Letter To Clinton From Rabbi Morris Sherer

January 3, 1994

Dear Mr. President,

Last week, the New York Times carried a front page story summarizing the contents of a letter from outgoing Defense Secretary Aspin to you, recommending that you turn down Jonathan J. Pollard's request for commutation of sentence. Having written to you on October 12, 1993, urging you to give favorable consideration to Pollard's request, I feel I must share with you my sense of profound concern - indeed bewilderment and dismay - about both the substance of the Aspin letter, and the manner by which it was made public.

Let me state at the outset that I write this letter with some considerable reluctance. I have the greatest of respect for both Secretary Aspin (for whom I have long had high regard) and the Defense Department. It is not my habit to criticize dedicated public officials, and it is certainly not my intention to belittle the national security concerns outlined in the Secretary's letter. Still, the apparent imminence of your decision on this sensitive humanitarian issue compels me to put my thoughts in writing.

According to the Times, Secretary Aspin makes three points in his letter. I would like to address these points in order, and then comment on the unseemly circumstances surrounding the letter's release.

1. Equating America's Friends With Its Enemies: Secretary Aspin's first contention is that showing leniency to Pollard might undermine your ability "to control and manage national security concerns." Secretary Aspin continues:

"If each holder of classified information may release it to a government the holder considers friendly, your control is lessened. With the rapid changes in the world, a nation considered friendly today may have divergent interests tomorrow."

Respectfully, this part of Secretary Aspin's letter demolishes a proverbial straw man. No one has ever suggested that "a holder of classified information may release it to a government the holder considers friendly." All agree that Pollard committed the crime of espionage, one of the most reprehensible of all crimes. All agree that he deserved serious punishment. However, one of the questions Pollard's request for commutation of sentence raises, is whether the fact that the nation for which he spied was and is a staunch ally of the United States ought to be a mitigating factor in determining the severity of his sentence.

Of course it is possible, as Secretary Aspin observes, that "a nation considered friendly today may have divergent interests tomorrow." But to make the gigantic leap from that non-sequitur-type observation to the conclusion that one who discloses classified information to a friendly nation should be considered on the same plane of culpability as one who discloses such information to an enemy is to defy both logic and morality. In our international relations, we make policy decisions all the time between our friends, with whom we share sensitive information, technology and equipment (including military equipment); and our enemies, with whom we do not. Does Secretary Aspin mean to suggest that those policy distinctions should be scrapped, because tomorrow's realities may differ from today's?

Perhaps the Times took Secretary Aspin's comments out of context. As reported, however, they are simply preposterous.

2. Damage to National Security: Secretary Aspin's second point, as reported by the Times, is that the information Pollard provided to the Israelis did grave damage to American national security. Obviously, neither I nor any member of the general public is in a position to evaluate this contention. However, I would like to make one point which I believe to be salient.

Agudath Israel of America's general counsel, David Zweibel, advises me that the statute under which Pollard was charged makes it a crime to gather or deliver confidential defense information to a foreign nation to be used either "to the injury of the United States", or, alternatively, "to the advantage of a foreign nation." I am further advised that in its charge against Pollard, the government did not cite the first prong of the statute, but rather the second. In other words, Pollard was never formally charged with causing or intending to cause injury to the United States: the charge against him was that he gave information to the advantage of a foreign nation.

Many observers wonder: if Pollard's actions were truly as harmful as Secretary Aspin contends, or as Secretary Weinberger indicated when he submitted an affidavit to the sentencing court describing Pollard's actions as "treason," why was Pollard charged only with giving information to the advantage of a foreign country - with no mention of injury to the United States? It almost appears the government leveled a charge of lesser magnitude against Pollard; successfully secured his guilty plea; then post facto upped the ante by raising for the first time allegations of "treason" and grave damage to America's national security interests. There is something fundamentally unfair about this.

Secretary Aspin is a man whose integrity is absolutely beyond reproach. In this particular context, however, it does appear that his assessment of the harm Pollard caused to American intelligence interests was not the assessment of those who charged Pollard with the crime to which he pleaded guilty. Respectfully, under the circumstances, I believe you would be remiss simply to accept the Secretary's assessment on this important matter without further critical scrutiny. And if you conclude that the Secretary's assessment is indeed accurate, I think the government owes the American people an explanation of why the charge that Pollard caused grave damage to America security interests was raised only after he pleaded guilty to what was effectively a lesser charge.

3. Pollard's Letters From Prison: The third and final argument advanced by Secretary Aspin is that Pollard would continue to be a security risk if released, as evidenced by the fact that "since July 1989, he [Pollard] has included classified information in 14 of his letters, most recently in 1992, including information classified at the Top Secret Codeword level."

Obviously, again, members of the general public have no way assessing the accuracy of Secretary Aspin's shocking revelation. I reiterate that the Secretary's reputation for integrity is sterling, and I certainly do not mean to impugn it. However, unless one assumes that Pollard is insane, or that he actively sought to sabotage all of the efforts being made on his behalf, it is difficult to fathom that he would have intentionally tried to compromise America intelligence from his prison cell, with full knowledge that every word he would write would undergo close security by prison officials and intelligence experts.

Indeed, it is difficult to fathom why this revelation has come to the fore only today. The period of 1989 to 1992, when Pollard allegedly wrote the 14 letters, substantially coincides with the period which Pollard was engaged in legal efforts to withdraw his guilty plea. Surely one would have expected the government's opposition to those efforts to include some reference to Pollard's ongoing letter-writing activities. Yet these 14 letters were mentioned nowhere in the government's papers.

For these reasons, Secretary Aspin's charges have raised many eyebrows in the community. At a minimum, I believe it would be important for you to hear Pollard's side of the story before coming to any final conclusion on these new remarkable allegations.

* * *
Before concluding this letter, I feel I must register my strong protest against what is obviously a series of

carefully orchestrated public leaks

by some of the opponents of leniency for Pollard. What we have been treated to over the past few weeks, is the unseemly spectacle of damaging allegation upon damaging allegation being planted in the media, all new charges against Pollard which he and his representatives have never had an opportunity to confront or contest. Nowhere is this manipulative effort more evident that with respect to the Aspin letter, which the Times itself reports "was made available to a reporter by a Pentagon official opposed to Mr. Pollard's early release."

These types of leaks, quite frankly, are outrageous and intolerable. Especially when there is a highly inflammatory new charge in a letter of this nature, its deliberate release into the public arena is clearly designed to manipulate public opinion and create a climate that undermines your ability to display humanitarian compassion in considering Pollard's request.

I would respectfully suggest that it would behoove you to dissociate yourself from such cynical efforts to manipulate public opinion. The person or persons who are responsible for these reprehensible leaks should be held accountable - irrespective of your ultimate decision on the Pollard matter itself.

* * *

In my letter of October 12, I pointed out that while Pollard's crime was absolutely reprehensible, his life sentence seemed incredible for several reasons: the fact that his espionage took place during a time of peace; that the country for which he was charged with spying was a staunch ally of the United States; that he received his sentence after a plea bargain, not a trial; and that his sentence appeared to be disproportionaly harsh compared to the sentences received by other recently convicted spies. On behalf of Agudath Israel of America, I renew my humanitarian plea that you takes these factors into consideration in determining the fate of this man.

Thank you for your consideration of these points, which I hope you will accept in the constructive spirit in which they are offered. All best wishes for the new year.


Rabbi Morris Sherer
President, Agudath Israel of America

  • See also Rabbi Sherer's 1993 letter to Clinton