"The Soviets knew we knew they knew we knew. The only one who didn't know was the President of the United States. Our politics was injured for 30 years by this."-Quoted in the New York Times, March 30, 2002
There is a good reason why neither Congress nor the American Jewish leadership supports the release of Jonathan Pollard from prison: They all were told a lie -- a humongous Washington whopper of a lie. The lie was first whispered in the "bubble," the secret intelligence briefing room on Capitol Hill, but it quickly spread.
Just before Pollard's sentencing, Senator Chic Hecht of Nevada, a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, telephoned the leaders of every major Jewish organization to warn them not to support Pollard in any way. Pollard had done something so horrible that it could never be made public. Several senior intelligence sources confirmed the message: No matter how harsh the sentence, Jewish leaders had to keep their mouths shut; don't make a martyr out of Jonathan Pollard.
Washington insiders thought they knew the big, dark secret: secret documents confirming that Pollard's spying had resulted in the loss of lives of U.S. intelligence agents.
Pollard had supposedly given Israel a list of every American spy inside the Soviet Union. On several occasions Soviet agents in New York had posed as Israelis. The CIA reasoned that that was also true in Israel: The Mossad had been infiltrated by one or more Soviet spies. In the trade this is called a "false flag" operation: Your enemy poses as your ally and steals your secrets. In this case, the CIA reasoned in attempting to explain its horrendous losses, Pollard had passed the information to Israel he had stolen, which in turn fell victim to the "false flag" operation. Soviet agents in Israel, posing as Israeli intelligence agents, passed the information to Moscow, which then wiped out American human assets in the Soviet Union.
Pollard hadn't meant for this to happen, but the result of the "false flag" mistake was mass murder. In a matter of months, every spy we had in Russia -- more than 40 agents -- had been captured or killed. At least that was the accusation, but the basis for it had been kept secret from Pollard and his defense counsel.
The public could not be told the horrifying truth: American intelligence had gone blind behind the Iron Curtain -- we had lost all our networks, as the intelligence community publicly admitted more than a decade later. The Soviets could have attacked the United States without warning. Everyone who knew at the time (including me) blamed Pollard.
Caspar Weinberger later said that he wished Pollard had been shot.
On March 5, 1987, at 2:22 p.m., the sentencing hearing in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., began in Criminal Case No. 86-207, United States of America v. Jonathan Jay Pollard. The prosecutors produced a secret letter and memo from Secretary of Defense Caspar "Cap" Weinberger referring to the "enormous" harm that Pollard had done to our national security. In his memo, Weinberger directly accused Pollard of betraying America's "sources and methods," which is to say, he had betrayed our spies in foreign countries.
Weinberger publicly stated that Pollard was the worst spy in American history: "It is difficult for me, even in the so-called year of the spy, to conceive of a greater harm to national security than that caused by the defendant." Despite his plea agreement to the contrary with the government, Pollard was given the maximum sentence, life in prison. Weinberger later said that he wished Pollard had been shot.
A week after the sentencing, the Washington Times reported that the United States had identified Shabtai Kalmanovich as the Soviet spy in Israel who supposedly worked for the Mossad but was actually working for the KGB; he had betrayed American secrets to Moscow. Kalmanovich had been flying under a false flag. Washington insiders winked knowingly at one another: Pollard's contact in Israel had been caught.
Just to make sure that Pollard was blamed, U.S. intelligence sources, several months later, leaked word to the press of the Kalmanovich connection. "A Russian mole has infiltrated the Mossad and is transmitting highly sensitive American intelligence information to the Russians," was the report flashed around the world by United Press International on Dec. 14, 1987. Citing "American intelligence sources," the UPI announced that the "sensitive intelligence material relayed to Israel by Jonathan Pollard had reached the KGB."
But it was all untrue. The Jew didn't do it. It was one of their own WASPs -- Aldrich Ames, a drunken senior CIA official who sold the names of America's agents to the Russians for cash.
But it was all untrue. Every bit of it. Pollard wasn't the serial killer. The Jew didn't do it. It was one of their own WASPs -- Aldrich Ames, a drunken senior CIA official who sold the names of America's agents to the Russians for cash. Pollard was framed for Ames's crime, while Ames kept on drinking and spying for the Soviets for several more years. In fact, Israeli intelligence later suspected that Ames played a direct role in framing Pollard. But no one in America then knew the truth.
