James D. Besser Interview of Pollards

Special to IMRA - June 3, 2002


James D. Besser, noted columnist for the American Jewish media, asked the following questions of Jonathan Pollard for a new article he is writing. Since Jonathan Pollard did not have clearance from the Navy, he was unable to respond. The responses below are Esther Pollard's:


Over the years your efforts -- and those of people who have supported you to various degrees --have been unsuccessful.


Success depends on how one defines the goal.

Jonathan has unfortunately been the victim of egregiously poor legal representation in the early years. His original attorney failed to file a notice of appeal from a life sentence, which is absolutely unheard of. Jonathan is in jail today because of the poor legal representation he had back then. Of course we wish we could turn back the clock and have had Jonathan properly represented from the outset, but it doesn't work that way.

Recently we were successful in finding new legal representation: Eliot Lauer and Jacques Semmelman, two outstanding litigators who are so devoted to seeking justice in this case that they are working pro bono. They have gotten Jonathan's case back into court and their work has been instrumental in creating a heightened public awareness of the manifest injustice in this case.

Our public relations efforts over the years have brought the Jonathan Pollard case out of the depths of obscurity. The Jewish community is well aware of Jonathan's desperate situation and of the injustice of his case. There is not a Jewish leader today, here or in Israel, who does not know in his heart that Jonathan is the victim of what Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Williams termed "a fundamental miscarriage of justice." However, the unwillingness of Jewish leaders to act upon that knowledge in any meaningful way, unfortunately remains largely unchanged.

While we have not yet achieved our ultimate goal, Jonathan's release from prison, his legal case presses forward and we are continuing our efforts to keep the public informed.


What things do you wish you had done differently?


Jonathan is in jail today because of the poor legal representation he had at the outset. But we can't turn back the clock. Jonathan's new legal counsel is now working assiduously to address the injustice of his sentence - a sentence which violated his constitutional rights and a plea agreement which Jonathan honored and the government did not.

In the realm of PR, there is nothing that we could have done differently which would have outweighed the negative message that years of silence and inaction by Israel and the American Jewish leadership has sent to successive American administrations. The effect of this negative message continues to be felt to this day as successive administrations freely ignore the Pollard issue. For example, recently a historically unprecedented petition signed by virtually the entire Knesset calling for Jonathan's release was hand-delivered to the White House. To date, receipt of the petition has not even been acknowledged.


Is there anything you wish others who have supported you had done differently?


How different things might be today had there been a united effort and meaningful action on the part of Israel and the American Jewish leadership at any time during the last 17 years!


Looking back, what is your assessment of the strengths and the weaknesses of those efforts?


For many years our efforts were undermined because we were forced to fight the battle for Jonathan's freedom on multiple fronts: trying desperately to get the support of the Israeli government in a meaningful way; trying to engage the American Jewish leadership beyond pro forma lip service; and pursuing every legal and political means available to us.

Imagine what might have been accomplished - not only for Jonathan but for the Jewish community as well - if we had been able to devote all of our energies to one common pool of resources and initiatives! Imagine what might still be accomplished today...


An early strategy of some who supported your release was to work with established Jewish organizations in an effort to get their leaders to weigh in on behalf of your release. What is your assessment of that strategy?


We believe that every Jewish organization and every prominent Jew should make Jonathan Pollard a top priority. When a Jew is in prison under these circumstances, it is the obligation of every other Jew to engage in the mitzvah of pidyan shvuyim. All the more so Jewish organizations and leaders. We hope and expect that they will make Jonathan a top priority. Unfortunately, to date, our hopes and expectations have met with bitter disappointment.

A couple of examples:

Example 1:

Through 4 successive administrations, the issue of Jonathan Pollard has never been on the official agenda of any meeting between the White House and Jewish leaders.

We have never asked the Jewish leadership to march a brass band down Pennsylvania Avenue for Jonathan. But their failure over 4 successive administrations to make it known to the president that Jonathan Pollard's grossly disproportionate sentence is a matter of concern to the Jewish community, speaks volumes. The message has not been lost on successive presidents.

Example 2:

Our recent attempts to engage the Jewish leadership, post Clinton, continue to be an exercise in futility. On the heels of the Marc Rich pardon and the revelation of the scandalous involvement of so many prominent American Jews, many Jewish leaders felt sufficiently embarrassed to make public statements about how they would now redouble their efforts on behalf of Pollard. Since then, not a single Jewish leader or organization has followed up with any serious action or responded to our entreaties for help.

In summary, it was and it remains a good strategy for us to reach out to the American Jewish leadership for their involvement in a case that represents a dagger aimed at the heart of the Jewish community. The pity is that after 17 years, with very few exceptions, the Jewish leadership has not reached back...


Some people who have publicly supported you in the past argue that only a quiet, behind-the-scenes campaign for commutation could work, and cite the Marc Rich pardon as an example; Rich never would have been pardoned, they say, if there had been a public campaign. What's your reaction to that argument?


That argument is disingenuous and flies in the face of the facts.

