Ex-agent Rafi Eitan, one of the most veteran, senior figures in Israel's intelligence community, has never before spoken about his role in the Pollard espionage affair, which to this day stirs up emotions in both Israel and the U.S., and which tainted his reputation and ended his hopes of eventually heading the Mossad.
However, now that he heads the Pensioners Party ahead of the upcoming elections, one of Israel's most fascinating and controversial spymasters decided that as a public figure he must provide an account of his secretive deeds and gave his approval for publishing the information.
In an exclusive interview with Ronen Bergman, Eitan flatly denied charges that Pollard handed over to Israel information used to expose American spies in the former Soviet Union.
"I'm willing to put my hand in fire and swear in everything dear to me that those charges are a blatant lie," Eitan said. "Nothing from what Pollard delivered leaked out of the Israeli intelligence community, nothing. Besides, he never provided us with information that could have exposed American agents in the Soviet Union or anywhere else."
"We weren't interested in those subjects, and he didn’t provide the information," Eitan says.
The former agent says shortly after Pollard's trial ended, Israel discovered Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger sent a top secret memorandum to the judge, accusing Pollard of exposing 11 American agents.
"The information the charge was based on arrived from the CIA, and more accurately, from the counter-espionage branch of the CIA. Only years later it turned out the person who headed the branch and initiated the move against Pollard…was a person by the name of (Aldrich) Ames, who all those years was the top Soviet spy in the U.S.," Eitan says.
"He simply took advantage of the Pollard affair to cast the blame for the affair he (Ames) himself was guilty of on Pollard, thereby clearing himself of suspicion," Eitan says. "I have no doubt that had Pollard been tried today, in light of what is known about Ames and other agents who were exposed, he would have received a much lighter sentence."
'Impressive intellectual abilities'
Addressing the decision to make use of Pollard, Eitan says the former Navy intelligence officer provided such high-quality information it was difficult to resist the temptation.
"We're talking about information that was of such high-quality, so accurate, so good and so important to the country's security that I couldn't resist the temptation and order the operation be terminated," Eitan says. "My desire, my appetite to get more and more material overcame me…yes, despite the seemingly tough exterior, I'm shedding tears over this affair. As was the case my entire life, I thought I was doing the best thing for the State of Israel."
In 1984, Pollard turned, through an intermediary, to an Israeli Air Force officer staying in Washington at the time, Aviem Sela. The officer subsequently relayed the information to the scientific attaché in Israel's Washington Embassy. However, the attaché was in fact working for LAKAM, a secretive agency set up in a bid to acquire technology and raw materials for Israel's nuclear program and the defense establishment as a whole.
At the time, the LAKAM was headed by Rafi Eitan.
"I don't remember the exact date, but one day I got information that a man called Jonathan pollard, a Jew and devout Zionist, turned to Aviem Sela and told him he possesses information that could save Israel from another war with Arab countries."
Pollard began handing over information to Israel, first orally, and than through documents. A large intelligence outfit was assigned to the operation and would receive documents from the new spy. The team would photocopy them in a hideout equipped with special devices that blocked the signals emitted by the special photocopy machines.
"After first looking through the information, and following a thorough examination of the materials by security experts, we realized the information was of critical significant to the country's security," Eitan says. "I would certainly say that had a war broken out, the material Pollard relayed would have greatly boosted the IDF and have a fundamental impact on the battlefield."
Still, at the end of the day we're not talking about using a spy in an Arab country, but rather, recruiting an agent within our best friend's intelligence community. You weren't thinking about what could happen should he be exposed?
"It was my decision, and mine only. I took complete, absolute responsibility…I decided to take the risk, which was clear to me, although I didn't predict the affair would develop into such extent…there's risk when using any agent."
Signs at pro-Pollard rally (Photo: Yoav Galai)
"There is no doubt of the great complexity and high risk, particularly when it comes to recruiting an agent within Israel's best friend, but what was before me on the other hand was Israel's security and saving the lives of Israeli soldiers and civilians…IDF officials and the intelligence community, who received the information, which greatly boosted their knowledge of Arab states and terror organizations…warmly thanked me for bringing it, without knowing, of course, where it came from.
Come on, after all only one source could have produced satellite photos of such quality…
"As I said, only me and Pollard's handlers knew there was a source within the American intelligence community. It was my decision, and no one outside the system knew the details of the operation."
