A Second Look at the Pollard Case

June 6, 1995 - Milton Viorst - International Herald Tribune

Washington - The other day, I received a form letter from Avi Weiss, an activist Rabbi known for his strident positions on behalf of Jewish causes. He describes himself as the "personal rabbi" of Jonathan Pollard, the intelligence officer sentenced to life imprisonment in 1987 for spying for Israel. The letter calls for Mr. Pollard's release when he comes up for parole this year.

According to Rabbi Weiss, Mr. Pollard is the victim of anti-semitism. Mr. Pollard was "arrested as an American, punished as a Jew," he writes, and Mr. Pollard's case symbolizes "the right of Jews to be judged by the same standard as other Americans." Rabbi Weiss does not deny his client's guilt; rather, he insists that the life sentence was a penalty imposed because he is Jewish.

Rabbi Weiss offers no evidence to support his allegations, and I find the tone of his letter to be reprehensible. Like most Jews, I have no sympathy for Mr. Pollard, nor do I identify with the segment of my community that extols the purity of his motives. Since his imprisonment, furthermore, he has come across in interviews as self-pitying and impertinent.

And yet, as an American, I have concerns about the sentence. The issue is not Jewish; it is one of elemental justice.

Mr. Pollard spied for a friendly state; wisely or not, the U.S. judicial system distinguishes between spies for hostile and friendly states. In recent years, nine Americans, including Aldrich Ames, were given life sentences as spies for the Soviet Union; a dozen or so others received sentences ranging from 15 to 30 years. But the sentences of those convicted of spying for friendly states varied from two to eight years.

Mr. Pollard, prior to trial, was offered a deal in return for pleading guilty: The prosecution would not ask for a life term. After he pleaded, however, the prosecutors handed the judge a 46-page affidavit from then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, who said he could not "conceive of greater harm to national security" than Mr. Pollard's. On Mr. Weinberger's word, the judge rejected the prosecution's deal and imposed the life sentence.

The Weinberger document, however, was then and has since remained secret, and as a result, Americans know nothing of the judge's grounds for his decision. A year or so go, when Mr. Pollard was preparing a clemency petition, not even his attorney, who had been cleared by the government to see classified information, was permitted to review Mr. Weinberger's declaration.

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees to any accused an open trial, a right designed to allow the citizenry to monitor the fairness of the judicial process. Lawyers acknowledge that the courts have never articulated a comparable doctrine for sentencing. Still, a sense of fairness suggests that a person should not be committed to prison for life without the public knowing why.

The government's strategy has been to leak information about Mr. Pollard's crime to the press.

The press has told us that from prison, Mr. Pollard continued to supply Israel with secrets, though most of his time has been served in solitary confinement. This leak has kept his lawyers from arguing that what their client knows is so outdated that the government can safely release him.

The issue involved here is not whether the leaks were true. The question concerns official procedures and domestic liberties. Surely, no American should have to spend a life in prison on the basis of secret proceedings.

In denying clemency to Mr. Pollard last year, President Bill Clinton spoke of the "enormity" of his crime. Maybe so, but "enormity," without evidence, is just a word. Mr. Pollard has been in prison for nearly a decade. Why not release the Weinberger memo now?

I do not subscribe to Rabbi Weiss's claim that Mr. Pollard is rotting in jail because he is a Jew. But I believe Americans deserve to know why he is.

See Also:
  • Pollard & Haddam: Prisoners of Secret Evidence