Jews vs. Spooks

Politics and policy.
March 13 1999 3:30 AM

Jews vs. Spooks

And the loser is ... Clinton.

President Clinton has made a career of wriggling out of problems of his own making, but he may finally have trapped himself. During last year's Wye peace talks, Clinton apparently hinted to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he would free convicted spy Jonathan Pollard--now serving a life sentence--if Israel signed the peace deal. After CIA Director George Tenet protested, Clinton backed off slightly, agreeing only to reconsider Pollard's clemency in exchange for Netanyahu's signature.

Clinton was expected to announce in January whether he would free Pollard. That month passed with no announcement. Another six weeks have come and gone and still there is no decision in sight. "The president will decide when he decides," says National Security Council spokesman P.J. Crowley.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

It's no wonder Clinton is so dilatory: Pollard presents a dilemma with no satisfactory political solution: The entire national security apparatus, from Tenet to the FBI to the Defense Department to the State Department to the heads of House and Senate intelligence committees, adamantly opposes Pollard's release. And virtually the entire American Jewish community favors it. The spooks or the Jews: Which should he choose?

Clinton finds himself in this swamp because the dynamics of the case have vastly changed during the past few years. A civilian Navy intelligence analyst, Pollard was arrested in 1985 and quickly pleaded guilty to selling secrets to Israel. In 1984-85, he had given 500,000 or more pages of highly classified documents to his Israeli handlers. In the plea agreement, prosecutors promised not to seek a life sentence, but the judge, after reading a secret account of the damage Pollard had done, sentenced him to life anyway.

Until recently, Pollard's cause had been championed mostly by a small, vocal, paranoid, inflammatory, dishonest group of supporters, principally extremely pro-Israel, right-wing American Jewish groups. Their primary claims are that: 1) Pollard did no real harm to national security; 2) he was well intentioned in spying for our friend Israel; 3) he was unfairly deprived of a trial; 4) he never saw the evidence against him; and 5) the government broke his plea agreement by asking for a life sentence.

All these assertions, which are made incessantly and at high volume, are false. Pollard did enormous damage to U.S. national security, thoroughly compromising intelligence-gathering in the Middle East and elsewhere (more on this below). He also spied (or tried to) for several countries besides Israel. He had no trial because he chose to plead guilty. He did see the evidence against him, and so on. (Pollard's perfervid supporters repeat these canards despite all evidence: Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, told me that prosecutors "promised they would be very lenient on him ... then asked for a life sentence." In fact, prosecutors told Pollard they would ask for a "substantial" sentence and then didn't ask for a life sentence.)

Pollard devotees also demagogically appeal to Jewish sentiment. They liken the "Pollard Affair" to the Dreyfus Affair, and assert that Pollard was sentenced to life because he is Jewish. They claim that Pollard's arrest caused an "outpouring of Jewish bloodletting" in national security agencies, "quoting" top national security officials as saying they don't need any more "Jew-boys like Pollard." They have portrayed anti-Pollard Jewish groups as lapdogs trying to ingratiate themselves with mainstream America.

As long as these kooks were Pollard's principal support, it was easy for Presidents Bush and Clinton to ignore him. But then Pollard got lucky. In the early '90s, the Israeli government, which had distanced itself from Pollard, embraced him. And during the past three years, mainstream Jewish groups have started coming around. Almost every significant Jewish organization now supports Pollard's release, from the World Jewish Congress to B'nai B'rith to the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. Elie Wiesel, Edgar Bronfman Sr., and Alan Dershowitz--a holy trinity of North American Jews--recently implored the president to grant Pollard clemency.

Mainstream Jewish groups had ignored Pollard in the '80s and early '90s because they concluded that anti-Semitism had nothing to do with his arrest or sentencing. Their new Pollard advocacy is moderate and muted--low-key constituent service. They have given Pollard's cause new credibility by avoiding the preposterous claims of his loyalists. They insist that his behavior was loathsome. They don't question the legality of his plea or his sentence. They don't claim that an Israeli spy deserves special treatment. But, they say, Pollard has shown remorse for his wrongdoing. He deserves freedom on "humanitarian" grounds: He has served far longer than anyone else convicted of spying for an ally. Other such spies spend 2 to 4 years in prison: Pollard is closing in on 14 years.

But the mainstream arguments, too, are wrong. Pollard does not, in fact, seem to be terribly remorseful. He took Israeli citizenship in 1995, and he recently called the United States a "foreign country." He has said, "I would rather be rotting in prison than sitting shiva for the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who could have died" had he not spied. In 1993 he was caught trying to smuggle classified information out in his prison letters.

More important, the mainstream groups are downplaying what Pollard did. Pollard is not just some confused, well-meaning, basically harmless spy who was railroaded by an overzealous judge. In the Jan. 18 New Yorker, Seymour Hersh assessed the damage caused by Pollard to America's national security. It is vast, arguably as much as all-star snoop Aldrich Ames did in his spying for the Soviet Union. According to Hersh, who was leaked information that had been kept secret since Pollard's arrest, Pollard not only compromised America's Middle East operations, he also gave away tons of American classified data about the Soviet Union. Pollard handed over information about how the United States tracked Soviet subs. He gave the Israelis the bible of American signals intelligence, a manual that shows exactly what foreign (that is, Soviet) signals the United States has intercepted. He gave away documents that could have helped the Soviets identify American moles. He may have even given away the United States' attack plan for a war with the U.S.S.R. This information was probably traded to the U.S.S.R. by Israel in exchange for Soviet Jewish émigrés. Pollard may have spied for a "friendly" country, but he did a traitor's work.

Pollard's supporters have reacted to these revelations with skepticism. None of the Jewish groups has reversed its support for Pollard's release. His absolutist followers smear Hersh as a fabricator. Mainstream groups, not unreasonably, question the timing of Hersh's story. For 14 years, the intelligence community has refused to release this damage assessment on the grounds that it would harm national security. The only reason to release it now is political, and national security officials shouldn't play politics. Hersh's information may be damning, they say, but it is unverifiable and irrefutable.

Pollard's supporters can cling to that excuse. Clinton has no such out. He knows whether the charges in the Hersh story are true, and that's why he's in such a quandary. Usually, Clinton finds a way to reconcile the presidential and the political. Here he cannot. If Pollard is guilty of all that Hersh charges him with, Clinton the president knows that freeing him is a terrible wrong, a slap at America's national security guardians and an invitation to our allies to spy on us. But even if Pollard is guilty of all that Hersh charges him with, Clinton the politician knows that freeing him is a political win, a present to some of his dearest supporters. There is only one way for Clinton to extricate himself from this dilemma: He can commute Pollard's sentence so that the spy can't go free until 2001. That would be the perfect Clintonian solution: Leave the mess for someone else to clean up.

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