Ames was arrested in February 1994, and confessed to selling out American agents in the Soviet Union, but not all of them. It was only logical to assume that Pollard had betrayed the rest of them, as one former CIA official admitted shortly after Ames's arrest. Even one life lost was too many. So Pollard continued to rot in jail. No one dreamed that yet another high-level Washington insider had sold us out to Soviet intelligence. Years passed, and eventually a Russian defector told the truth. A senior FBI official -- Special Agent Robert Hanssen -- had betrayed the rest of our agents. Hanssen was arrested in February 2001, and soon confessed in order to avoid the death penalty. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Would the Americans now admit that they had been conned into blaming Pollard? Beltway bureaucrats do not readily admit to mistakes of this magnitude. Instead, they convinced themselves that Pollard might still be at least partly to blame for the worst debacle in U.S. intelligence history. One desperate analyst from the National Security Council, looking for something to pin on Pollard, had his own theory. Maybe the Russians didn't initially believe that their own spies (Ames and Hanssen) had procured all the names of U.S. agents in the Soviet Union. Maybe Pollard's list tipped the scales.
Such things had happened before. Once again, Washington insiders circled their alphabet agencies to fire back at the critics who dared to suggest that Pollard might have been innocent of the major charge against him.
Meanwhile, deep inside the Navy's intelligence service, a low-level decision was made to re-examine the Pollard case in view of the convictions of Ames and Hanssen. With sickening chagrin, the Navy discovered that the evidence needed to clear Pollard had been under its nose all along.
As my source in Naval intelligence explained, the list of our secret agents inside Russia had been kept in a special safe in a special room with a special "blue stripe" clearance needed for access. When I was a lawyer in the Justice Department and would be sent over to the CIA to do research, I was permitted to use only a blue-striped, CIA-issue legal pad for note-taking. Nothing with a blue stripe could leave the building without being scrutinized by CIA security.
But Jonathan Pollard didn't have "blue stripe" clearance, according to intelligence sources I spoke with. That was the bombshell that would clear him of any possible connection to the deaths of our Russian agents.
Just to make sure, I checked it out, even visiting Pollard in prison to confirm it. Sure enough, there is no way on earth Jonathan Pollard could have entered the file room, let alone the safe where the list was kept.
But the intelligence community's failure to catch this and thereby discredit a critical piece of prosecutorial evidence was, to put it mildly, a bit of an oversight. Some would say it was an obscene blunder. I regard it as an understandable mistake that was overlooked in the avalanche of phony evidence the KGB was planting that pointed to Pollard and away from Ames and Hanssen, whom the Soviets wanted to protect. Both of them had "blue stripe" clearance, as was well documented in several books that have been written on each man and his exploits.
The lack of "blue stripe" clearance was the final proof that Pollard could not possibly have betrayed our Russian agents. It should certainly have gotten him a new hearing. As a former federal prosecutor, I can state that it would be hard to rebut this kind of evidence.
The Justice Department, in one of its briefs, had specifically mentioned the "false flag" theory as grounds to support Pollard's heavy sentence, arguing in part, that spying even for friendly countries can be damaging if information ultimately falls into the wrong hands. In this, the Justice Department had unwittingly misled the judge. Weinberger also raised the "false flag" issue in his top-secret memorandum to the judge.
The only possible way to uphold the sentence might be the "harmless error" doctrine. The government could admit that Pollard had never stolen the Russian agent list, but so what? Maybe he had passed other information that was equally damaging, so he would still deserve to remain in prison for the rest of his life.
The problem with the "harmless error" strategy is that the rest of the material that Pollard gave the Israelis was itself pretty harmless.
In fact, the original damage assessment from the intelligence community confirmed that the impact on our national security -- of the release of information other than the agent names-was not serious. This assessment came after Pollard's initial grand jury appearance, but before the Soviets began to frame Pollard with the phony Kalmanovich connection. No less a figure than Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Leeper had characterized damage caused by the release of the information that Pollard actually gave Israel as "minimal."
