Former naval intelligence analyst Jonathan Pollard confessed to passing classified documents to Israel without authorization between 1981 and 1985. For this, he was rightly sent to prison for espionage. People who spy for allied countries and who spare the U.S. government the revelations of a trial usually get sentences averaging four years. What extraordinary things, then, must Pollard have done to draw a life sentence?

Prison sentences are supposed to be proportional to the harm done. The preface to the still-secret memorandum filed with the court by then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger states that “it is difficult to conceive of a greater harm to national security than that caused by [Pollard].” But while Pollard’s espionage subverted US policy in the Middle East, it barely hurt Washington’s intelligence operations.

Pollard gave the Israelis a roomful of analysts’ reports and satellite photographs — bread-and-butter intelligence products. He is not accused of giving away operating manuals or descriptions of the functioning of the satellites or of any other collection systems.

The kind of documents Pollard passed are written carefully to disguise the communications and agents on which they may be based. No U.S.communication intercept system was taken out of service or had its budget affected because of the Pollard case. Nor was any U.S. agent forced “out of the cold.”

Pollard’s damage to these sources and methods was theoretical.

The U.S. had given — and was continuing to give — Israel photos taken by the very same satellites from which came the secrets Pollard passed. There were no technical differences between the pictures Pollard was passing illegally and the ones the U.S. government was passing legally. These photos did not help the Israelis learn more about the satellites than they already knew. In fact, the U.S. government had briefed them and other U.S. allies on the capability of the satellites — especially after CIA officer William Kampiles sold the KH-11 satellite operating manual to the Soviets in 1978.

The difference between the pictures the U.S. government was giving to Israel and the ones that it was withholding lay not in sources or methods, but in the subject. Some senior officials of the U.S. government had decided that Israel should not have certain information about Iraq and other Arab countries because the officials did not like what Israel was doing with it. By passing precisely that information, Pollard damaged U.S. foreign policy. The fact that U.S. policy toward Iraq during the 1980s was bad did not give Pollard any right to subvert it.

Some senior U.S. officials were angry at Israel for getting in the way of their Middle East policy. In 1981, shortly after Israel had bombed the Osirak reactor that had been the centerpiece of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons program, Deputy Central Intelligence Agency Director Bobby Ray Inman went to Capitol Hill to criticize the Israelis, who had used U.S. satellite pictures to plan the bombing. Mr. Inman said they had harmed sophisticated U.S. efforts to build an important relationship with Saddam.

Therefore he personally had just cut Israel off from satellite information about Iraq and later began to send satellite pictures to Saddam.

Mr. Inman was acting on behalf of many of the principal makers of U.S. foreign policy, including Mr. Weinberger and later Secretary of State George Shultz, who during the 1980s sacrificed much for their vision of a fruitful relationship with Saddam. Mr.Inman reported to incredulous senators in 1982 that U.S.intelligence no longer supported the conclusion that Iraq was a major sponsor of terrorism. High-level officials dismissed concerns about Baghdad’s purchase of a chemical facility that became the centerpiece of Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons program and during the 1980s these officials provided Saddam with U.S. weapons and intelligence. These officials also knew about — and failed to hinder — the transfer of German technology to the Saad 16 missile factory in northern Iraq.

This policy, vigorously pursued by Washington until the very eve of the Gulf War, turned Iraq into a danger to mankind. This policy helped supply the technologies that killed U.S. soldiers in the Gulf War — the technologies for which inspectors now are searching fruitlessly and that may well kill other Americans in the future. Pollard’s sin is blowing the whistle on an embarrassing policy — a sin for which he is serving a life sentence instead of four years.

Messrs. Weinberger, Shultz and Inman had every right to be wrong about foreign policy; Pollard had no right to express his disagreement through espionage. Nevertheless, it is wrong to criminalize differences over policy, and to use the justice system for personal vengeance. In the U.S., the penalty for subverting policy is being fired. For espionage on behalf of allies,the usual penalty is four years. Pollard has more than paid his debt.

Mr. Codevilla, a professor of International Relations at Boston University, served on the staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee between 1977 and 1985.

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