Elie Wiesel Says He Did Not Contribute to Effort to Secure Rich's Pardon
Alison Leigh Cowan - NY Times - February 12, 2001
"To [Wiesel], if politics had carried the day and if the former president were simply trying to appease the Israelis, he would have pardoned Mr. Pollard, not Mr. Rich. "
Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Prize winner whose name has been mentioned in relation to the Marc Rich pardon case, said yesterday that he understood why the team trying to secure a pardon for Mr. Rich sought his help, as documents released last week by a Congressional committee showed. But, contrary to the documents' assertions that he had weighed in with the White House, Mr. Wiesel said, "I didn't do anything."
Mr. Wiesel, whose accounts of the Holocaust won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, was a frequent guest at the White House and is close to former President Bill Clinton and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. But he said in interviews on Saturday and yesterday that from the outset his intuition told him that Mr. Rich's candidacy for a pardon was a long shot because Mr. Rich was a fugitive.
Besides, Mr. Wiesel said, he was concerned about diverting attention from the person he really wanted pardoned, Jonathan J. Pollard.
"I saw him twice in prison and I condemn what he did," said Mr. Wiesel, referring to Mr. Pollard, a civilian naval intelligence analyst who in 1987 was sentenced to life in prison as a spy for Israel. "Nevertheless, he suffered enough, and I thought if I did anything else, it would affect Jonathan Pollard."
Mr. Rich was pardoned on Mr. Clinton's last day in office, Jan. 20, the same day Mr. Clinton announced the pardons of more than 100 people. Mr. Rich's pardon and many others took law enforcement officials and political leaders by surprise.
Representative Dan Burton, Republican of Indiana, whose House Committee on Government Reform has been holding hearings on the matter, said yesterday on NBC's "Meet the Press" that he would not rule out calling Mr. Clinton to testify.
"That's something we're not ruling in or out," Mr. Burton said. "Now, unless we see something that looks like there was a quid pro quo or something illegal that involved the president, I'm not sure we need to have him come and testify before the committee. But if it is necessary, we'll consider that."
He said the committee would consult the Justice Department and vote on whether to grant immunity to Denise Rich, Mr. Rich's former wife, who last week declined to testify, citing her constitutional protections against self-incrimination.
Mr. Burton has also said he intends to subpoena the foundation that receives contributions to build the Clinton presidential library. Yesterday, David E. Kendall, who defended Mr. Clinton in the impeachment proceedings and who is a lawyer for the foundation, hinted that the documents may not come without a fight.
"We have received no subpoena," Mr. Kendall said, adding, "There are significant First Amendment protections for donor lists to charitable organizations."
A Democratic fund-raiser said Denise Rich gave $450,000 to the foundation, but U.S. News & World Report said in its Feb. 19 issue that she had been asked for at least $10 million. Ms. Rich's lawyer, Martin Pollner, said yesterday that "such an allegation is ludicrous."
Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a Republican member of the Judiciary Committee, which will conduct hearings on the pardon process on Wednesday, told Fox News yesterday that Mr. Clinton could face impeachment charges, for the second time.
"I'm not suggesting it should be done, but President Clinton technically could still be impeached," Senator Specter said.
Meanwhile, Beth Dozoretz, who was finance chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee for much of 1999, released a statement denying that she had told anyone that Mr. Clinton was trying to "turn around" his lawyers on the question of a pardon for Mr. Rich. An e-mail message dated Jan. 10 that was written by Avner Azulay, a member of Mr. Rich's team, and released last week by Mr. Burton's committee said that Ms. Dozoretz had taken a phone call from the president suggesting that he "wanted to do it" but that he had his work cut out for him with his own legal staff, who largely opposed the Rich pardon.
Mr. Wiesel's connection to the Marc Rich story began in November when an international team of several lawyers, a publicist and an official of Mr. Rich's foundation in Israel began looking for someone of moral authority to help them make their case to the White House.
The obvious choice, they reasoned, was Mr. Wiesel, and they pressed two friends of his to persuade him to receive Mr. Azulay, a former Israeli intelligence operative who now runs Mr. Rich's Israeli foundation, in his home in Manhattan on Dec. 6.
"Avner came to see me, and I had no idea what this was all about," Mr. Wiesel said. "I had never heard the name Marc Rich. I said: 'It's not my field, my field is philosophy and novels. Let me see what's happening.' "
Mr. Azulay left Mr. Wiesel with a stack of testimonials he had gathered on Mr. Rich's behalf. Mr. Wiesel said he was struck by the quality of the signatures, from high-ranking Israeli officials and heads of charitable institutions. Mr. Azulay, he said, also called back a few times to find out where things stood.
What happened next, Mr. Wiesel said, diverted markedly from what was described in the many e-mail messages exchanged by members of Mr. Rich's team. Mr. Wiesel did, in fact, visit the White House on Dec. 12 for a state dinner, as the e-mail messages stated. But, contrary to what was contained in the e-mail messages, Mr. Wiesel said he "didn't speak to anybody in the White House about the matter."
After some reflection and consultation with people he trusts, Mr. Wiesel said he concluded: "Intuitively, I said, I don't think it can work. I don't think he will get it. I felt somehow it's too much, a man who is a fugitive, who is accused of these things, I felt he wouldn't get pardoned."
Mr. Wiesel, whose phone number is unlisted and who could not be reached for comment last week, said he was taken aback to learn, after The New York Times published an article about the documents on Saturday, that he was the subject of no fewer than nine e-mail messages among Mr. Rich's strategists. "Again?" he gasped, each time a message including his name was read to him by a reporter. "It's annoying because I don't want to be connected to all that, but it's funny to think that I'm so important."
The e-mail messages do describe Mr. Wiesel as being reluctant to help, but, finally, the group believed it had achieved success when Gershon Kekst, a prominent public relations executive in New York, informed the others on Jan. 9, "I am 'assured' that the call has been made by Elie."
Mr. Wiesel described as "total fantasy" Mr. Azulay's and Mr. Kekst's assertions in the e-mail messages that he spoke up on Mr. Rich's behalf.
Mr. Kekst could not be reached for comment yesterday, and Mr. Azulay was not about to debate Mr. Wiesel. "Somebody was mistaken," he said.
"I don't recall every word I wrote and what you have there is what there is," Mr. Azulay said. But, he said, "Mr. Wiesel was approached and he did not help."
Struggling to make sense of it all, Mr. Wiesel said bluntly, "I don't understand Clinton." To him, if politics had carried the day and if the former president were simply trying to appease the Israelis, he would have pardoned Mr. Pollard, not Mr. Rich.
Mr. Wiesel said Mr. Rich's defense team overestimated his influence. He said he was not sure that if he had called the White House, Mr. Clinton would "pick up the phone." Besides, he asked humorously, "Had they believed that I did have something to do with their 'victory,' how come they never called to say thank you?"
See Also: The Clemency Page