John Kerry and Washington’s decades-long fight over releasing Israel’s controversial spy.
In January 1999, a bipartisan group of senators sent a strongly worded letter to President Bill Clinton urging him not to commute the prison sentence of Jonathan Pollard, who was then in the 12th year of a life sentence for spying for Israel. Freeing Pollard, the lawmakers said, would “imply a condonation of spying against the United States by an ally,” would overlook the “enormity” of Pollard’s offenses and the damage he had caused to national security, and would undermine the United States’ ability to share secrets with foreign governments. Among the 60 signatories of the letter was John Kerry, then a senator from Massachusetts. Fifteen years later, Kerry is singing a very different tune.
Now, as the secretary of state, Kerry has supported using Pollard’s potential release as a bargaining chip in the Obama administration’s attempts to salvage the flailing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The outcome of those talks was in doubt Tuesday as President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority opted to press for statehood through the United Nations, a move that Israel has long said would as a deal-breaker. A planned meeting between Kerry and Abbas was canceled as a result. Abbas said he’d made the move because Israel hadn’t released a fourth round of Palestinian prisoners. The Obama administration had envisioned potentially releasing Pollard — who is seen as a national hero by many Israelis — to help persuade Jerusalem to let those Palestinian prisoners go.
Kerry wasn’t alone in opposing Pollard’s release in 1999, when the issue was similarly under consideration as a possible sweetener for Israel during its on-again, off-again talks with the Palestinians. Kerry’s allies at the time included then-Sen. Chuck Hagel, now the secretary of defense, as well as Dianne Feinstein, the current chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee; Mitch McConnell, the current Senate minority leader; John McCain, a former Republican nominee for president; and Patrick Leahy, now the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Kerry and Hagel in particular now find themselves in the awkward position of serving in an administration that is considering letting Pollard go, exactly the outcome they once railed against. A spokesperson for Hagel said, “The secretary will keep private his counsel for the president.” A spokesperson for Kerry wouldn’t discuss details of any negotiations. Neither Hagel’s nor Kerry’s spokesperson addressed the positions they’d taken in 1999. White House spokesperson Jay Carney said Tuesday that Obama, who has the sole authority to commute Pollard’s sentence or grant him a pardon, “has not made a decision” on the question.
The signatories largely had strong pro-Israel voting records, but their contempt for Pollard crossed party lines and was striking in its ferocity. “Any grant of clemency would now be viewed as an acquiescence to external political pressures and a vindication of Pollard’s specious claims of unfairness and victimization…. This would send the wrong signal to employees within the Intelligence Community. It is an inviolable principle that those entrusted with America’s secrets must protect them, without exception, irrespective of their own personal views or sympathies.”
Pollard has long maintained that he gave Israel classified intelligence in order to help the country protect itself from surprise attacks by other countries in the Middle East. But intelligence officials have dismissed those claims and said Pollard also tried to sell classified information to at least four other governments. A former U.S. intelligence official who was involved in the government’s damage assessment of Pollard’s spying said in an interview he was motivated largely by money to pay for an alleged cocaine habit.
“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,” the former official said. “He’s reinvented himself as someone else, and a large number of Israelis have fallen for it and a large number of Americans and stupid politicians have fallen for it.”
Pollard is seen very differently in Israel, where every prime minister since the time of his arrest in 1985 has called for his release. In the late 1990s, the presidents of 55 major American Jewish organizations jointly called for Pollard to be set free. And for decades, there’ve been mass protests in both Israel and the United States calling on a succession of American presidents to free Pollard, both on humanitarian grounds and, his supporters say, because he gave information to a close U.S. ally and was unjustly accused of betraying the United States. Many of those protests are organized by Pollard’s wife, whom he married while in prison and who remains one of his staunchest defenders.
The potential release of Pollard in 1999 wasn’t the first time Clinton had considered letting Israel’s most notorious spy go free. Clinton had previously denied Pollard’s request for commutation, citing “his lack of remorse” and “the continuing threat to national security that he pose[s].” The former intelligence official said that the government feared if Pollard were ever released, he would continue to spy for Israel or other governments. Clinton ultimately declined to commute Pollard’s sentence in 1999, under pressure from lawmakers and his own director of central intelligence, George Tenet, who said he’d resign if Pollard were released.
For his part, Pollard on Tuesday passed up on the opportunity to apply for parole — he would be eligible for early release in 2015 — and appears insistent on being granted commutation.
Some of the signatories to the 1999 letter have since changed their minds. Joe Lieberman, then a Democratic senator from Connecticut, said in a statement Tuesday that Pollard “has served a very long time in jail and paid a heavy price for his crimes. Based on that fact, and my understanding that Pollard’s health is apparently bad, I believe there is justification for his release from prison at this time.” McCain has likewise softened his stance; he said in 2011 that he also supports releasing Pollard.
A person familiar with Kerry, speaking on backgound, disputed the relevance of the letter that the secretary signed. “We’re not going to speculate on a 15-year-old letter signed by 60 United States senators back with Y2K was a front-page story and George Clooney was just a doctor on ‘E.R.’ … Kerry’s focus is on how we can make progress in the peace process today,” this person said.
But the heads of the Senate and House intelligence committees, along with lawmakers from both parties, roundly opposed releasing Pollard in various remarks to journalists on Tuesday. Feinstein, who’d been among the 60 signatories on the 1999 letter, told reporters, “It’s hard for me to see how [freeing Pollard] would jump-start” the rocky peace talks. “It’s one thing after an agreement. It’s totally another thing before an agreement.”
Pollard was working as a civilian intelligence analyst for the Navy when he was arrested in 1985. He supplied Israel with a huge cache of classified Defense Department documents, including a 10-volume manual that spelled out how the National Security Agency intercepted Soviet communications, as well as technical details of military spy satellites. Retired Adm. Thomas Brooks, the former director of naval intelligence and Pollard’s onetime boss, said in an interview that the amount of highly classified material the confessed spy disclosed “is exceeded only by Edward Snowden,” the former NSA contractor who gave millions of pages of classified documents about eavesdropping systems to journalists.
This article has been updated to include comments from a person familiar with Kerry.