Pardon Pollard, Mr. President

Jerusalem Post - Editorial - January 10, 2001

As he spends his last days in office working to secure some semblance of a productive dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians, US President Bill Clinton should pause and remember Jonathan Pollard. Pardoning the convicted Israeli spy would not garner the same glory as international peacemaking, to be sure, nor could it win the outgoing president any political gain. It would be little more than a pure humanitarian act - and what more could there be?

There is no question that Pollard's crime of passing classified information to Israel while working as a US Navy analyst was serious - it was. Nor is it in question that he deserved to be punished - he has been. Indeed, he himself expressed "deep remorse" in a letter to Clinton last month. The issue is: After 15 years in maximum security prisons, including seven in solitary confinement, further incarceration of Pollard would be a miscarriage of justice.

Alan Dershowitz, Irwin Cotler, Kenneth Lasson (all law professors), and Angelo Codevilla (professor and former Senate Intelligence Committee staffer) pointed out in a Washington Post op-ed last year that Pollard was neither charged nor convicted of the crime of treason. "Nor was there anything in his indictment to suggest that he intended to harm America - or that he compromised the nation's intelligence-gathering capabilities or caused injury to any of its agents," the op-ed continued.

As unseemly as it may be, allies spy on each other all the time. When they are caught, the rules of the game dictate that the matter be settled quietly, usually by expulsion. In no case has the punishment for spying for an ally carried anywhere near as harsh a sentence as the one Pollard is serving. Pollard was charged with one count of passing classified information to an ally, and sentenced to life in prison without parole. The current maximum sentence for this offense is 10 years, and the median sentence is about three years. Pollard, by contrast, is being treated more harshly than Aldridge Ames, who was held responsible for the deaths of 10 American agents, convicted of treason - and sentenced to life in prison. Ames did not serve for years in solitary confinement, nor was he confined in as harsh a prison environment as Pollard's.

Pollard's life sentence, besides being considerably disproportionate to other sentences for similar crimes, was in gross violation of his plea agreement with the government. Under that agreement, according to which Pollard pled guilty and cooperated with the prosecution, the government pledged not to call for a life sentence. Though two judges on a three-judge panel upheld Pollard's sentence by ruling against his appeal on technical grounds, the third judge found that the government's breach of its plea agreement was "a complete and gross miscarriage of justice."

It is clear that Pollard violated his oaths to secrecy and unjustifiably took the law into his own hands. However, he did so not to harm the United States, but to provide Israel with intelligence that he believed the US should have been sharing with its close ally. In doing so, Pollard harmed that alliance, as did those Israelis who acted recklessly in cooperating with him.

In Israel, Pollard's fate is a matter of national concern. He is not lionized for his crime, but he is embraced as a patriot across the political spectrum, as a rare joint letter signed by Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak last year illustrates. The letter stated: "Concerning Mr. Pollard, the people of Israel and virtually all its political parties stand as one."

That is why Pollard has featured prominently in almost every US-brokered peace summit, with his pardon mooted by the Israelis as part of a comprehensive accord, but rejected by the Americans. In these situations, Clinton was swayed by the US intelligence community, with its unrelenting antipathy toward Pollard. Indeed, he is understood to have declined Netanyahu's appeal during the 1999 Wye River talks after CIA chief George Tenet threatened to quit if Pollard was released.

There is no more such pressure. On January 20 the US administration will change, and with it the entire upper echelon. Those working to free Pollard will have to renew and redouble their efforts, facing a White House likely less sympathetic to the cause than Clinton's. The outgoing president, who has professed and proven his affection for Israel, now has a chance to demonstrate this by giving an American native and Israeli national his liberty. This simple act would redress a grave injustice, and serve as a valedictory gesture that would be long remembered.

See Also:
  • A Pardon For Pollard