CIA director threatened to resign if spy was released In key bargaining point at Wye talks, Netanyahu sought Pollard's freedom

November 11, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- During the Middle East peace talks last month in Maryland, the director of the CIA told President Clinton he would resign if Clinton agreed to release the spy Jonathan Jay Pollard, according to several administration officials.

The agency director, George J. Tenet, who was directly involved in the peace negotiations, gave his warning to Clinton after learning that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel had made Pollard's case a key bargaining point, officials said.

In the end, Clinton turned down Netanyahu's request and the negotiations ended with a peace accord.

Tenet refused to comment on the matter yesterday, as did a CIA spokesman.

Tenet's threat to resign was a direct reflection of the depth of anger against Pollard that lingers among U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials 13 years after the former naval intelligence analyst was arrested for passing top-secret documents to Israel. He is serving a life term.

U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials insist that the American should never be freed and dismiss the fact that he acted on behalf of a friendly nation. But the far right in Israel has made Pollard's release a celebrated cause -- and Netanyahu has raised it with the president virtually every time they have met.

During the recent talks, Netanyahu told Clinton that he needed Pollard's release to win over the right wing of his coalition to the peace agreement, according to senior U.S. officials.

Clinton was open to what Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said they needed to help sell the peace agreement to their constituencies, the officials said. The president was seriously considering Pollard's release, the officials said, when Tenet spoke up. "It was clearly on the table," said one U.S. official.

While a White House spokesman refused to comment on whether Tenet threatened to resign over Pollard, he did say that during the conference, at Wye Mills, Clinton had been "impressed by the force of Netanyahu's arguments" on the Pollard matter.

The president then went back to consult with his advisers, including Tenet and national security adviser Samuel R. Berger, and eventually decided that he could not agree to Netanyahu's demand, the spokesman added.

Ultimately, the opposition to releasing Pollard was persuasive, administration officials said. Clinton, who twice before denied Netanyahu's calls to release the spy, agreed only to review the case again, for the third time in five years.

Officials say that Tenet believed that he would lose his credibility with his rank and file in the intelligence services if he were to agree to Pollard's release.

"He knew that he was closely associated with these peace talks -- it wasn't like he was back at headquarters -- and he couldn't distance himself from this decision," one U.S. official said.

Tenet's resignation would have forced Clinton to find his fourth CIA director in less than six years -- making the post one of the most difficult and intractable personnel problems to plague his administration. Twice Clinton has had to stand by and watch as his nominees have been forced to withdraw before being confirmed by the Senate, and twice the president has had to find backup candidates.

Tenet, 45, who was named director of central intelligence in 1997, pledged to remain in the job for at least four years to provide the agency with some stability.

Since arriving at the CIA's Langley, Va., headquarters in 1995, first as the CIA's deputy director, Tenet has worked to revive the morale of agency employees and to provide a new focus after the Cold War while winning increased funding from Congress.

The Pollard case was one issue on which it was impossible for Tenet to straddle his political and intelligence constituencies.

As soon as word leaked out that Pollard's freedom had become a bargaining chip in the Middle East talks, U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials went into nearly open rebellion, complaining that the president should not release someone who had so flagrantly betrayed national security. Accepting a Pollard deal with Netanyahu would have forced Tenet to side with the White House against his own lieutenants.

"If Pollard had been released, George would have had no choice but to resign," said one senior congressional official involved in intelligence matters.

The anger within the intelligence agencies was fueled by the fact that, during the 18 months he spied for Israel in 1984 and 1985, Pollard stole more top-secret documents than almost any other spy in U.S. history.

"He stole huge amounts of intelligence, measured in cubic yards," said R. James Woolsey, former CIA director, who recommended that Pollard be denied clemency when his case was first reviewed by Clinton in 1993.

He took thousands of pages of the government's most sensitive intelligence, including many concerning Soviet weapons system designs that came from Russian spies recruited by the CIA, as well as codes and large caches of information from U.S. spy satellites and listening posts. The information was of great interest to Israel because its Arab opponents used Russian weapons.

He betrayed some of America's most sophisticated espionage technology, and handed over so many documents that his Israeli handlers had to equip a secure Washington apartment with a high-speed photocopier and photographic equipment to absorb it all.

Pub Date: 11/11/98

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