Pollard’s Legacy Fuels Spy Scandal

Sensational headlines across the country suggest that Israel has placed a mole in the Defense Department and that the spy is passing classified information to the Israelis through employees of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). To date, few facts have emerged beyond the revelation that an investigation has been underway for some time, but the mere allegations have created, at a minimum, a public relations nightmare for Israel and its supporters in the United States. And Jonathan Pollard has compounded the problem.

For years Pollard’s supporters have been claiming that he did no real damage to U.S. national security, Israel or the American Jewish community. I have consistently maintained that he seriously damaged all three and we are now seeing how his criminal action continues to cause damage. Without Pollard, the immediate response to the current allegations would be that Israel has never spied on the United States and would never do so; however, the precedent set by Pollard prevents Israel from making this argument. Instead, Israel is forced to say that it learned its lesson from the Pollard fiasco and would never do something so stupid again.

Since we know so little about the substance of the investigation, it is dangerous to speculate at this point, but certain aspects of the case that have been published certainly raise questions about the relationship of the allegations to the headlines. For example, media reports have suggested that Israel had a mole in the Pentagon, but the person named as the target of the investigation is not Jewish. That doesn’t necessarily disqualify him as a spy for Israel, but it does seem less likely.

Second, if the alleged mole was working for the Israeli government, it makes little sense that he would pass information through a third party rather than directly to an Israeli handler. Why would you unnecessarily increase the number of people in the loop, and why would you want to involve American Jews as conduits?

It’s no secret that U.S. officials talk to American friends of Israel who also speak to Israelis (and vice versa), but this does not constitute espionage. In fact, this type of interaction between partisans, lobbyists, and government officials is how the political system works for all types of policy, not just that related to Israel.

If a government official were to tell someone in the pro-Israel community something about U.S. policy that they thought the Israelis would be interested in hearing, there’s no reason not to share the information. Of course, the official might ask that the information not be repeated, but the assumption is that they would not be revealing classified information since that would be illegal. If, by chance, the information was classified, the only way to know would be if the official specifically said that it was secret. If the person hearing the information was smart, they wouldn’t want to be told anything that is classified and certainly shouldn’t repeat it.

Documents, of course, are a different story. If someone tried to hand me a document with a Top Secret stamp on it, the smart thing would be to treat it like plutonium and refuse to accept it. It will be shocking if it were to turn out that any secret documents were accepted or transferred to Israel by employees of AIPAC, and the organization has vehemently denied any wrongdoing.

Whenever allegations appear in print, however, they create the impression that where there is some there must be fire. Unfortunately, Pollard gives the allegations credibility they otherwise don’t deserve. As we’ve seen in a number of recent “spy scandals,” those accused in the media were never charged with crimes.

One thing I do know is that there is a general misperception that secrets are freely exchanged. They’re not. People often ask me about meetings that I have with government officials and I tell them that I don’t spend a lot of time in such meetings because you rarely hear anything from them that you can’t get from the newspaper, and if they do reveal any “secrets,” they are usually related to what people are thinking, or strategies being considered, and not anything that would be classified.

No one thinks that if a Jewish leader meets with George Bush that the President will reveal any secrets about policy toward Israel, but a lot of folks seem to believe if the same Jewish leader meets with Ariel Sharon the Prime Minister will disclose his plans. It doesn’t happen.

The good news so far is that the story came out at the same time as the Republican convention and the presidential campaign, so domestic politics is taking up most of the media’s time, but the suggestion that Israel is spying on the United States certainly hurts Israel’s image, and the allegations against AIPAC undermine its hard-earned reputation for independently representing the views of Americans who believe a strong U.S.-Israel relationship is in America’s national interest. Of course, this is likely to be the motivation for leaking the story. It also may part of the long-running effort to undermine some of the key officials at the Pentagon who were heavily involved in developing the Administration’s policy on Iraq and who happen to be Jewish. This possibility seems even more likely given press reports that an Iraqi with many enemies in the U.S. government has also been accused of misdeeds.

In the short-run, the main impact of the story will be that the anti-Semites and yahoos who believe that Jews control U.S. policy will be given fresh ammunition. The long-run damage will depend on the outcome of the investigation, but it is not likely to affect the U.S.-Israel relationship or AIPAC. After all, ties between the U.S. and Israel have only grown stronger since the Pollard affair (though suspicions of Jews in the bureaucracy intensified), and AIPAC’s clout is based largely on the commitment of its members to lobby on behalf of that relationship. If anything, this investigation, especially if it turns out to be bogus, will motivate the pro-Israel community to become even more active to prevent future efforts to weaken the pro-Israel lobby and the U.S. alliance with Israel.