By Fred Burton
Editor's Note: The following piece is part of an occasional series in which Fred Burton, our vice president of intelligence, reflects on his storied experience as a counterterrorism agent for the U.S. State Department. We republish this piece in light of the Nov. 20 release of Jonathan Pollard from a federal prison in Butner, North Carolina.
For anyone who spent time in the intelligence business, the morning news has a way of dredging up old memories. Convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard will go free on parole today, having spent 30 years in prison. Some say his release is an overtly political move by the United States to appease Israel following the Iran deal.
I myself have mixed feelings about Pollard's release. Maybe 30 years is long enough to bring the former U.S. Naval Intelligence analyst to justice. But I still vividly recall what a powerful sense of betrayal the entire intelligence community felt when he was caught and convicted in 1987. As special agents and analysts at the intelligence services, every day we handled sensitive, classified information. Most of us took that responsibility extremely seriously, daily devoting our lives and livelihoods to the defense of U.S. national security and to the protection of state secrets. But Jonathan Pollard broke that trust.
While spying for the Israelis in 1984 and 1985, Pollard delivered Mossad, Israel's spy agency, more than 800 classified documents — suitcases full at a time — and 1,500 daily intelligence summary wrap-up messages. After he was discovered, a deep fog of anger settled over the U.S. intelligence community. We felt betrayed, not only (or even primarily) by Pollard but by Israel — and specifically, by the Israeli intelligence service.
At the time, U.S. and Israeli intelligence cooperated closely. We frequently shared information with our Israeli counterparts through informal channels, wherein representatives from U.S. agencies would meet with Israeli intelligence, defense and police officials to communicate intelligence priorities or possible security threats. And we often aided and supported Israeli intelligence at their request. For example, in the course of debriefing hostages held by Hezbollah in Lebanon, we would routinely ask questions on behalf of the Israelis about their missing pilot Lt. Col. Ron Arad. In short, we in the national security business believed our friendship with Israel was far deeper than the veneer of diplomatic niceties.
We were wrong. According to the now-declassified CIA damage assessment of the entire Pollard affair, the Israeli government recruited the naval intelligence analyst primarily to uncover and to pass along information the United States had gathered on Arab, Pakistani and Soviet nuclear and military programs. Rather than go through the established liaison channels, Mossad recruited Pollard and went behind our backs to commit espionage that, at least to my knowledge and to that of all my colleagues, we would have been open to sharing with them anyway.
The discovery of the Pollard affair came as a stunning blow, deeply disrupting the trust between U.S. intelligence agencies and Mossad. Afterward, the liaison channels that our agencies had come to rely upon broke down; we no longer knew whether we could trust the information Mossad had been passing along. Afterward, members of the Diplomatic Security Service, like myself, were still often tasked with the protection of high-ranking Israeli dignitaries such as Ariel Sharon, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin when they stepped, as they often did, onto U.S. soil. And we continued to maintain some intelligence exchanges that required us to pay frequent visits to the Israeli Embassy on Washington D.C.'s International Drive. But in the back of all of our minds, during every visit and meeting, was Pollard.
In retrospect, one of the more fascinating aspects of Pollard's espionage was the person the Israelis assigned to handle Pollard's case: Rafi Eitan, a true legend of the Mossad. Eitan had been part of a team of Mossad agents that captured Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Ares, Argentina, in 1960, bringing him back to Israel for justice. Anyone who has ever been involved in the intelligence community would have wanted to be part of that illustrious team.
The fact that Mossad put one of their most famous and valuable agents, a hero of Israel, on the Pollard case speaks volumes. Pollard must have been one of their most important sources of human intelligence, if not their most important. That means they must have considered access to U.S. secrets one of their biggest intelligence priorities — and one that they feared would have the most blowback if uncovered.
The Pollard affair is a grim reminder that spying is a tough and dirty business, even among countries that consider themselves friends and allies. The handshakes and smiles that take place in diplomatic circles are a facade, beneath which every government and its intelligence agencies operate in an intensely suspicious and dangerous atmosphere.
In 2013, the Jerusalem Post reported that Pollard's wife, Esther, wrote about a meeting with Rafi Eitan years after Pollard's conviction and arrest. During his meeting with Esther, Eitan reportedly said his only regret about the whole incident was that he did not "finish the job" before leaving the United States. When asked what he meant, Esther wrote that Eitan replied: "If I had been at the [Israeli] embassy when Pollard came to seek asylum, I would have put a bullet through his head." Then, he went on, "there would have been no Pollard affair."