Placating Israel Over Iran Nuclear Deal By Releasing Convicted Spy Pollard?
Electronic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah says those arguing for Pollard’s release after serving 30 years of a life sentence should also demand the release of others, including Palestinian prisoners who are serving much greater sentences for questionable convictions
JAISAL NOOR, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
He’s been called one of the worst traitors of the 20th century, and now the Obama administration is coming under fire for allowing his release. I’m talking about Jonathan Pollard, who got life in prison for spying for Israel. He was grated parole this week after the Justice Department decided not to oppose his release. The timing has also been questioned, as it closely follows the Iran nuclear deal that Israel staunchly opposes.
A former Navy intelligence analyst, Pollard admitted to passing enough highly classified intelligence to Israel to fill a 6 by 10 room. Israel initially claimed Pollard’s actions were not state-sanctioned, but later acknowledged paying him for espionage and granted him citizenship.
Now joining us to discuss this is Ali Abunimah. He just wrote a piece about Jonathan Pollard for Electronic Intifada where he’s the co-founder and executive director. Ali’s latest book is The Battle for Justice in Palestine. Thanks so much for joining us, Ali.
ALI ABUNIMAH, EXEC. DIRECTOR, ELECTRONIC INTIFADA: Thank you.
NOOR: So Ali, can you discuss Pollard’s crimes? They were grievous enough that for years senior defense and intelligence officials strongly opposed his release, with former CIA Director George Tenet even threatening to resign if Clinton released him in 1998 to placate Israel.
ABUNIMAH: Yes. What Pollard did, and this was back in the early ’80s, was over a period of 18 months he was a Naval intelligence officer, and he spirited documents out of the secure places where they were kept, over an 18-month period, to an apartment which had been hired for the purpose. This was in the Washington area. And there a secretary from the Israeli embassy would make photocopies. And then Pollard would bring them back.
So this was an espionage operation with the direct participation of Israel. Which Israel later denied and then had to acknowledge and apologize for, although the full extent of it is still not known, I think, or at least not revealed publicly. Back at the time, after Pollard was arrested in 1985, at a certain point the U.S. Justice Department had even threatened to lift the diplomatic immunity, or asked for the diplomatic immunity of several intelligence officers in the Israeli embassy in Washington to be waived, and said they might even prosecute them as part of this.
But what we do know–exactly what Pollard took was classified and remains largely classified, and wasn’t even revealed at his trial because it was so highly secret. But what is known now, and a lot of this is also known thanks to an article published by the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh in 1999, is that Pollard took really the most sensitive secrets of the United States. This included the NSA’s ten-volume manual essentially on how the U.S. gathers all its signal intelligence around the world. It included the monitoring system which allowed the United States to know the positions of Soviet nuclear submarines, so Soviet nuclear armed submarines around the world. And this was, remember, at the height of the Cold War. And certainly he disclosed the names of thousands of people who had cooperated with U.S. intelligence, and basically U.S. intelligence assets.
And it is believed, and this is what Seymour Hersh reported at the time, is that Israel turned over much of this intelligence to the Soviet Union in exchange for, at that time, the Israeli priority was to get Jews out of the Soviet Union in order to populate Israeli settlements and in order to fight its so-called demographic war with the Palestinians in the ’80s and ’90s, a total of almost 1 million Jews from the Soviet Union ended up in Israel. Many of them then left and went to the United States, but that was the Israeli priority at the time.
And so they used much of this intelligence to trade with the Soviet Union. And this explains why top U.S. officials, including former Bush Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld have said very recently that Pollard should never be released because of the extent of the damage he did to U.S. national security, as they define it.
NOOR: And so this raises the issue of why now. It’s been 30 years since he was arrested, and so some in the media brought up the issue that after 30 years he will get a chance for this parole hearing. But the timing, it’s widely been speculated his release is aimed at placating Israel, which is furious about the Iran nuclear deal. That’s what an unnamed U.S. official told the Wall Street Journal just a few days ago.
ABUNIMAH: Well, Jonathan Pollard it should be said has been made into this sort of Israeli national hero and cause celebre, and not just for Israel but for supporters of Israel in this country and around the world. And he’s been presented as some kind of person who was doing this for some noble ideological reason. He was actually doing it for money to fund a very lavish lifestyle. And I believe, it’s been a while since I read back through all the history. But it was some of his lavish spending that was, it was in some sense a tip-off to the fact that there was something going on.
But every Israeli prime minister and president for the past 20 years has been demanding or asking the United States to show clemency to Jonathan Pollard. And as you noted in the introduction, President Clinton was asked. In a certain point in the late ’90s there was a lot of concern that Clinton might actually give in to this demand. So in the late ’90s you see, and this was before Clinton left office so it would have been one of his final acts, you see unanimously from the U.S. intelligence community, from the mainstream media, from the editorials–editorial after editorial saying Pollard should not be released. He did tremendous damage, don’t free him.
And Clinton did not. And Bush, when Bush came in there’s a very interesting memo that Donald Rumsfeld released the other day on Twitter. A memo that he had written to President George W. Bush in March 2001, September–March 16, 2001 just a few days before the Israeli prime minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, was due to visit Washington. And Rumsfeld said, they’re going to ask you to free Pollard. This was very early in Bush’s term. It was before 9/11. And Rumsfeld told Bush, don’t say no, say definitely no. No today, no tomorrow, no any day.
And he said to Bush, tell them very forcefully. Because if you tell them very forcefully right now they’ll think twice about keep coming back and asking you about this again. And Rumsfeld attached a letter that included the signatures of seven former U.S. secretaries of defense that said that Pollard should not be released.
So the Israelis have been campaigning for this for years and years and years. And interestingly, after the announcement that Pollard would be freed in November, Shimon Peres, the former president of Israel who had been an Israeli minister, prime minister, during the ’80s, around the time of the Pollard scandal, said just the other day that President Obama asked me not to speak about Pollard publicly in the run up to his parole hearing. Which I think indicates at least some level of collusion between Israel and the Obama administration over this. At least a very conscious effort on the part of the Obama administration to manage this so that it does not appear to be what it is, which is a political act to try to appease Israel and appease Israel’s supporters in the United States of the Iran deal.
I’ll just say one more thing on this. Many people have said, well, 30 years is a long time. And I agree 30 years is a long time. I think the U.S. has the lengthiest sentences in the world. And that’s something that I’ve seen many good discussions on on the Real News. But the point is that Pollard is not being singled out because he’s a much longer sentence than anyone else. You can think of people like Palestinian-Americans like the Holy Land Five who have been given 65-year jail sentences in the past few years for raising money for charity. Not even the government that convicted them alleged that any of the money that they raised ever went to any terrorism or anything like that.
[They’re sitting] in federal, high-security federal prisons for 65 years for raising money for charity. And none of these people who are saying, you know, Jonathan Pollard has served enough time are saying free the Holy Land Five. Jonathan Pollard is in fact, in the context of the harsh American penal system, is actually being treated lightly when you compare to other kinds of sentences people are being given.
NOOR: Well, Ali Abunimah, thank you so much for joining us again.
ABUNIMAH: You’re welcome. Thank you.
NOOR: Thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.
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