'Pollard spoke too much'
At one point, in order to boost Pollard's connection to the State of Israel, Eitan ordered the spy be brought to Israel and meet with the operation's chief commander, Eitan himself.
"The man made an exceptional impression on me with his intellectual ability, the detailed memory, the understanding of what was going on in the Middle East, and his attachment and desire to help Israel," Eitan says. "There's no doubt he placed himself in huge risk, and he fully realized that, even without our explanations.
"Despite this, his motivation to help us, the State of Israel, was above and beyond. I thought this motivation stemmed from the Zionism instilled in him from the moment he was born, at the home he grew up in. I had great appreciation for an American Jew willing to risk everything – his position in the U.S. Navy and in American society, and even his freedom, in order to help Israel and save the lives of Israelis."
"When I recall this meeting, it hurts me to think this man was captured and is currently in prison for a very long term, something I would not wish upon anyone."
Pollard is in prison for 20 years now and the American president didn't even shorten his sentence. Why?
"The Americans are of course very angry over this affair, but this is only part of the explanation. Pollard's situation became much worse to a large extent because we – including Pollard himself, spoke too much. Pollard himself spoke incessantly about the affair, even though he was forbidden from doing so, and charged the Americans, as did many Israeli Knesset members, ministers, and public figures, with a series of accusations, topped by anti-Semitism."
"I'm afraid those things, and particularly the charges against the Americans, only made his situation worse…all this talk about anti-Semitism didn't help, but rather, created in the U.S. an opposite atmosphere: 'You're accusing us of such deeds, so now he'll stay in jail to spite you.' And as proof, I know with certainty that (former Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu already finalized with (former U.S. President Bill) Clinton a pardon for Pollard, but he stepped back at the last moment because of pressure by American intelligence chiefs."
Pollard claims you told him that at a time of distress he should flee to the Israeli embassy, and despite this, when he did just that, you ordered that he be kicked out of there.
"You think I would instruct an agent to escape to our embassy if he's facing distress? After all, this contradicts any operational sense. We had a plan of escape, that I will not detail, but I can unequivocally say that it wasn't through the embassy. The embassy has its own mechanisms and it operates independently. I wasn't there at all at the time and I certainly didn't order Pollard be removed. It's nonsense."
'Pollard caused no damage to American security'
Eitan says he realized Pollard was about to be exposed several days before the dramatic arrest at the Israeli embassy.
"I was in Israel at the time and we got information that everything was collapsing…When I heard the deal was exposed I realized I needed to occupy myself with two things, trying to save the man and trying to spare Israel the complications. Ultimately, we failed in both missions. I may not be at fault for this, but I'm responsible for everything that has happened. I took the responsibility upon myself and I left."
Did you try to put into action Pollard's plan of escape?
"We did everything to save him and it didn't work. In retrospect and after analyzing the entire affair, there is one detail, an operational one, one critical mistake, that could have avoided the entire affair. But someone under my command made this mistake and I took responsibility for that too."
The moment the affair was exposed, did you imagine what was about to materialize?
"I didn't imagine it would reach such colossal dimensions. And as proof, I took all the responsibility upon myself from the outset and didn't blame anyone else. In retrospect, in face of what happened, and because this entire miserable affair has been blamed on me in its entirely, I may have been naïve and erred in quickly taking everything upon myself."
Why do you think the affair reached such dimensions?
"Because of American political and emotional reasons."
"You used this word, but the fact is there is a series of espionage affairs that are much more severe, where the guilty parties got much less than Pollard, with the American media dealing with them to a much lesser extent. And I ask, why? Pollard may have undermined American laws and the U.S. intelligence community's code of conduct, but he caused no damage to America's security, not at all."
Throughout the interview, Eitan makes an effort to appear poised and collected even when it comes to the affair that tainted his name and ended his intelligence career. Still, he admits one particularly difficult moment came when he was forced by the attorney general to testify before FBI investigators who traveled to Israel.
"It was a very difficult moment. We had a government decision and I cooperated with the Americans. They knew who I was. They knew my name, and I acted on the orders of the attorney general."
You told them everything.
"I acted in accordance with the attorney genera's instructions. During the testimony, I was dealing with a big emotional storm. A deep sense that I must not talk to them about the affair, and knowing that they certainly are not interested in Pollard's wellbeing. On the other hand, I'm a disciplined soldier and never acted against government orders, even if I thought we should act differently."