Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Watch List: Pollard, Again and Again

The Washington Post, New York Times and Wall Street Journal are all reporting on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's reading of a letter in Parliament, asking President Obama to pardon or commute the sentence of Jonathan Jay Pollard. Pollard is serving a life term for spying on behalf of Israel. Attempts to have him released have been ongoing (see previous coverage here). 39 members of Congress have expressed support for his release.

Netanyahu said Pollard - who was sentenced in 1987 but not officially recognized as a spy by Israel until the late 1990s - “has reportedly served longer in prison than any person convicted of similar crimes, and longer than the period requested by the prosecutors at the time of his plea bargain agreement.” In part, this has to be attributed to the fact that Pollard spent years attempting to land - by extraordinary means - a presidential pardon, as opposed to a mere commutation of sentence.

But we have always wondered what the other examples of "similar crimes" might be? Pollard's website portends to offer data on "comparative sentences," but (oddly, or revealingly) the table treats all convicted spies has having committed the same crime, with the same degree of culpability and impact. Pollard, a former Naval Intelligence employee, gathered computer printouts, satellite photographs, and classified documents from his department three times a week. By his own estimates, he passed out more than 800 classified publications and more than 1,000 cables. On the day that he was arrested, he was carrying 60 top-secret documents in his briefcase. A former Secretary of Defense complained that Pollard attempted to disclose classified information in letters written from his prison cell on 14 occasions. The American Conservative notes:
Pollard did far more damage to US security than any other American official who has turned traitor and he did it for money. [Sources] close to the damage assessment inform me that it cost more than $3 billion to change the defense department communication codes that Pollard betrayed, something that was of enormous value to the Soviets and wound up traded to them by Israel. The number of US agents in the Soviet Bloc, to include some American citizens, who were identified through information provided by Pollard and were presumably executed is in the double digits.
The New Yorker Magazine has noted:
The documents that Pollard turned over to Israel were not focussed exclusively on the product of American intelligence -- its analytical reports and estimates. They also revealed how America was able to learn what it did -- a most sensitive area of intelligence defined as "sources and methods." Pollard gave the Israelis vast amounts of data dealing with specific American intelligence systems and how they worked ... The data passed along by Pollard included detailed information on the various platforms -- in the air, on land, and at sea -- used by military components of the National Security Agency to intercept Israeli military, commercial, and diplomatic communications.

... Pollard's handing over of the data had a clear impact, the expert told me, for "we could see the whole process" -- of intelligence collection -- "slowing down." It also hindered the United States' ability to recruit foreign agents. Another senior official commented, with bitterness, "The level of penetration would convince any self-respecting human source to look for other kinds of work."

A number of 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. Other officials go further, and say there was reason to believe that secret information was exchanged for Jews working in highly sensitive positions in the Soviet Union. A significant percentage of Pollard's documents, including some that described the techniques the American Navy used to track Soviet submarines around the world, was of practical importance only to the Soviet Union.
Are there really comparable offenders suitable for a data table? Are all spies really the same? We are guessing not. So, the Washington Post reports:
The CIA has consistently opposed releasing Pollard, as have U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials who have argued that clemency would show unacceptable leniency toward a spy who turned over tens of thousands of pages of classified information.
In addition, Obama administration officials recently indicated that Mr. Pollard’s release was unlikely. Vice-President Biden has also said Pollard "has to serve his sentence." See Times coverage of this story here. See Post coverage here. See Wall Street Journal coverage here. You can also read additional background on Pollard and the case here and here and here.

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