Israeli protesters hold posters demanding the release of Jonathan Pollard, June, 2011.
Oded Balilty/AP

How Pollard became Israel’s spy

Updated

It was an offer the Israelis couldn’t refuse.

On a wintry evening exactly 30 years ago, Jonathan Pollard sat down for a drink in Washington with a stranger from Israel. The meeting had been arranged through a mutual friend, but the purpose was clear: Pollard, then a 28-year-old naval intelligence analyst, offered himself as a covert agent for the Jewish state. With top security clearances, he had access to highly sensitive intelligence on U.S. surveillance and weapons systems. Pollard wanted to be paid. But Aviem Sella, a decorated Israeli fighter pilot 12 years Pollard’s senior, wanted proof.

In secret, a second meeting was arranged at the Maryland home of an Israeli diplomat stationed at the Embassy. This time, Pollard arrived with a briefcase full of classified intelligence summaries. Copies were made and fates were sealed.

For his actions, Pollard would eventually be sentenced to life in prison, his efforts at early release denied by Democratic and Republican president alike. But he could be freed in coming days, a suddenly useful chip in U.S.-orchestrated peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Anne Henderson Pollard and her husband Jonathan Pollard stand at their wedding August 9, 1985 in Italy
Anne Henderson Pollard and her husband Jonathan Pollard stand at their wedding August 9, 1985 in Italy.
Photo by Getty

Sickly and aging
after 29 years behind bars, Pollard no longer resembles the intelligence operative he once was. But the U.S. government wasn’t exaggerating when it claimed in court that “the breadth and scope of classified information compromised by Mr. Pollard is among the greatest of any espionage operations uncovered by federal authorities.”

In the spring of 1984, in the Maryland suburbs, Sella told Pollard he would send him “to Paris to meet a new handler who would prescribe collection priorities and determine the amount of Pollard’s compensation.” The events of that night’s meeting were recollected in a still-classified memo obtained by msnbc about the case, and written by the Justice Department’s Criminal Division.  

It was the height of the Cold War. Ronald Reagan was president, the Soviets had shot down a Korean Airline flight over the Sea of Japan the previous fall, and the U.S. Navy had just conducted its largest fleet exercise to date in the North Pacific. Naval aircraft and ships were trying to provoke Soviet reactions in the hopes of testing Moscow’s capabilities. Pollard was at the right place for the times. 

In November, he and his girlfriend, Anne Henderson, flew to Paris where Sella was waiting for them in a hotel room with the handler, Yossi Yagur, and Rafi Eitan – the famed Israeli spymaster who ran the 1960 operation capturing Adolf Eichmann in Argentina.

Pollard and Henderson had been dating for three years and lived together in a two-bedroom apartment near DuPont Circle in Washington. Pollard was already working for the Naval Intelligence Command.

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Born in Galveston, Texas and schooled in South Bend, Indiana, where his father taught at Notre Dame, Pollard’s personal and professional history includes fights, fantasies, and failures. Pollard was raised Jewish and visited Israel as a teenager. He later studied political science at Stanford. But he botched a polygraph test during the application process for a job at the CIA. Students at Stanford recalled claims by Pollard that he secretly worked for Israeli intelligence while he studied there. Conflicts with colleagues were well documented. But by 1984, he was thriving, living with Henderson, and succeeded in his job. 

In Paris, Eitan and Yagur, according to internal U.S. government documents, instructed Pollard to obtain information on specific U.S. weapons systems and other classified materials. He was given $10,000 in cash and a $7,000 diamond and sapphire ring, which he used to propose to Henderson. When they returned home, Pollard began receiving a monthly salary of $1,500 from the Israeli government.

He ditched the briefcase.  Every two weeks, Pollard showed up at the Washington, DC apartment of an Israeli embassy employee named Irit Erb lugging a suitcase full of documents stamped Top Secret/SCI (sensitive compartmented information). Once a month, according to the Justice Department documents, Pollard and Yagur would go through the materials together and Pollard would leave the meeting with a new shopping list. Within weeks, he got a raise. 

Over 17 months, Pollard used his security clearances to gain access to classified data held by various intelligence agencies, including the CIA, at locations around Washington. By his own admission to investigators, he claimed to have handed over the equivalent of 360 cubic feet of documents, according to a Justice Department file. 

He copied, delivered and sold scientific, technical, and military information about U.S. ship positions, aircraft stations, tactics and training operations; classified analyses of Soviet missile systems, three separate categories of daily message or cable traffic and intelligence on military hardware still in development at the time. The information he shared revealed the way in which the United States collected intelligence, revealed the names of human sources and exposed the identities of numerous U.S. intelligence officers and analysts.

In a still-classified portion of his filing to the federal court that eventually tried Pollard, then Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger wrote: “It is difficult for me…to conceive of a greater harm to national security than that caused by the defendant.” Weinberger told the court that Pollard “both damaged and destroyed policies and national assets which have taken many years, great effort and enormous national resources to secure.” A copy of Weinberger’s statement is contained in government documents reviewed for this story.

Pollard was paid for everything he did. By the time he was arrested attempting to seek asylum outside the gates of the Israeli Embassy in Washington, he had received $45,000, and had been promised $300,000 more. Not bad for a government employee whose annual salary was about $33,000. He and Henderson had traveled to Paris and Tel Aviv, received jewelry and gifts, and married in style in August, 1985.

Along the way, the Pollards picked up some basic tradecraft, spoke in code to one another over the phone, and eventually tipped off their handlers when the FBI was closing in. They had become spies.

On Nov. 18, 1985, federal agents confronted Pollard with evidence that he had removed classified documents from his office. According to a sealed presentence investigation report, the federal prosecutor in the case wrote that during the interviews, “Pollard asked for and received permission to call his wife. During each of these conversation…Pollard used the code word ‘cactus.’”

It was a signal, the government contended, and Anne responded by trying to remove classified documents from their home and contacted Sella in Israel. The Israeli Air Force colonel instructed her to contact Yagur, who in turn told Anne to instruct her husband to “stall for time.”

Over the next two days, Pollard told investigators that he had given classified information to a friend who was a U.S. citizen. In the meantime, Yagur, and Erb – whose apartment doubled as the safe house where documents were handed over – fled to Israel.

Pollard was released and then arrested the following day outside the Israeli Embassy, which had refused to grant him entry.

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After six months in custody, Pollard pleaded guilty to a one-count indictment charging him with conspiracy to deliver national defense information to a foreign government. As part of a deal, he agreed to cooperate with the government, submit to additional interviews, disclose fully the nature and details of the information he sold and to testify against others at trial.

Yagur, Erb and Eitan had been named as unindicted co-conspirators, but the U.S. was not able to prosecute them. Sella was indicted in federal court, but Israel would not extradite him.

The government showed leniency for Anne who pleaded guilty to conspiring to embezzle government property and to being an accessory after the fact to possessing national defense documents. She was sentenced to five years in prison and paroled after three. She and Pollard divorced and she moved to Tel Aviv.

Pollard was led to believe he too would be granted leniency after an implicit promise that the government would not seek a life sentence. But on March 4, 1987, the chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Washington did just that. Pollard protested, tried to withdraw his guilty plea and appealed the sentence without success.

Ten years after his arrest, shackled in a federal prison in Butner, North Carolina, Pollard received Israeli citizenship. At the urging of the entire U.S. intelligence establishment, President George H.W. Bush denied Pollard’s first request for clemency. President Bill Clinton denied two more. President George W. Bush sought a review of Pollard’s case, but ultimately passed on an early release. 

How Pollard became Israel's spy

Updated