Did George Tenet threaten to resign as CIA director if Jonathan Pollard were to be released as part of the 1998 Wye River interim peace agreement with Israel?
According to news reports at the time, then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had insisted on Pollard’s release, and President Clinton was prepared to go along with it — until Tenet said that he would resign if Pollard, the former U.S. Navy analyst who confessed to spying for Israel, were released.
But soon after the reports, in conversations with Jewish communal leaders, Tenet strenuously denied the media’s account of the talks at the Wye Plantation in Maryland.
Now, in his recently published memoirs, Tenet says that he did in fact threaten to resign — and succeeded in scuttling the deal to free Pollard. Tenet’s latest version of the story is drawing criticism in some Jewish circles, and skepticism from the Pollards and from former CIA offi-cials.
“He told us [that the story about his threat to resign over Pollard’s release] was nonsense when I asked him about it,” said Morton Klein, na-tional president of the Zionist Organization of America.
Klein said that, shortly after the initial reports broke, Tenet fervently denied having threatened to resign, during a briefing with leaders the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“So he was either lying to us or he is lying in his book,” Klein said.
As recently as June 2004, when Tenet stepped down from his CIA post for “personal reasons,” Jewish communal leaders were saying that they believed the top spymaster’s denial. Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference, told JTA that Tenet had called him, practically in tears, the day the story of his alleged threat to resign broke. “He truly was very emotional and very upset about it,” Hoenlein recalled. “He said that was not the way he did things. And from our experience, that was not the way he did things.”
Tenet could not be reached for comment.
In his new book, the former CIA director confirms unequivocally that he did threaten to resign if Pollard were to be released.
“If Pollard were included in the final package, no one at Langley [the CIA headquarters] would believe I hadn’t had a hand in that, too,” Tenet wrote. “In the margins, the deal would reward a U.S. citizen who spied on his own country, and once word got out (and that would take a nanosecond or two), I would be effectively through as CIA director. What’s more, I should be.”
According to Tenet, after being prodded by then-secretary of state Madeleine Albright, the CIA director asked Sandy Berger, the national se-curity adviser, for a one-on-one meeting with the president. Tenet said he then told Clinton that it was “the wrong thing to do” and that “if Pollard is released, I will no longer be the director of central intelligence in the morning. This is an issue that has nothing to do with this set of negotiations.”
In their own memoirs, Clinton and former U.S. Mideast envoy Dennis Ross both confirmed the version of events offered by Tenet in his new book.
So, it would seem, the matter has finally been settled.
Not so fast, say Pollard and several former CIA officials.
To some of his critics at the spy agency, this is another indication of Tenet’s political opportunism, a charge that has centered mostly on his much-maligned claim to president Bush that the case for the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was a “slam-dunk.”
In an interview with the Forward, Vincent Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism chief, accused Tenet of lying about threatening to re-sign, saying that he conveyed this version of events to bolster his image within the intelligence community.
“When George told Jewish leaders he did not personally threaten to resign, he told the truth,” Cannistraro said, citing unnamed intelligence sources. Threatening to resign over Pollard “was a popular move in the [intelligence] community, and George thus appeared as a hero, al-though he had not in fact jeopardized his career in the least. Can one say ‘political opportunist’?”
Another former CIA operative steeped in Middle Eastern affairs, speaking on the condition of anonymity, echoed the claim that Tenet was not prepared to resign — but provided a different explanation for his version of events.
“The deal was cooked up by Clinton as a way to tell the Israelis ‘no’ on Pollard,” the former CIA operative said. “Both were winners — Clinton was off the hook, and Tenet for once looked like a man of honor.”
Pollard, who is serving a life sentence in North Carolina, and his wife Esther, also claim that Tenet’s alleged threat was a fabrication.
In response to questions from the Forward, Esther Pollard referred to comments the couple gave to the Web site Worldnetdaily.
“When Clinton reneged on the U.S. commitment to free Jonathan as an integral part of the Wye accords, an excuse was fabricated claiming Tenet threatened to resign,” she said. “This was not only untrue, it was a ridiculous excuse.”
Writing from prison, Jonathan Pollard argued that “at this late date, it is essentially irrelevant that Clinton sought an excuse to renege at Wye so that he could play the Pollard card again at a later date, and Tenet became the excuse, not the reason, for keeping me in prison.”
“Tenet apparently still wants to save face by playing along,” Pollard wrote from jail. “Israel has already paid for my release at Wye. It is time to collect it.”
Through a spokesman, Clinton declined comment. Ross and several other members of the American delegation to Wye — where Israel agreed to pull out from parts of the West Bank and to release Palestinian prisoners — did not respond to queries for comment.
In his book “The Missing Peace,” Ross said that “out of the blue,” at the onset of the Wye summit, Clinton brought up the idea of releasing Pollard, presumably at the behest of Netanyahu. According to Ross, he advised Clinton not to release Pollard at that juncture. “It would be a huge payoff for Bibi [Netanyahu]; you don’t have many like this in your pocket. I would save it for permanent status. You will it need it later; don’t use it now.”
The president disagreed. “I don’t think we can afford to wait, and if Pollard is the key to getting it done now, we should do it.”
Ross then recounted a meeting among him, Tenet, Berger and Albright during which Tenet “blew up” upon hearing about the president’s in-tention to release Pollard. “Mr. President, you can’t do this,” Ross quoted Tenet as saying. Tenet argued that it would send the wrong signal and weaken morale at the CIA. “He told me that if the president released Pollard, he would have no choice but to resign from the CIA; having spent the week at Wye, he would be seen in the intelligence community as having been part of the deal. He would lose all credibility and ef-fectiveness.” Ross then relayed the threat to Berger, who arranged for Tenet to meet Clinton alone for the meeting described by the CIA chief in his memoir.
Ross recounted a conversation with Clinton, at the very end of the summit and with all substantive issues ironed out, in which the president told him that Netanyahu would not sign the deal unless Pollard was released. When Ross asked him if he had made such a promise, Clinton said he had not. Ross then advised him to call Netanyahu’s bluff, arguing that the Israeli leader could not forgo such an agreement just be-cause of America’s failure to release Pollard. In the end, Ross said, Clinton told the Israeli prime minister that he would review the case.
In his own memoirs, “My Life,” Clinton claimed that he had made no promise to Netanyahu. Instead, Clinton said, he told the Israeli leader that he was inclined to free Pollard but would need to check with his aides: “When I talked to Sandy Berger and George Tenet, they were adamantly opposed to letting Pollard go, as was Madeleine Albright. George said… he would have to resign if I commuted Pollard’s sen-tence. I didn’t want to do it and Tenet’s comments closed the door.”
Former CIA Chief Changes Tune on Pollard Story