It was mid-November 1985 and Jonathan “Jay” Pollard was stopped on the way out of work and questioned concerning the unauthorized removal of classified information from his office. Pollard, an Intelligence Research Specialist with the United States Navy, had been reported by a colleague as removing classified information from a classified work space.

What the co-worker had no way of knowing was that his adherence to the axiom, “See something, say something,” was about to unravel one of the most significant and controversial espionage cases of the 20th century. An ally of the United States stole Top Secret/SCI classified secrets in a wholesale manner over the course of many months.

Both the FBI and the Naval Investigative Service (now Naval Criminal Investigative Service – NCIS) interviewed Pollard, who they had surreptitiously surveilled in the workplace collecting classified documents and carrying them out of the building, as to the purpose of his breaking the most basic classified information handling protocols.

Codeword CACTUS

During this multi-hour discussion about, Pollard requested and was permitted to call his wife, Anne Pollard. During those calls, which were in reality delay tactics, he worked the word “cactus” into the conversation with his spouse. The interviews concluded, and Pollard returned home. Unbeknownst to the government, “cactus” was a codeword Pollard used to his wife which triggered Anne Pollard into action – she collected a suitcase full of documents from their apartment and contacted Pollard’s Israeli handlers. Over the course of the next two days, the FBI and NCIS conducted additional interviews. Pollard prevaricated, buying time, to allow his Israeli handlers to leave the country.  The Pollards managed to make their way to the Israeli Embassy the morning of November 21, as they had been told during meetings in Israel earlier that year, that if things went south, Israel would take care of them relocating them to Israel.

Israel leaves Pollard high and dry

At the Embassy, Mossad officer Rafi Eitan receives word from the Embassy security guards that the Pollards are at the gate. Eitan ordered them turned away and thrown off Embassy property. Once on the street, Pollard and his wife were arrested by the FBI and NCIS.

Eitan explained in a 2014 interview how the night before the Embassy had been in contact with Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, after having been tipped off by Pollard that he had been compromised. Pollard’s other handlers had already departed the country. The operational decision, according to Eitan, to turn Pollard away was his and his alone. The cover story which was given to the United States was that the Pollard operation was a “rogue operation” run by Eitan. This is the story the government of Israel stuck to until 1998. Eitan was hoping his actions would limit the impact and blowback on U.S.-Israeli relations.

Traitorous Pollard

Pollard pled guilty to a single charge of espionage, which encompassed the totality of his espionage on behalf of Israel. How much information did Pollard sneak out of Navy facilities? He told investigators, according to 2006 op-ed in The Jerusalem Post by Ron Olive, the lead NCIS investigator, how his modus operandi was simple, “If I could see it, and touch it, you can assume I got it. My only limitation was what I couldn’t carry.” Conservative estimates are that Pollard stole enough documents to fill 360 cubic feet. Pollard confessed to Olive how he would steal information from his Navy offices two to three times a day, three to four times a week, and put the classified materials in suitcases in the trunk of his vehicle as temporary storage until he could deliver it to his Israeli handler.

Pollard’s Greed – Spying for dollars

Pollard’s supporters have long championed how he stole the secrets of the U.S. to assist Israel and placing his loyalty for Israel above that the United States. That would be revisionist characterization of history. Pollard saw Israel as his cash cow and escape plan. He negotiated a 10-year work in place arrangement, culminating in resettlement.  He was in it for the money, plain and simple.

Olive noted how Pollard had told him, “he was addicted to money” and “it [money] consumed him.”

Pollard saw selling secrets as a means to augment his GS-12 salary, and his actions were demonstrative of an individual who was focused on garnering as much cold, hard, cash as fast as possible.

His initial handler was Colonel Aviem Sella, who was indicted by the United States. He never faced trial as Israel declined to extradite him to the United States. In November 2020, President Trump granted Sella a full pardon. (Note: Recent case of Yanjun XU who was extradited, tried and convicted of espionage.)

Israel wasn’t Pollard’s only customer, and he was always attempting to grow the stable of clients who might be willing to pay for U.S. Navy secrets. Pollard confessed to having provided national security information to South Africa; to his civilian financial advisors; to a visiting member of the Australian Royal Navy. He also confessed to attempting to recruit a college roommate to spy for Israel and make $2,000-$3,000 a month.

Perhaps the most audacious of all, he tried to convince a journalist to assist him in selling TS/SCI materials to Pakistan. Olive relates how the journalist declined, and Pollard told the journalist, “Well, we can sell it to somebody.” Pollard admitted he independently managed to pass the TS/SCI document to a Pakistani diplomat, who subsequently rebuffed Pollard. The prosecution, according to Olive, never charged Pollard for these crimes as his confession about the wholesale fleecing of U.S. Navy secrets was sufficient to convict.

As detailed above, Pollard was in it for the money. He was a fully collaborative source for Israel., who met with his handlers on a bi-weekly schedule, providing Israel a mountain of classified materials. For this he received between $1,500-$2,500/month – all told, he collected roughly $45,000 from Israel – point of reference, a GS-12 analyst in 1985 had a gross monthly salary of $3,400.

Israeli Citizen Pollard

Pollard was sentenced to life in prison in on March 4, 1987.

Israel conferred citizenship upon Pollard in 1996.

In 1998, the Israeli government acknowledged that Pollard had been a clandestine source.

Pollard was paroled out of prison, on this very day November 21, 2015 and his parole restrictions expired on November 21, 2020. On December 29, 2020 Pollard emigrated to Israel where he was warmly welcomed by the Israeli Prime Minister.

Pollard, hoping to stick a burr under the saddle of the new administration, in March 2021 called on all Jews who currently have national security clearances to spy on behalf of Israel.

I wrote then, and repeat today, “The morph of Jonathan Pollard is complete, from a greed driven Navy intelligence analyst who leveraged his insider access to fill his pockets on behalf of a foreign power, to a self-aggrandized poster-boy for espionage, encouraging others to follow his ill-advised path.”  My advice today is the same as it was in March, he should be ignored.

Related News

Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is an author and speaker on the topic of security strategy. Christopher, served 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. He lived and worked in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Europe, and Latin America. Upon his retirement, the CIA awarded him the Career Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the highest level of career recognition. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century” (Syngress, March 2008). He is the founder of