National Security & Defense

The Inexcusable Release of Jonathan Pollard

Pollard in 1998
Why his release will damage U.S. national security.

This November, the Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard will be released on parole. Assuming Israeli intelligence doesn’t extract him early, a few years from now, Pollard will be in Israel. This new reality shames the Obama administration and dishonors America.

“Pollard’s monthly salary was raised to $2,500 in February 1985 in appreciation for his productivity.” That finding from the CIA’s Pollard Damage Assessment Report helps explain why Pollard’s release is such a disgrace — because in February 1985, other things were happening. For one, another U.S. intelligence officer was paying dearly for his patriotism.

Eleven months prior, Bill Buckley, the CIA’s Beirut station chief, had been kidnapped by the Lebanese Hezbollah and mercilessly tortured until his death 15 months later. Buckley’s suffering was recorded in teasing videos Hezbollah sent to the U.S. government. Gordon Thomas describes the final one. Buckley’s “words were often incoherent; he slobbered and drooled and, most unnerving of all, he would suddenly scream in terror, his eyes rolling helplessly and his body shaking.” Buckley’s remains weren’t discovered until December 1991, discarded on the side of a Beirut road. As I say, Buckley’s patriotism carried a cost.

Yet, as is true of all those immortalized on the CIA’s wall of stars, Buckley’s life reminds us that true patriotism is both inspiring and costly. And that’s the first reason that Jonathan Pollard’s looming release is so despicable: It is a betrayal of America’s intelligence community (US-IC) and its tradition of trust. Without the trust to protect information and identities, intelligence work is impossible and American security is greatly diminished. Pollard eviscerated that trust and has shown little regret for doing so. For that reason he should remain in prison for life.

This administration has few qualms about using sensitive U.S. intelligence operations as public-relations exercises.

But there’s another reason why Pollard’s release is outrageous: It was far from inevitable. Much of the reporting on the parole board’s decision labels Pollard’s release a formality. But that’s simple BS. Obama’s Justice Department chose not to oppose Pollard’s release. It could and should have done the opposite. It could have made an argument of prima facie obviousness that Pollard’s release would allow him to divulge further secrets to Israel. Pollard’s awareness of sensitive operations, sources and methods in the mid-1980s can still be of utility to Israel — or any other state with which Israel might choose to share that information. Even the smallest risk of new compromise demands his continuing detention. Indeed, the U.S. intelligence community almost certainly made that argument to President Obama and his officials. That Obama neglected this logic is in and of itself telling. It hints that something else is going on here.

Enter Iran. As the Wall Street Journal reported last week, some Obama-administration officials are hoping Pollard’s release will placate Israeli anger over the Iran nuclear deal. As I’ve noted before, this administration has few qualms about using sensitive U.S. intelligence operations as public-relations exercises. Pollard’s release continues that history. In fact, the administration has previously considered releasing him for idiotic reasons.

Nevertheless, this release will send a terrible signal to the Middle East. To America’s enemies in the region — like Iran — it offers priceless propaganda for the false notion that U.S. policy is a pawn of Israel. Again, while this isn’t reality, in the Middle East perception often matters more than functional reality. To America’s allies — including Israel — this release will send another message of American flippancy about Middle Eastern politics. To be sure, Israel will understandably welcome Pollard’s release, but Israel — and America’s Sunni Arab allies — will also see this release as evidence that President Obama makes policy through the prism of public relations. This is no small matter. America’s relationship with Israel isn’t a game. Rather it requires America’s durable recognition of why the Jewish state is necessary and why American values demand its protection. Where Israel lets America down — as with Pollard – we only resecure our relationship by facing disagreement honestly.

Ultimately of course, though it’s shocking, this betrayal of the US-IC isn’t entirely surprising. After all, this is an administration that pretended the US-IC was responsible for neglecting the rise of ISIS (an absurdity proven by the fact that even those of us without top-secret briefings could see the reality clearly). Regardless, the tragedy here is grave. Because Bill Buckley and his fellow stars and the tradition they represent are immensely important. And American heroes deserve better.

Tom Rogan is a columnist for National Review Online, a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group. Email him at

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