for job with the CIA in 1976. He then found employment as a research analyst for the Navy's Field Operational Intelligence Office in Maryland. In his 2006 book Capturing Jonathan Pollard, Ronald Olive, who was in charge of the counterintelligence office which investigated Pollard, described him as "immature" and a "social outcast" who took drugs and had a talent for bizarre stories.

Pollard once turned up late for a meeting looking dishevelled. He told colleagues his girlfriend had been kidnapped by the IRA and he spent the weekend chasing them all over Washington. In June 1984, he was moved to the Navy's antiterrorist alert centre in Maryland and worked in its threat analysis division. By then he had been recruited by Israel as a spy. In November that year, he met two handlers in Paris and was given $10,000 (Dh37,000) and promised a salary of $1,500 a month. When he returned to the US, he began copying and delivering top secret documents to a safe house. In court it was revealed he received $50,000 with the promise of more and Pollard defended the payments as a "reflection of how well I was doing my job". In 1985, the red flag was raised by a colleague who spotted him in the office car park with an envelope known to have classified material that Pollard was supposed to destroy. His capture was more like a comedy of errors, wrote Mr Olive. A naval commander lost his temper with Pollard and accused him of being a spy. Pollard called his new bride, Anne, and ordered her to remove all classified material from the house. She looked outside the window, saw a car that looked like it was staking her out and in a fit of panic ran to the neighbours and told them to hang on to the suitcase because it contained secret documents. The neighbours called the police. Farcically, it turned out the car parked outside was on a stakeout, but it was focused on someone else, Mr Olive wrote. The couple fled to the Israeli embassy in Washington, but officials turned them away. The minute they stepped outside the compound, both were arrested. Pollard pleaded guilty to one count of espionage. The Israelis distanced themselves from him and claimed he worked for a rogue operation. But Pollard disputed that claim and told the court that he passed on 360 cubic feet of classified documents over 17 months. He insisted loyalty to Israel was his sole motive because he wanted to provide information about its enemies in the Middle East which could save Israeli lives. On March 15, 1987, as the judge pronounced the life sentence, Anne collapsed and started screaming. She received five years for being his accomplice. The defence secretary at the time, Casper Weinberger, said he could think of "no greater harm to national security". Over the years, details about what he gave Israel leaked to various American news organisations. The Jerusalem Post, citing Pollard as a source, reported that he provided information that allowed the Israeli air force to bomb the headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in Tunisia in October 1985, which killed 35 people. He also gave satellite photos of Iraqi and Syrian chemical weapons plants and reports on Soviet arms shipments to Syria and other Arab states. But there was more. Seymour Hersh, the eminent American journalist, revealed that Pollard told the Israelis how the Americans collected intelligence through satellites and, more damningly, techniques of how the US Navy tracked Soviet submarines. Some of this material found its way to the Soviet Union in exchange for allowing Russian Jews to emigrate to the Jewish state, Mr Hersh wrote. In 1995, the prisoner was granted Israeli citizenship, the same year the late prime minister Yitzak Rabin began negotiating for his release and tying it to the peace process. His cause has been taken up by all subsequent Israeli leaders. Finally, in May 1998, the Israelis admitted Pollard was a spy. The closest he has come to freedom was during the Wye River negotiations brokered by the US president Bill Clinton in 1998. The Israelis claimed Mr Clinton had agreed to let him go. Pollard had written a letter to the American president expressing his regrets. "I realize that no matter what my motives may have been, I did not have the right to violate the law. I have also made it very clear that I do not consider myself to be a 'hero' and would prefer that people simply see me as someone who made a terrible mistake and who has paid dearly for my mistake." But the CIA director George Tenet threatened to resign if he was freed, The New York Times reported. Pollard remained behind bars. He has refused to apply for parole and insists on clemency or a pardon. His second wife, Esther, once said he tried and failed to love both America and Israel at the same time. "I hope that he will serve as a cautionary tale for others who are under the mistaken impression that you can in a sense love two women at once. You cannot."