Jonathan Pollard, the Spy Who Came in From the Street

AIPAC staffers sent Jonathan Pollard packing in 1981, but in 1984 Israel's leaders eagerly welcomed him in. The American spy for Israel is due to be released Friday after serving 30 years in U.S. prison.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Jonathan Pollard during an interview at the Federal Correction Institution in Butner, North Carolina, May 15, 1998.
Jonathan Pollard during an interview at the Federal Correction Institution in Butner, North Carolina, May 15, 1998.Credit: AP
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

“Naval intelligence, hello, may I help you?”

Jonathan Jay Pollard, please.”

“He’s not here at the moment. Can I leave a message?”

“No thanks. I’ll call back later.”

Lenny Davis, head of research for the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC, put the receiver down and looked with amazement at his colleague, chief lobbyist Douglas Bloomfield.

“It’s for real,” Davis said, looking incredulously at the resume Pollard had given him. He went to AIPAC executive director Thomas Dine to report his strange encounter with that peculiar man who presented himself as a research officer in the naval intelligence and offered to provide secret documents on Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. Pollard urged the skeptical Davis to call his unit to prove his reliability.

Jonathan Pollard: Blabbermouth, patriot, spy? A timeline of his life and crimes

Dine agreed with Davis and Bloomfield’s inclination to file the CV away and not to contact Pollard again.

In autumnn 1981 AIPAC was on thin ice. In the previous decade, under its former director Morris Amitay, the group turned from a reserved propaganda distributor to a vigorous orchestrator of moves in Congress. Alongside the Israeli embassy, AIPAC attained the status of a Washington power to be reckoned with in its influence on senators and key House members. But the appreciation was accompanied by hostility. In power games a strong rival must be removed. The president must not lose a face-off with Congress and certainly not with a foreign state and its envoys. A small blunder, AIPAC knew, could turn claims of dual loyalty into destructive criminal charges.

In November 1981 AIPAC found itself at the center of a confrontation between Prime Minister Menachem Begin and President Ronald Reagan, over the sale of warning and control AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia. Only a huge, personal, last-minute effort saved Reagan from defeat to Begin in his home field. The deal was approved by a tiny majority of 52 to 48. Vice President George Bush, White House Chief of Staff James Baker, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and their faction held a grudge against Israel and its lobbyists.

The FBI spy-hunters’ crosshairs focused on real or imagined collaborators and their handlers. AIPAC knew that even an innocent conversation in a café could be packaged as a basis for a complaint, if certain key words appeared in it. All the more so when the content is black on white or in a photograph and appears in a formal meeting at the organization’s offices.

Intelligence branches and the governments that are supposed to approve their activity tend to suspect volunteer spies who come on their own accord and offer their services. In intelligence lingo they’re called “walk-ins,” like a travel agent knocking on the door, begging housewives and shopkeepers to buy a magazine subscription or a vacuum cleaner. Their motives are dubious, their mental state is sometimes shaky, perhaps they’ve already applied to other states and raised the local security services’ suspicion. The main fear is that the walk-in is part of a sting operation to trap the eager clients. The dream of every spy recruiter could be the nightmare of intelligence chiefs and their government.

Ashraf Marwan was one of these walk-ins. So were Soviet spies Colonel Oleg Penkovsky and the engineer Adolf Tolkachev, who wooed the CIA desperately before the suspicious Americans agreed to take military and technological secrets from them. The two were exposed, caught and executed.

One detail in Tolkachev’s story that is especially illustrative regarding Pollard pertains to the sign-out reader’s card in the classified library, which served both spies to borrow documents that they photographed and passed on. The CIA knew Tolkachev’s card was crucial to his spy work and invested time and effort to duplicate it without getting the KGB to investigate him. But the spy handlers didn’t share this lesson with the colleagues, the spy hunters. The naval and FBI counter intelligence didn’t look for American Tolkachevs using a library card to spy for Moscow or Tel Aviv.

That autumn day in AIPAC’s offices on the third floor in the building on 500 North Capitol St., a 27-year-old mustachioed man walked in without an appointment, holding incendiary printed material in his hand. Davis listened to him, recoiled and asked him to leave. Pollard insisted on leaving his CV.

Turning toward Jerusalem

Pollard didn’t give up and found an attentive ear in the Prime Minister's Office's Bureau of Scientific Relations, headed by Rafi Eitan. How did Davis, Bloomfield and Dine realize in an instant what Eitan, Col. Aviem Sella (Pollard’s handler), army Chief of Staff Moshe Levy, defense ministers Moshe Arens and Yitzhak Rabin and prime ministers Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres didn’t understand for a year and a half? How did the craving to steal material from Israel’s greatest friend overcome the supreme consideration of preserving relations with it?

Israel was never too scrupulous in security matters. When its survival was endangered in its early years, it violated, with the help of local friends, even the American embargo. Over the years it didn’t balk at shortcuts to save time, efforts and the cost of education. It had a good teacher — the Soviets obtained a nuclear bomb merely four years after the Americans because their scientists had knowhow smuggled by their agents in the Manhattan Project.

But the Soviets did not depend on the Americans for their living. Ben-Gurion understood it was better to resist a tempting opportunity in order to preserve vital interests. Washington isn’t Damascus and Pollard was not Eli Cohen. The relations between the Mossad and CIA were based on give and take, gathering and evaluation.

Pollard, who boasted in his youth that he was a “colonel in the Mossad,” abused the American system, which was based on mutual respect and giving credit. Until it transpired that the trust was betrayed. Then the Americans would punish the betrayer mercilessly.

In the early ‘80s a passionate struggle took place over the Mossad’s top position, which until then was traditionally given to an army general. Two civilians vied for the job. Rafi Eitan, who served as both adviser for counterterrorism and head of the Research Relations Bureau, was supported by his friend Ariel Sharon. David Kimche, the Foreign Ministry’s director general, was supported by Yitzhak Shamir and Chief of Staff Rafael (Raful) Eitan. Rafi Eitan wanted to prove who was really worthy to be appointed Mossad chief.

Thus everything was left to the whim of one man who walked into AIPAC’s offices, was thrown out and looked again for a connection to Israel two and a half years later. On November 21, 1985 he drove to the Israeli Embassy in Washington, was ordered to drive back and return on foot, was arrested and spent three decades in prison, which are supposed to end today. Pollard is to blame for his troubles, but he isn’t the one responsible for them. The responsible ones are those who embraced him and ran him, some by action and others by inaction.

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