In his book The Joys of Yiddish, Leo Rosten, struggling to define the concept of “chutzpah” to Americans, toyed with a bunch of English expressions: “gall, brazen nerve, effrontery, incredible ’guts,’ presumption plus arrogance.” In the end, he concluded no single word sufficed. Chutzpah, he wrote was “that quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan.”
If Rosten were around today, he might offer another definition: a country that sends a spy to steal millions of pages of national-security secrets from its best friend in the world and then demands his release as a sign of friendship. That’s exactly what happened last month when President Obama visited Israel, only to be berated over the imprisonment of Tel Aviv’s self-described “master spy,” Jonathan Pollard.
Pollard has been in jail since 1985, when he was arrested for using his job as a U.S. Navy intelligence analyst to plunder enough classified documents to fill a 6-foot-by-10-foot room, which he sold to Israel for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Sentenced to life in prison, he’s scheduled for parole in November 2015, after completing 30 years of his term.
Both Israeli president Shimon Peres and prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu are believed to have demanded Pollard’s release in private meetings with Obama. Members of the Knesset were so open about their intentions to rough Obama up on the subject of Pollard that the president declined an offer to speak there.
Deprived of a chance to shout at Obama face to face, Knesset member Danny Danon instead took to the pages of USA Today, where his op-ed piece called Pollard’s jailing “an historic wrong” and added: “If President Obama plans on asking the Israeli people to trust him during what promises to be a tumultuous four years, bringing Jonathan home would be a just and noble way to do so.”
Putting aside the fact that a lot of Americans might reasonably expect they’ve already earned some trust by giving Israel $3 billion a year (nearly half the U.S. budget for foreign military aid), the clamor for Pollard’s release begs the question: Why are the Israelis insisting that the future of relations with the United States rests on the immediate release of a convicted spy who is just 19 months from parole?
The answer is that Israeli officials don’t want Pollard released because he’s served his time. They want him released because they think he didn’t do anything wrong and they want Washington to publically admit it. And they think this is an opportune moment to press their demand because Obama is politically weak and might hope to score points with a wavering constituency, American Jews.
But releasing Pollard would be a giant mistake for the president. Pollard is neither a naive kid who blundered into trouble for unthinkingly passing a harmless secret or two to an ally, nor an innocent Jewish victim persecuted by an insidious network of anti-Semites within the U.S. government. He is, rather, a mercenary who looted U.S. national security for personal gain.
Israel was the biggest beneficiary of Pollard’s perfidy. He stole so many documents — delivering up to five suitcases-full at a time to his control officer — that the Israelis had to buy a condo and equip it with a high-speed copying machine just to handle the take. The Israelis in return paid him $2,500 a month (well over his U.S. government take-home pay), lavished him with jewelry and European vacations, and set up a Swiss bank account to hold a $300,000 bonus.
And still Pollard wanted more. He tried to sell American secrets to Pakistan, Australia and South Africa’s apartheid regime. He stole classified documents on China to help his wife land a big public-relations contract with China.
If spying was quite profitable for Pollard, it was no bargain for American taxpayers. It cost millions, perhaps billions, of dollars to replace the intelligence systems he compromised, including a blueprint for U.S. electronic interceptions around the world. Pollard’s disclosures enabled Israeli missions that the United States would never have agreed to support, like a 1985 bombing raid on a PLO headquarters in Tunisia that killed scores of innocent bystanders. And much of the material Pollard stole (including information on how the United States tracked Soviet submarines) wound up in Moscow — perhaps because the KGB pilfered it from Israel, perhaps because the Israelis swapped it for Jewish emigrants from Russia.
It is inconceivable that any American president would stamp these actions with approval by granting early release to the man who carried them out. And for President Obama, whose attorney general has prosecuted more government officials for leaks under the 1917 Espionage Act than all his predecessors combined, it would be an act of unfathomable hypocrisy.
If it’s OK for Pollard to dump documents to Israel, why isn’t it OK for Bradley Manning to do the same to Wikileaks? Because the Knesset says so?