The reason America suffered so little harm is simple: Pollard was stealing Soviet secrets for Israel, not American secrets for the Soviets. Before the fall of communism, the Soviets were shipping guns to nearly every terrorist group in the Middle East. Pollard knew that U.S. intelligence had been ordered to share this information with Israel -- under an executive order signed by President Reagan -- but had not done so.
In fact, as Pollard himself admitted in one of my three prison interviews, many, if not most, of the documents he handed over were cover sheets showing the titles of files that the U.S. was supposed to share with Israel, but were holding back. (The U.S. government, according to Israeli intelligence sources, mistakenly counted the cover sheets as if they were full files and came up with the mythical "room full of stolen documents," instead of the small boxfulls or so that Pollard actually passed.) In the long run, though, the issue is not how many boxes Pollard passed, but whether anything he gave Israel did harm to America.
After the government's "false flag" theory was blown up by the "blue stripe" discovery, the anti-Pollard members of the intelligence community had to come up with a new PR campaign for damage control. In order to justify Pollard's life sentence, they had to show that he did do some potentially catastrophic damage to America. What they came up with was a bit of a stretch. Pollard had given Israel a set of radio frequency guidebooks, a worldwide listing of short-wave radio bands. It takes a lot of time and money to compile one of these guides, but essentially they are just publicly available information, openly deduced by listening to who is talking to whom on which radio bands.
Seymour Hersh is a famous reporter and long-time friend. (I was his secret source in his 1983 book The Price of Power -- Kissinger in Nixon's White House (Summit Books). But Sy had his leg pulled on Pollard by his CIA sources, as a result of which Sy published a story in the New Yorker in January 1999 claiming that these radio guides were just about the crown jewels of U.S. intelligence. The truth is that certain portions of the guide had already been sold to the Soviets by the Walker spy ring, according to courtroom testimony, which also revealed that the Soviets thought so little of the guides' value that they did not even bother to ask their top spies, Ames and Hanssen, to steal the remainder of the set. Moreover, as previously noted, the government's own damage assessment report originally concluded that the loss of the guides was a minor matter.
So much for the crown jewels. If that is the best spin the intelligence community can come up with, Pollard is probably entitled to immediate release for time served. The truth is that without the "false flag" theory, and the accompanying "worst spy in history" hysteria, Pollard would probably have been served no more than five years in prison. He has already served 18 years.
Pollard had stumbled across the darkest secret in the Reagan administration's closet: a list of all the Saudi and other Arab intelligence agents we knew about as of 1984.
After 9/11, though, I began to realize that Pollard's tale was only the beginning of a much bigger story about a major America intelligence scandal, which is the subject of a book I am now working on. Although Jonathan Pollard did not realize it, he had stumbled across the darkest secret in the Reagan administration's closet. It is one of the reasons that I am serving as the intelligence advisor on a trillion-dollar federal lawsuit filed in August 2002 against the Saudis on behalf of the victims of 9/11.
Pollard in fact did steal something that the U.S. government never wishes to talk about. Several friends inside military intelligence have told me that Pollard gave the Israelis a roster that listed the identities of all the Saudi and other Arab intelligence agents we knew about as of 1984. (This has been corroborated by Israeli sources, as well.) At that time, this list, known in intelligence circles as the "blue book," would have been relatively unimportant to the United States -- but not to Israel.
Since 9/11, however, Pollard's "blue book" is of profound interest to everyone, including the U.S. These particular agents are now a major embarrassment to the Saudis and to the handful of American spy chiefs who had employed these Saudi intelligence agents on the sly. Some of the names on this list -- such as Osama Bin Laden -- turned out to be leaders of terrorist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood and what we now call Al Qaeda.
In hindsight, we now know that Pollard stole the one book -- that, incidentally, was alluded to in Weinberger's secret memorandum -- that unquestionably proves that the Americans knew as early as 1984 about the connection between the Saudis and terrorist groups.
How does this all fit together? During the Reagan-Bush administrations, the National Security Council wanted to throw the Soviets out of Afghanistan using Arab soldiers instead of American. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but no one thought about the long-term consequences. In imitation of the Soviet strategy of hiring terrorists, we asked the Saudis to recruit a proxy army of Islamic terrorists whom we would supply with guns and pay indirectly, according to intelligence sources. By having the Saudis hire the "freedom fighters," we could avoid embarrassing questions in Congress about giving the taxpayers money to known Arab terrorists.
