Multiple news agencies are reporting that President Barack Obama is considering releasing Jonathan Pollard in an effort to jump-start peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. This would be a major mistake that borders on betrayal.
Pollard is a former civilian U.S. Navy intelligence officer that sold tons of classified intelligence to Israel during the Cold War before being arrested in November 1985. He pleaded guilty to spying for Israel and was given a life sentence in prison. His former boss, Retired Adm. Thomas Brooks, told Foreign Policy that the amount of intelligence Pollard sold to Israel is exceeded only by the amount of intelligence that Edward Snowden has disclosed.
And indeed one of the major reasons being given for why Pollard should not be released is it would send the wrong message to Snowden and other intelligence officers contemplating discussing classified information in the future. This in itself should be a strong enough reason for not granting Pollard clemency.
Still, it is hardly the only reason why President Obama should not release Pollard, as Secretary of State John Kerry is reportedly urging him to do. Another closely related reason is that it would be a slap in the face to the overwhelming majority of U.S. intelligence officers and other national security officials who are not contemplating leaking classified information. These individuals work tirelessly to protect the United States and Edward Snowden’s treason has already been highly demoralizing to honest national security professionals in the United States. To pardon Pollard so soon after Snowden’s case surfaced would be the ultimate insult to these individuals.
Another reason that Pollard shouldn’t be released is the fact that he is simply guilty of the crime and has been properly punished for it. Many of Pollard’s supporters in Israel and the United States have argued that he is being punished too harshly given that Israel is a strong U.S. ally and Pollard was simply trying to help Tel Aviv protect itself.
This is absurd and completely disingenuous. To begin with, the fact that Pollard sold the information to Israel is in some ways more concerning if only because the U.S. already shares substantial amounts of intelligence with Israel. Thus, we know that all of the immense amounts of classified intelligence Pollard sold to Israel was of the highly classified nature because it wasn’t already being shared with Tel Aviv.
Furthermore, by nearly all accounts, much of the intelligence Pollard sold didn’t concern Israel’s security at all. Instead, it was about U.S. capabilities in general or it’s spying operations against other countries, including the Soviet Union. To make matters worse, some suggest Israel gave this information to Moscow in exchange for Russia allowing Soviet Jews to immigrate to Israel.
This shouldn’t come as any surprise because Pollard was clearly not acting out of altruistic motives. To reiterate, he sold classified information to Israel for tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. Most believe he offered to sell intelligence to four other countries as well. As a former intelligence officer involved in the damage assessment following Pollard’s arrest told Foreign Policy this week, “It was all about money, and he put most of it up his nose. He was known in Washington as the ‘candy man’ for God’s sake.”
Thus, far from trying to protect Israel’s security—which, if that was his goal, he could have done in many other ways such as moving to Israel and joining the Israeli Defense Forces—Pollard was selling his country’s national security to finance his drug habit. The U.S. locks people up for drugs for longer than Pollard has been in prison even if their habits don’t put the entire country in jeopardy.
Despite these strong reasons against granting Pollard a reprieve, it would be reasonable for Obama to consider the option if his release would serve an overwhelming geostrategic interest. But releasing Pollard now would gain absolutely nothing for the U.S. except for allowing John Kerry to delay the collapse of the Middle East peace talks he has already overinvested his own time in.
The aim of releasing Pollard would simply be to keep the Israelis and Palestinians talking about a peace agreement. But if Israel needs this large of a bribe just to not scuttle the talks—every Israel Prime Minister has called for Pollard’s release since his arrest, and it is a highly charged issue in Israel—what kind of bribe will be required to make a single land concession to the Palestinians, much less a comprehensive agreement? And what would the Palestinians demand from the U.S. for their own concessions?
Simply put, although the U.S. does have an interest in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the primary benefactors of a peace agreement would be the Israeli and Palestinians themselves. Until the Israelis and Palestinians themselves want peace more than the U.S. wants it for them, a peace agreement will remain elusive (as demonstrated by Israel’s previous diplomacy with Arab neighbors). Their failure to reach an agreement will only be a setback for the United States, and one of less consequence than was true in the past. It will be an existential threat to the negotiating parties themselves, particularly Israel. In this sense, America should be fielded bribes; not offering them.