Jonathan Pollard - Still The Man In The Iron Mask

Richard Z. Chesnoff - The New York Daily News Op-Ed page, January 2, 1998

Folks concerned with justice for Jonathan Pollard had a measure of glad tidings this holiday season: the Israeli government finally decided to move the Pollard issue to a political front burner.

The former American naval intelligence aide who spied for Israel has languished in prison for more than 12 years. But now Deputy Defense Minister Silvan Shalom says the Netanyahu government would actively seek clemency for him from the U.S.

Over the past few weeks, no less than two members of the Israeli cabinet have made "official" visits to Pollard (now an Israeli citizen), at the North Carolina federal pentitentury where he's serving a life sentence. The Navy even allowed two Israeli journalists to accompany one of the ministers and, believe it or not, to interview Pollard - something authorities steadfastly refused over the past decade.

I'm pleased that Pollard finally was able to speak his mind. But I am flabbergasted that the US grants foreign newsmen unfettered access when they deny it to American journalists.

My request to interview Pollard, for example, was filed more than a year ago. Navy officials conditioned it on my agreeing to surrender notebooks and tapes if Pollard said something that "might be a security risk" -- in other words anything they didn't like. That's a form of censorship they know no serious journalist will agree to. The Daily News's legal wizard, Eve Burton, has just reminded the Navy that's there's a thing called the Constitution as part of our continuing pursuit of the interview..

Federal authorities have been trying to keep Pollard in an iron mask ever since he was caught passing classified information to the Israelis in 1985. The data dealt with Arab threats to Israel's existance -- including details of Syrian poison gas production and America's arming of Iraq.

Whether Pollard's motives were good or not, he broke American law and he clearly deserved to pay for the offense. Problem is he was overcharged -- or rather, oversentenced: life with scant chance for parole.

The Israelis, embarassed by their botched caper, quickly disavowed any official responsibility for Pollard. When he sought asylum in their Washington embassy, they turned him away. And after his capture, they tried spinning the affair away by claiming it was a "rogue operation". To this day, the Israeli government refuses to officially acknowledge Pollard as their spy. That's so infuriated him that he recently sued the Israeli government demanding they finally fess up. As for trying to get him released, successive Israeli prime ministers have made only feeble pleas for clemency during their visits to the White House.

The Israelis aren't the only ones who let Pollard down. Most of the American Jewish leadership has stuck its collective head in the sand, fearful that any overt action to help Pollard would tar them and the community with charges of "dual loyalism". As a result, there has neer been a national campaign to say "Yes, this man did wrong. But he has served more than 12 years in tough prison conditions. Let him go already and let him leave for Israel where he wants to make his life."

That freedom may now be closer than ever. I hear that Pollard's fate has already come up in talks with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright who's currently seeking major diplomatic concessions from the Israelis. A quid pro quo? If so, it's an equitable solution.

Meanwhile, Americans as well as Israeli journalists should be allowed to interview Pollard without mindless restrictions. Authorities should stop compounding one injustice with another.

See other articles by Richard Chesnoff:

  • Let This Spy Come In Out of the Cold
  • I Spy A Clear Double Standard
  • Why Is the Navy Stonewalling on Pollard?
  • Seeing Pollard: Navy Is Being Double-Faced