The Obama administration is denying that its decision to allow the release of a notorious spy is an effort to assuage Israel’s anger at the recent deal over Iran’s nuclear program.
Jonathan Pollard, a US naval intelligence officer, was arrested in 1985 and later sentenced to life in prison for passing the most sensitive and damaging US military and intelligence secrets to Israel in exchange for money to fund his luxurious lifestyle.
Israel is believed to have passed many of the most sensitive secrets to the Soviet Union, then the Cold War enemy of the US.
The damage Pollard did is so great that many senior officials believe he should never go free.
But last week, the US Department of Justice indicated that it would not oppose Pollard’s release at a mandatory parole hearing this week.
Pollard’s sentence is scheduled to end in a few months, but the government could have opposed parole if it deemed him a continuing threat to national security.
On Tuesday, it was announced that Pollard’s parole had been approved and he will go free in November, most likely moving to Israel.
White House officials insist that Pollard’s imminent release is not an attempt to “placate the Israelis in the wake of the Iran deal,” The New York Times reports.
But it is no secret that the Obama administration is making massive efforts to win support from members of Congress for the Iran deal.
If Congress passes a bill opposing the deal – as it is likely to do – the president needs at least one third of the members on his side to prevent Congress overriding his veto.
Among the measures Obama is already considering in an effort to win backing is a whopping 50 percent increase in US military aid to Israel.
There is no doubt that many senior figures in the political-military establishment, including staunch supporters of Israel, do see Pollard as an ongoing threat.
On Monday, Donald Rumsfeld, former US defense secretary during the first term of the George W. Bush administration, tweeted that “releasing Pollard was a bad idea in 1998 & 2001. It is not a better idea today.”
Rumsfeld, a key architect and perpetrator of the catastrophic US invasion of Iraq, also released a memo he had sent to President Bush on 16 March 2001, on the eve of a visit to Washington by then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
The defense secretary told the president that the Israeli delegation would likely ask him to free Pollard.
“Any step to free Pollard would be enormously damaging to our efforts to keep spies out of our government,” Rumsfeld warned.
“Not no, but definitely no”
Rumsfeld reminded the president that CIA Director George Tenet had threatened to resign when it was suggested a few years earlier that President Bill Clinton might release Pollard. “I suspect he would feel the same today, and that there would be a number of others concerned about espionage who would feel the same.”
“My suggestion would be to come on very forcefully and say not no, but definitely no – no today, tomorrow and the next day,” Rumsfeld advised Bush. “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.”
Rumsfeld attached a letter opposing Pollard’s release, signed by seven former US secretaries of defense.
Rumsfeld, it should be recalled, is a staunch supporter of Israel; he explicitly backed its land grabs of Palestinian and Syrian land, which he referred to as “the so-called occupied territories.”
That Rumsfeld and other top officials remain so adamant against the release of Pollard reflects how much damage they believe he did.
The full extent is unknown because Israel has refused to disclose to the United States government what it did with the information.
“It was the worst case that I have ever seen out of all the spy cases,” Ron Olive, the Navy counterintelligence officer who caught Pollard, told the BBC in 2012.
“Jonathan Pollard stole so many documents, so highly classified, more so than any other spy in the history of this country in such a short time,” Olive said.
Over 18 months, Pollard spirited highly classified US government documents to an apartment, where a secretary from the Israeli embassy would copy them before Pollard checked them back in.
Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh reported in 1999 that many US officials “strongly suspect that the Israelis repackaged much of Pollard’s material and provided it to the Soviet Union in exchange for continued Soviet permission for Jews to emigrate to Israel.”
Among the information Pollard stole was the top secret 10-volume National Security Agency manual describing how the United States obtained intelligence from all over the world. He also stole the information revealing how the US monitored the movement of Soviet nuclear-armed submarines.
Pollard is also believed to have exposed the names of US agents, almost certainly putting their lives at risk.
For love of money
In the decades he has been behind bars, Israeli leaders, especially the current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have demanded Pollard’s release, describing him as an Israeli national hero.
But Olive dismissed this: “What was motivating Jonathan Pollard was the number one thing that has motivated people to turn traitors and betray their country for decades and centuries: greed, money. And now though, now he pretends that it was for the love of Israel only, and now he has tens of thousands of supporters trying to get him out of jail.”
It was however, the decision of one man, President Barack Obama, that will finally set Pollard free.