In 1982, I went on "60 Minutes" to expose Nazi war criminals I had been assigned to prosecute who were then working for the CIA. It was one of those Cold War blunders. The CIA didn't have a clue it was dealing with Nazi war criminals. It thought they were "freedom fighters." In 1985, I ended up testifying before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee about Nazis on the intelligence payroll.
Sadly, the only lesson the intelligence bosses learned was to put the bad guys on someone else's payroll (the Saudis for one), and then reimburse them under the table. Because of my whistle-blowing during the early 1980s, the CIA was still pretty sensitive about hiring Nazi "freedom fighters" without background checks, so they were mostly kept out of the loop about the Arab terrorists hired clandestinely by the Saudis to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.
The Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989. The naive Americans walked away from the Frankenstein monster they had created, but the cynical Saudis kept the terrorists on the payroll. From the Saudi perspective, it was safer to keep paying the terrorists groups to attack Israel, Bosnia or Chechnya rather than letting them all back into Saudi Arabia. As one U.S. intelligence bureaucrat cynically confided to me, "Sure we knew that the Saudis were giving money to terrorist groups, but they were only killing Jews, they weren't killing Americans."
Some of our own Washington bureaucrats have been protecting the Al Qaeda leadership and their oil-rich Saudi backers from investigation for more than a decade.
In this "Keystone Cops" affair, one wing of U.S. intelligence was hunting terrorists while another winked at the Saudis' recruitment of them. I have spoken to numerous FBI and CIA counter-terrorist agents, all of whom tell a similar story. Whenever the FBI or CIA came close to uncovering the Saudi terrorist connection, their investigations were mysteriously terminated. In hindsight, I can only conclude that some of our own Washington bureaucrats have been protecting the Al Qaeda leadership and their oil-rich Saudi backers from investigation for more than a decade.
I am not the only one to reach this conclusion. In his autobiography, Oliver North confirmed that every time he wanted to do something about terrorism, Weinberger stopped him because it might upset the Saudis and jeopardize the flow of oil to the U.S. John O'Neill, a former FBI agent and our nation's top Al Qaeda expert, stated in a 2001 book written by Jean Charles Brisard, a noted French intelligence analyst, that everything we wanted to know about terrorism could be found in Saudi Arabia.
O'Neill warned the Beltway bosses repeatedly that if the Saudis were to continue funding Al Qaeda, it would end up costing American lives, according to several intelligence sources. As long as the oil kept flowing, they just shrugged. Outraged by the Saudi cover-up, O'Neill quit the FBI and became the new chief of security at the World Trade Center. In a bitter irony, the man who could have exposed his bosses' continuous cover-up of the Saudi-Al Qaeda link was himself killed by Al Qaeda on 9/11.
Congress has been told repeatedly that American intelligence never knew the identities of the Arabs who threw the Soviets out of Afghanistan. Inadvertently, Pollard stole the ultimate smoking gun that shows exactly what the leaders of our intelligence community knew and when they knew it. The "blue book" Pollard stole flatly establishes that all the dots were connected many years before 9/11, and the only thing the intelligence chiefs did competently was cover up the fact that we had long known about the Saudi-terrorist link.
In the ultimate irony, Pollard may have to be let out of prison to testify before Congress about the negligence of his own superiors. Like O'Neill, Pollard had tried to warn his superiors that a wave of terrorism was coming out of the Middle East, but no one would listen. Pollard himself told me this. Pollard has admitted -- to me and in writing to President Clinton -- that he was wrong and stupid in passing the information to Israel on his own, but in the long run he may have committed the most unpardonable sin of all: He was right and the bureaucrats were wrong.
Pollard never thought he was betraying his country. And he never did, although he clearly violated its laws. He just wanted to help protect Israelis and Americans from terrorists. Now in prison for nearly two decades, Pollard, who is in his late 40s, grows more ill year by year. If, as seems likely, American bureaucrats choose to fight a prolonged delaying action over a new hearing, Pollard will probably die in prison. There are people in power inside the Beltway who have been playing for time. Time for them ran out on 9/11. Sooner or later, they are going to be held accountable. I hope that Pollard lives to see it.
This article originally appeared in Moment Magazine.
For more on Jonathan Pollard, see: The Spy Who's Locked out in the Cold.