Israeli Spy Jonathan Pollard Part of Rogue Operation
Washington - Twenty-five years after his arrest, the truth about for whom Israeli agent Jonathan Pollard was working is still in doubt.
The former civilian intelligence analyst, sentenced to life in prison on charges of spying on the U.S. in 1987, was allegedly not working for official Israeli intelligence, as previously thought.
Responding to concerns that Israel is spying on the U.S., Israel's ambassador Michael Oren told WTOP, "Israel does not, does not, I stress, collect information on the United States."
When pushed during an interview about Pollard's case, Oren responded, "Jonathan Pollard occurred in the mid-1980s. Now, we're talking about an event that was run by a rogue organization in the Israeli intelligence community. That was, what, 25 years ago?"
His remarks, a departure from an official Israeli statement in the late 1990s, have stunned many in the Washington intelligence community.
"It does surprise me," says Paul Pillar, former Central Intelligence Agency National Intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia.
"It never crossed my mind and never heard any suggestion that it was anything other than an official operation," Pillar says.
"It is, however, in Israel's interests, as defined by them, to obtain as much information as possible of the kind Pollard was collecting."
Pollard‘s own stinging rebukes of the Israeli government in a number of April 1998 letters seemed to confirm his official status.
"I did not spend 13 years in prison in order to endorse a lie," Pollard wrote. "The truth must come out, so that I may be freed. The truth is simple and clear: I was an Israeli agent employed by the LAKAM branch of intelligence in an operation that was fully sanctioned by the government of Israel. Anything less than that is a distortion of the truth that is counterproductive to the goal of securing my release."
A little more than a month later, on May 11, 1998, the Israeli government released a statement confirming Pollard's claims. The government's statement said, "Jonathan Pollard was an Israeli agent handled by high ranking Israeli officials in an authorized Israeli bureau, LAKAM."
Worry that Pollard's theft of U.S. Navy secrets may have been part of a rogue operation has generated concern among some in the U.S. intelligence community, that there may be other "rogue" operations underway to collect U.S. intelligence.
Israel admittedly runs robust intelligence operations throughout the Middle East because of concerns about hostile governments and organizations that have targeted the small Mediterranean country which 7.5 million people call home. Hamas and Hezbollah are among the key targets.
"We've been hampered by the fact our forces left Lebanon in 2000 and left Gaza in 2005, so we actually don't have forces on ground, so we rely on human intelligence and electronic intelligence and surveillance from the skies, but it's not perfect," says Oren.
Their operations may not be perfect, but according to a Web site run by the political wing of Hamas, Israel is running a very refined network of spies.
The site, Al-Majd, claims some of the "veteran and experienced collaborators" were equipped with sophisticated beacon devices during the 2008 war that transmitted their positions to Israeli intelligence. According to the site, the beacons protected them from missile strikes.
While the Israeli government will not comment on the depth of its intelligence capabilities, Fred Burton, a former U.S. State Department Counterterrorism agent, says Israel has extremely capable intelligence services laser-focused on the Iranian nuclear threat.
"(Israeli intelligence is) the best in the world on Hezbollah and Iranian targets, but lacking the money and resources intelligence organizations like the CIA have." Burton says. "They seem to do more with less than many others. They are extremely good on HUMINT (Human Intelligence) collection."
Israel's enemies extend into the U.S. According to U.S. Department of Justice documents, numerous individuals have been arrested and prosecuted on charges of providing material support to Hezbollah and Hamas, sworn enemies of Israel.
Some U.S. intelligence officials are quietly skeptical of Israel's declaration that it doesn't spy on the U.S.
"We share information on Islamic extremists groups with American intelligence," Oren says. "We're not collecting on them in the United States, but we rely on information given to us by American intelligence agencies and we are again in very close communication and cooperation with them."
A U.S. official responded saying, "The Israelis are very good at intelligence work — they always have been. They're not afraid to tell you what they think and why. And their strategic interests tend to dovetail with ours. They're valuable partners. We deal with them as they deal with us: With sharp minds and open eyes. Intelligence is no place for the naïve or gullible."
According to a former Shin Bet officer, the Pollard case planted a seed that has sprouted and continues to grow despite efforts to allegedly eradicate it.
"These guys had some kind of impression that the U.S. was hiding intelligence from the Israeli government in this particular subject (the Palestinian Liberation Organization), so they decided to run the operation, never stopping to think about the damage they were causing the Jewish Community inside the United States," says the former officer.
The political dance around Jonathan Pollard's case continues. The U.S. has refused to release Pollard despite the close relationship with Israel and despite that Pollard is said to be part of a "rogue operation."
"We would certainly welcome his release," Oren says.