Jonathan Pollard pleaded guilty in 1985 to passing secrets to Israel.
With the ongoing fiscal negotiations and the disclosures surrounding the U.S. use of drones, many stories fall through the cracks. Among them was the December publication of a 1987 CIA damage assessment concerning Jonathan Pollard, a U.S. intelligence analyst who pleaded guilty in 1985 to forwarding classified material to the Israeli government and was sentenced to life in prison.
The release was important to people like myself who have been trying to understand why Pollard received such a severe sentence. I’ve been involved in national security affairs for over four decades, and the sentence always seemed disproportionate to the crime, which exceeded sentences given to other people who had spied for friendly countries, and violated a plea agreement Pollard made with prosecutors.
For 25 years, members of Congress and former high-level officials from the CIA and the Justice Department, including former CIA Director James Woolsey and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, have repeatedly called for Pollard’s sentence to be commuted.
Each time, intelligence professionals have argued against it by claiming that Pollard and Israel withheld the extent of his espionage, and that his spying caused more damage than that of other spies who have received shorter sentences (an average of seven years in prison).
Still others have pointed out that former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger’s victim impact statement, sent after Pollard reached a plea agreement, was so damaging that the judge had no choice but to overrule the plea bargain. Finally, the Israeli government initially refused to acknowledge that Pollard was one of its agents and would not return the documents or debrief U.S. intelligence officials, making Pollard seem like a rogue agent.
But the CIA damage assessment demonstrates that all these claims are bogus. The documents show that CIA debriefers said Pollard cooperated with them fully and in good faith. Moreover, they acknowledge that Pollard did not divulge the most sensitive U.S. national security programs, including military activities, plans, capabilities, equipment or communications.
Finally, they make clear that Pollard actually resisted attempts by Israeli agents to expand the espionage to include dirt on Israelis who may have been passing information on to the United States. Pollard provided intelligence only on the Soviet Union’s activities in the Middle East, the Arab States and Pakistan.
The new report also debunks the theory that the judge ignored the plea agreement because Pollard had stolen more information than he admitted to. The assessment says that the real reason the judge overturned the agreement was that Pollard and his then-wife spoke to the media, violating a nondisclosure agreement.
But even that argument does not hold up. Yes, in 1998 Wolf Blitzer interviewed Pollard in federal prison — but how could he have done so without permission from the U.S. government? The government eventually conceded that the jailhouse interview had been authorized. And indeed, Judge Stephen F. Williams of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the first district ultimately condemned the presiding judge for reneging on the plea agreement.
Jonathan Pollard committed a serious crime. He deserved to be prosecuted and jailed for spying on his country. But he does not deserve to be in prison 27 years later. He has expressed remorse, the Israeli government has apologized and cooperated with the U.S. and the CIA has acknowledged that he cooperated and did not withhold information. These newly declassified documents make it clear that it is time to let him go.
Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and was assistant secretary of defense from 1981 to 1985.