Jonathan Pollard, a Jewish American citizen, then 31, could have avoided life imprisonment fairly easily had he chosen slightly different actions in the last days before he was arrested.
His American friends never believed him capable of being a spy. “He seemed too sloppy,” they said.
Pollard’s dramatic capture was accidental. He was at the center of an insignificant investigation that was about to be closed, but because of one act of panic, he found himself behind bars as one of the United States’ biggest foes.
Pollard first attempted to work for American security institutions in 1977. He applied to the CIA and was turned down after failing the polygraph stage. In 1979, he achieved his desire when he was hired to do security work for the U.S. Navy as a civilian employee in Maryland. He relished the fact that the Navy did not know that the CIA had rejected him two years earlier.
Two years after he was hired, he had a high security clearance. He became an analyst of raw intelligence material. He was suspended from his position when it was discovered that he had been in contact with South African intelligence agents, but the suspension was annulled very shortly afterward.
In June 1984, the Navy transferred Pollard to work in the new Anti-Terrorism Advisory Council of the Threat Intelligence and Analysis Division. Even before that, he had offered his services to a colonel in the Israeli Air Force, Aviem Sella, who was on a study break in the U.S. For close to two years, Pollard gave thousands of documents to Sella, who transferred them to a special intelligence department.
At this stage, suspicions about Pollard began to bubble, but every time they arose, they were quickly dismissed. But one day, a colleague saw Pollard heading down to his car, even though Pollard had said he was going to the office basement. At first, the colleague disregarded what he saw, but later, on his wife’s advice, reported it to his supervisors. That started a chain of events that seems as if it comes from a particularly bad action film.
Many details began to come together, even if, after 30 years, they sound unbelievable. Pollard’s wife, Anne, left their home with a suitcase full of incriminating documents, saw an FBI vehicle stopped near their home and was certain that she and her husband had been found out, and quickly retraced her steps and asked her neighbors to hide the suitcase in their home.
Had Anne chosen to dump the suitcase into the nearest trash can, the affair would have ended differently. She was simply upset because she did not know that the FBI agents were tracking Ronald Pelton, another spy who worked for the National Security Agency, who lived on their street.
The Pollards were not on the FBI’s radar at the time. Agents had already finished tracking Jonathan Pollard and were about to close the investigation. Their opinion was firm: Pollard was a ne’er-do-well incapable of taking part in what the administration suspected. But Anne’s mistake had already been made. The father of the neighbor in whose home the suitcase had been hidden was a Navy officer, and reported the mysterious suitcase to the security personnel on his base. The information reached FBI officials, and it became only a matter of time until Pollard was captured.
On Nov. 21, 1985, Pollard was caught. Shortly before that, he had an opportunity to escape to the Israeli Embassy and receive immunity. Three days before his capture, he failed another polygraph test and had to confess that he had passed classified documents to foreign agents. But the name of Israel never came up.
Actually, nobody knew that Pollard was a Jew or that he considered his Jewishness important. He used that to claim, falsely, that he had given the material to Kurt Lohbeck, a reporter for the CBS network in Afghanistan, who gave it to Pakistan and another country. Over the next three days, the American investigators contacted their agents all over the world, but nobody suspected Israel.
Actually, the investigators made the right choice. Pollard was caught red-handed. According to various testimonies, he indeed passed information to the apartheid regime in South Africa, passed valuable information to the Pakistanis, tried to make deals with the Chinese, and sent information to Australia. It was finally discovered that Israel had received help from him with documents that Israel handed over to the Russians.
‘An exaggerated punishment’
Twenty-four hours before he was captured, Pollard told his handlers that he felt he was about to be arrested. He knew he had to escape to the Israeli Embassy, but as the Americans admitted, luck was with them when Pollard made his last mistake. All Pollard had to do was call a taxi or even take a subway to reach the embassy. But he chose to drive there in his car, which was under surveillance by American agents.
When the Israelis saw that he was being followed, the embassy gates were closed to him. For all practical purposes, he was thrown to the surprised American agents who, together with senior American officials, realized for the first time that Pollard had spied for America’s senior partner in the Middle East.
To this day, many Americans consider Pollard the most dangerous spy in the history of American espionage. Then-President Ronald Reagan said the only place for Pollard was prison. High-ranking American security officials justified the sentence.
Still, FBI agent Michael Grimm would admit many years later that he and his colleagues reached a different conclusion: “The sentence meted out to Pollard was exaggerated and does not match the act that was committed.”