Snowden and Pollard: A Tale of Two Spies

Jonathan Pollard, a former naval intelligence analyst, began serving a life sentence at the Federal Prison in Butler, North Carolina on March 4, 1987, for the crime of passing classified material to Israel.  From the government's standpoint a lengthy trial had the potential of divulging sensitive material.  For his part, not wishing to chance a life sentence at trial Pollard and the prosecutors worked out a plea deal.

According to the deal both sides agreed upon, Pollard would plead guilty to: "One count of conspiracy to deliver national defense information to a foreign government."  By doing so, his wife Anne also was allowed to plead out for her complicity in the crime.  She served 3 years of a 5 year term and was released.  In accordance with the plea, and to avoid life imprisonment, Pollard pledged full cooperation with a government espionage assessment team and swore non-disclosure of sensitive material he had privy to.
 Not content with the second tier of the espionage statute to which Pollard plead guilty to: "to the advantage of a foreign nation," the Sentencing Judge, Aubrey Robinson abrogated the agreement and instead sentenced him to the more severe first: "to the injury of the United States."
 So what exactly information did he steal and was its disclosure so detrimental to U. S. security that 27 years' incarceration isn't sufficient?  Based upon the point of view of those that advocate for him and others wishing he rot in jail, opinions vary.  However all sides agree

  • His interest was solely in helping the Israelis find out more about Soviet and Arab military and intelligence capabilities. 

  • His priority was to obtain Arab (and Pakistani) nuclear intelligence. 

  • He passed intelligence on Arab exotic weaponry, including chemical weapons. 

  • Soviet aircraft, air defenses, air-to-air missiles and air-to-surface missiles 

  • Arab order-of-battle, deployments and readiness. 

 The question for discussion is not whether Pollard should be exonerated for his criminality, of course not.  By his own admission he did pass documents to Israel.  But key to the argument for commutation is that the secrets were sold to Israel; not China, not Russia or Cuba, or North Korea, but to Israel.

What stands out most conspicuously, all sides including the judge agreed, his misguided intentions were never meant for the detriment of the United States but to garner strategic information from nations which hate both the U.S. and Israel equally.

None the less, despite pleas to Obama by 39 congressman led by Barney Frank; R. James Woolsey former Director of Central Intelligence in the Clinton administration; former Secretaries of State, Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, and direct appeals for his release from successive Israeli governments and world leaders.  After 27 years, in ill health, with no secret information relevant in today's world,  Pollard is being held onto as if he were the Queen's jewels.

Let's now fast forward and examine the unfolding tale of Edward Snowden, which to this point, the damage caused by his security breach hasn't even scratched the surface.

In case you're just returning from a two month vacation on the moon, the rest of us have been inundated with reports of Edward Snowden, a 30 year old, National Security Agency (NSA) contractor leaking highly classified American secrets.

This past June, Snowden, a low level employee working as a consultant for the National Security Administration (NSA), gave an  interview in Hong Kong to Glenn Greenwald, correspondent for the newspaper the Guardian.  As we follow the text of the interview, it's interesting to compare the Pollard case to this one presently unfolding.  

Keep in mind, Pollard sold information of no threat to the United States to Israel, an allied nation.  Snowden, by admission stole and has exposed to China and Russia far more sensitive, damaging material than Pollard even came close to doing.  The fact that he is privy to a lot more secret documents came out in the interview.

Greenwald asked:  "If your motive had been to harm the United States and help its enemies or if your motive had been personal material gain were there things you could have done with these documents to advance those goals that you didn't end up doing?"

Snowden:  "Oh absolutely...."  "I had access to the full rosters of everyone working at the NSA, the entire intelligence community, and undercover assets all over the world.  The locations of every station, we have what their missions are and so forth...." If I had just wanted to harm the U.S.?  You could shut down the surveillance system in an afternoon.  But that's not my intention."

If it were not his intention to divulge it to Chinese and Russian authorities, is it just coincidence he ended up in those two countries seeking asylum?

Yet for his comparatively benign espionage Pollard will soon be serving his 27th year of imprisonment.   His detractors never fail mentioning he was paid for his criminality, whereas Snowden did his spying for altruistic reasons.  So what?  Since when is altruism a mitigating factor in espionage?  Since when does the intent trump the result?  The fact remains.  They are both spies, they both deserve punishment; the difference is, one has already received an inordinate amount.  The other, when eventually brought to justice deserves the amount the first one is serving.

Equally intriguing is the attitude of President Barack Obama regarding this latest breach of American security.  Preoccupied last week with touring Africa and consoling at the bedside of Nelson Mandela, the President has all but extricated himself from this sordid affair. 

During a brief Q&A this past week in Dakar, Senegal, Obama, in his standard bromidic fashion stated:  he "won't be scrambling military jets to go after a 29-year-old hacker." He rejected suggestions the U.S. might send the Air Force to force down a plane carrying Snowden from Russia to another country.  And he "won't engage in wheeling, dealing and trading to get NSA leaker Edward Snowden extradited to the U.S."

In all honestly who can blame him?  After derisively being laughed at two weeks ago, he did not want to be told to go take a hike twice in one month by Russian President, Vladimir Putin, or by the Chinese which seem to hold him in similar regard.  It's a lot easier to leave the heavy lifting to Vice President Biden who is a lot more accustomed to being humiliated and could take it much better.

For those that so decry the snooping of the government on individual privacy and view Snowden as a sort of Robin Hood, I say no, not close.  Snowden is not a whistle blower as some are depicting him and he certainly isn't Nathan Hale.  Regardless of his motivation, he's nothing but a treacherous spy.  If he were a whistle blower he would have issued his revelations in the United States before Congress in closed door session, not in China and Russia.  Unlike Pollard, he actually deserves 27 years in prison.  Some say being stuck in Moscow airport without a passport is one and the same.