Spies in the night

Spies in the night

Column for Jewish News July 28 2015

“When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions”, wrote Shakespeare, a man with a classy knack for summing things up.

I imagine that from his prison cell in Butner, North Carolina – incidentally, the same prison in which the deeply unlovable Bernard Madoff is incarcerated – the spy Jonathan Pollard has had ample time to consider his sorrows during his 30-year sentence for betraying American naval secrets to Israel.

From time to time, various Israeli governments have made appeals, half-hearted and whole-hearted, to different American administrations to release Pollard. By and large the appeals have fallen on deaf ears, as even if an administration were of a mind to free Pollard, the protests from the CIA and the US Justice Department have been so vociferous that every White House, in turn, has thought better of the idea.

But this week Pollard was in the news as the story broke that his case was up for consideration once again. In fact, he is due for parole on 21 November, after serving 30 years in prison; but the rumours that a deal was on the table in order, somehow, to offer a sweetener to Israel as compensation for the Iran deal, would not go away.

There is a difference, of course, between clemency at the end of a sentence served and the early release that Pollard’s – mainly right-wing – supporters sought.

But it is the case that Pollard, like Edward Snowden and Mordechai Vanunu, had access to classified information and chose to claim principles and conscience as justification for betraying their countries. And it is also true that nobody emerges well from such cases – not the spies, and not the countries.

The oddity is why Pollard’s case became a cause célèbre for the right, and those of Snowden and Vanunu, blue touchpapers for the left. Each of the three, noticeably, apparently believed that they were entitled to act above the law in issues of national security.

I think the difference is that Pollard, a civilian analyst with American naval intelligence in the early 1980s, admitted that although he was indeed leaking secrets, it was to America’s ally, Israel. But a leak is a leak is a leak; there can’t be degrees of it. It is almost impossible to gauge the level of damage Pollard did.

His Israeli handlers, obviously appalled at the potential fallout from Pollard’s activities becoming known to the US authorities, decided to refuse asylum to Pollard and his then-wife Anne [he divorced her, later remarrying from prison] when the pair asked for help from the Israeli embassy in Washington DC. That sealed Pollard’s fate.

On 5 October 1986, The Sunday Times ran the headline: “Revealed: the secrets of Israel’s nuclear arsenal.”

Vanunu, a one-time nuclear technician, served 18 years in prison in Israel – 11 of them in solitary confinement – after deciding to leak the country’s nuclear secrets to The Sunday Times.

Vanunu, despite restrictions on his post-prison liberty, has done rather better than Pollard; in May, he married his long-term Norwegian girlfriend – at the Lutheran Church of Redeemer in Jerusalem. Since his release from jail in 2004, he has been given two separate short prison sentences – one of six months, one of three – for violating the terms of his parole.

Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden

And Snowden? Arguably Snowden may have done the most damage of all three men to his country’s national security. A computer professional and former CIA employee, Snowden leaked classified information – hundreds and hundreds of documents – from the American National Security Agency in 2013.

These days, he lives in an undisclosed location in Russia, which has offered him temporary asylum. He claims he wants to return to America, but says the criminal charges filed against him, under the Espionage Act, would prevent him from submitting a proper defence of his actions.

It’s unlikely, however, that any such defence would amount to much more than ‘I thought I was doing the right thing – by leaking – so I did it’.

Lucky Snowden, who apparently commands thousands of dollars in speaker’s fees, and whose only sacrifice in pursuit of his conscience has been his inability to continue living happily in the country that he betrayed.

There is no use calling any of these three a hero or a patriot, or feting them as courageous whistleblowers.

They decided – for payment of large sums of money in Pollard’s case, let us not forget – that they knew better and could breach national security with impunity.

If Pollard is indeed given parole in November, it should not detract from his crime. And those who have called for “justice” for him, for Vanunu, and for Snowden, should perhaps reflect on how little each seemingly cared for the damage they did.

  • 25 September, 2015