The Truth About Jonathan Pollard’s ‘Escape Plan’

Jonathan Pollard has consistently given the same account of the time leading up to his arrest in Washington 30 years ago.

The documented record shows that in the three days prior to his arrest, Jonathan was under 24-hour-a-day surveillance by FBI and Naval Intelligence and undergoing hours and hours of intense interrogation.

He told me the only escape plan he ever received from his Israeli handler, Rafi Eitan, should the operation be compromised, was an emergency phone number to call. He received no special training for emergency evacuation and no instructions for such an event.

While under surveillance, Jonathan desperately tried calling the emergency number from a pay phone. His FBI and CIA tails were standing outside the phone booth, a few meters away. The phone rang and rang. There was no answer. For three days, he tried the emergency number over and over again. No answer. It finally dawned on him: the entire Israeli team had fled the country and abandoned him to his fate.

Jonathan recounted to me that it was at that point he had no choice but to make contact with the Israeli Embassy. He did not just show up at the door. He phoned a special contact number at the Embassy to get his tasking orders. He was ordered to come to the Embassy.

As is well known, at first he was welcomed with open arms at the Embassy. Then a call was made to Yerushalayim for instructions and he was quickly thrown out into the waiting arms of the FBI who had tailed him there.

In the days and weeks after his arrest, FBI and CIA agents who interrogated him told him repeatedly that they were shocked by his handler’s “callousness” and “lack of statecraft.” His interrogators expressed disgust for a handler who would leave an agent without emergency training or instructions and then abandon him to his fate.

This first-hand account which I received from Jonathan Pollard stands in marked contrast to the ludicrous story which his handler, Rafi Eitan, told on Israel prime-time media this week.

According to Eitan’s account, he had provided Jonathan with an escape plan which he refused to use. Instead, said Eitan, Jonathan dilly-dallied around for three days and then unexpectedly showed up at the Israeli Embassy uninvited. In so doing, Eitan claimed, Jonathan had “put himself in prison.” “After all,” said Eitan, “Pollard’s appearance at the Embassy threatened U.S.-Israel relations, so the only recourse was to throw him out.”

Given that Eitan’s fictitious account of a putative escape plan which Pollard was alleged to have refused was so easy to fact check, why did media so readily embrace this fiction? Why did this non-story make news headlines around the globe, featured by AP, JTA, Haaretz and a host of supposedly credible news outlets?

To phrase the question differently, why is it that a handler’s character assassination of his agent, 30 years down the line, is so appealing to media that it is rebroadcast as breaking news?

Lest anyone think that the refused escape story is anything but character assassination, the underlying message of Eitan’s fabrication is that an allegedly uncooperative Pollard has no one to blame for his imprisonment but himself, because he refused to escape. The message grows more deadly as Eitan self-righteously proclaims how he heroically ordered Pollard be thrown out of the Embassy in order to save Israel’s relationship with the United States.

A side note: Eitan’s wife, who interviewed alongside her husband on the same program, described her husband as “a man who can lie convincingly without blinking an eye.” Her comment fell on deaf ears.

Why was this red herring escape story more important news than the up-to-the-moment news about Jonathan Pollard, who is extremely ill and now beginning his 30th year in prison on a false charge?

Indeed, the real news is that Jonathan Pollard was recently refused parole and the reason the U.S. government gave for denying his release was a lie — so say eight senior U.S. officials intimately familiar with the full classified file of the case.

Many of the same news media outlets which have readily reported Rafi Eitan’s character assassination of Jonathan Pollard also enthusiastically reported the false charge against Jonathan. There are numerous reports about “the breadth and scope” of his spying for Israel being “the worst breach of U.S. security to that date” without any mention whatsoever that senior U.S. officials who know the case best have declared in a letter to the president that this charge is “patently false” and “not supported by any evidence in the public record or the classified file.”

The news that Pollard is in prison on a false charge has been totally eclipsed by the Rafi Eitan story. Why is Rafi Eitan so determined to sanitize his role in this affair and to divest himself of all responsibility for his agent’s ordeal?

The more troubling question is: Why are responsible journalists ignoring the news that Pollard remains in prison on a false charge while reporting lies about a fictitious escape plan 30 years ago?

Why is it that almost all news outlets, with very few exceptions, did not seek a comment or a clarification from representatives of Jonathan Pollard before publishing the lies?

In their letter to President Obama, the American officials decry the way Pollard is being treated. They write: “Denying a man his freedom based on a claim of damage that is patently false while ignoring exculpatory documentary evidence and hiding behind a veil of secret evidence is neither fair nor just, nor is it the American way.”

The U.S. president must discharge his constitutional responsibility, say the officials, by commuting Pollard’s life sentence to time served, and send him home to Israel.

Diverting news attention away from this critical issue by reinventing past history and peddling lies is immoral and intolerable.

Rabbi Pesach Lerner is the Executive Vice President Emeritus, National Council of Young Israel. He has been deeply involved in the Pollard case for more than 20 years.