Idiots Like Us

In 'Capturing Jonathan Pollard,' military intelligence isn't so intelligent

There's a great lyric from John Cale's 1979 live album Sabotage that seems appropriate after reading retired special agent Ronald Olive's nonfiction account of one of the most notorious spy cases of all time.

The lyric appears on the song "Mercenaries," and it goes something like: "Military intelligence isn't what it used to be. So what, human intelligence isn't what it used to be, either!" Cale sing-sneers the line with just the right mix of irony and venom, letting you know there's a joke buried somewhere under all the faux-macho posturing that agents of espionage generally display in novels and movies.

Speaking of poison, according to the recent news, someone mixed a radioactive cocktail for an ex-KGB agent, killing him--but not before the doomed fellow fingered Russian President Vladimir Putin. Seems the dead man, Alexander Litvinenko, was a vocal critic of Putin, which could explain why Litvinenko ended up drinking his last shot in a London sushi bar. Incredibly, whoever executed the hit ended up contaminating the restaurant, putting more than 100 people at risk.

What, a simple bullet in the brain isn't easy enough for assassins today? Military intelligence isn't what it used to be, indeed.

As dumb as today's hitmen are, they've got nothing on the CIA, FBI and the Naval Investigative Service's Anti-Terrorist Alert Center. A noticeably eccentric analyst by the name of Jonathan Pollard ransacked our nation's most highly sensitive national security data and handed it over to the Israelis for a pittance. Methinks the point of Olive's Capturing Jonathan Pollard: How One of the Most Notorious Spies in American History Was Brought to Justice isn't to showcase the sheer idiocy of the American intelligence, but that's exactly what his book does. With any luck, Olive's account will become mandatory reading at all levels of federal and civilian law-enforcement agencies.

For the rest of us, Olive, a current Arizonan who was "the assistant special agent in charge of counterintelligence in the Washington office of the Naval Investigative Service," provides a candid and disheartening explanation of how Pollard was able to walk off with 360 cubic feet (or 1 million pages) of classified documents and hand them over to Israel. The story isn't pretty, especially when a simple background check and the sharing of information between agencies would have prevented this from happening. It's enough to make a layman wonder: Were Bush and his cronies right to gut the CIA and establish the Department of Homeland Security?

To be fair, Olive gives Pollard credit, pointing out the man's smarts and knowledge. Olive had first-hand dealings with Pollard, here rendered as the type of person who constantly seeks attention and wants to feel important. The way he achieved this sense of worth was by divulging secrets to American ally Israel. Throughout the book, Olive offers plenty of psychological insight into the mind of man who now claims to be a fallen Israeli soldier captured behind enemy lines: His father traveled overseas extensively and often took the family along. While Jonathan was still in his early teens, they went to Germany and visited the concentration camp in Dachau. The experience shocked him, kindling a deep, enduring loyalty to Israel and the Jewish people. In 1970, Jonathan was accepted into the summer science school at the world-renowned Weizmann Institute in Israel. It was most exhilarating time of his life, despite the trouble he had getting along with other students. One of his instructors alleged he was a troublemaker. This paragraph alone does much to humanize Pollard, who in other newspaper profiles always comes across as more devious, more cunning, more diabolical. Olive presents a startlingly different portrait of Pollard as a man who is, in many ways, crying out for help by walking out of his office building with a stack of documents clearly marked classified--in plain view of his co-workers. You don't know whether to laugh or weep when his co-workers then agonize for hours about whether to alert someone.

Olive tells a great story here, though it's told from a more technical perspective. There are some basic narrative techniques of a thriller (the in medias res of the opening scene, and the cliffhanging chapter endings), but Olive is out to clearly articulate what happened and how Pollard was narrowly brought to justice.

But the scariest part of the book is only hinted at: that Pollard's spying, capture and current portrait as a martyr for Israel may have been orchestrated by Pollard himself, manipulating U.S. and Israeli intelligence--and the media--so as to achieve legendary status. In the case of Pollard, human intelligence, it seems, has trumped military intelligence.

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