The fact is that for the first 10 years of Jonathan's incarceration, there was no public campaign, and there was absolutely no progress on Jonathan's case. After 10 years of so called "quiet diplomacy" Jonathan was no closer to being released. That was mainly because "quiet diplomacy" is simply a facade to cover up inaction. It was only after 10 years of this farce of "quiet diplomacy" that Jonathan opted to go public.

As for Marc Rich, his pardon was bought at Jonathan's expense. Jonathan was designated the "throw-away" to make it easier for Clinton to pardon Rich. (See Yediot Achronot Expose: Using Pollard to Get Rich.

Israeli and American Jewish leaders did more in 6 weeks to promote a pardon for Rich than they did in 16 years to assist Jonathan! Had they shown a fraction of the initiative for Pollard behind the scenes that they did for Rich, Jonathan would have been free long ago. Instead, they cynically exploited Jonathan's plight to secure a pardon for a criminal fugitive from the law, a man who had never stood trial for his crimes, nor spent a day in prison - but who gave generously to Jewish causes...


Some members of your family and some early supporters claim that efforts on your behalf have taken on a strident, attacking tone that has hurt the chances for commutation.


The most heartbreaking part is the huge amounts of time and energy we have had to waste defending ourselves against irresponsible, irrelevant accusations in the media by those who claim to have Jonathan's best interests at heart. Even if there were any truth to these criticisms - and we maintain that there is not - they are counterproductive and serve only to distract from the focus of the case. This is not the way to help a man who is fighting for his life.


Others suggest there is a level of frustration based on your perception that you have been abandoned that makes such a tone inevitable. I'd like to get your reaction.


This kind of criticism is an excuse, not a reason, which has been exploited by certain individuals to justify their lack of action or non involvement in the case. It is part of a blame-the-victim syndrome.

In Eliot Lauer, Jacques Semmelman and Larry Dub, we are blessed with excellent legal advisors. We also maintain constant communication with Jonathan's spiritual advisor, HaRav Mordecai Eliyahu, the former chief rabbi of Israel. Our advisors, legal and spiritual, are acutely aware that we are literally fighting to save Jonathan's life. We take their counsel to heart and strive to be sober in judgment and measured in our words and deeds. If we do not always succeed, we hope that it will be borne in mind by friends and critics alike that this is a struggle to save a Jewish life.


In your view, have the American Jewish leaders whose organizations have formally called for your release followed through with serious appeals to the government, or have they argued on your behalf in only a pro-forma way?


It is only after numerous futile private appeals to Jewish leaders that we have gone public. Here is a quote from an open letter that I wrote to the American Jewish leaders after yet another meeting in the White House where Jonathan's name was never mentioned:

The complete text is available here.

"...How is it that you, the Jewish leaders, have signed letters to the President calling for Jonathan's release, and yet you consistently fail to express that concern in face to face meetings? "How is it that in front of Jewish audiences, you claim to care so much about Jonathan, yet when you are facing the one man in the world who can sign a document to free him, you are struck dumb?

"As a nation, and as a vibrant American community, all Jews feel deeply shamed by your silence. Your unwillingness to advocate openly and effectively to free Jonathan Pollard - after 16 years of this ordeal - demeans us as a people. Jewish history watches. Jonathan Pollard waits. How can you abandon him this way?"


Some have suggested that your effort to get the government of Israel to acknowledge that you worked as their agent, and to gain Israeli citizenship, ultimately hurt your efforts to win commutation by implying that you are not genuinely remorseful. What is your response to those arguments?


FIRSTLY, the Israeli citizenship issue has nothing at all to do with the issue of remorse. Jonathan has expressed remorse from the outset. Jonathan pled guilty, and he cooperated with the government. Jonathan has repeatedly expressed remorse for his actions. Jonathan cited some of his numerous expressions of remorse in a letter he wrote to President Clinton dated December 3, 2000: "Over the years, I have expressed publicly and privately how deeply sorry I am for what I did. I have acknowledged without equivocation how wrong my conduct was. I have expressed this to members of Congress, local elected officials from throughout the United States, officials of foreign governments, members of the clergy of all faiths, and other prominent citizens." Many who have met him have written about Jonathan's remorse. For example, in 1996, Elie Wiesel wrote that, in two face-to-face meetings, Jonathan "impressed me with his deep feelings of remorse."

SECONDLY, the myth of Jonathan's lack of remorse has been recycled and perpetuated by those who oppose any effort to secure justice for Jonathan Pollard. As far as they are concerned, no matter how much remorse Jonathan expresses it is never enough.

Why is it the same individuals who are never satisfied with Pollard's remorse had nothing to say when in 1999 President Clinton freed 14 unrepentant FALN terrorists against the advice of the Justice, Intelligence and Defense Departments and Congress?

Why is it that these people have no qualms about the amount of remorse shown by those who committed far more serious crimes by spying for a hostile nation and utter not a word when they are set free?

Why was there never a word of protest when any of the most infamous Soviet spies were sent free. Some recent examples include:

  • MICHAEL WALKER, part of the infamous WALKER SPY RING, was arrested in 1985, the same year as Jonathan Pollard. The spy ring he belonged to operated for 17 years, selling sensitive US military secrets to the Soviet Union, causing what authorities described as extensive damage to national security. He was sentenced to 25 years. WALKER IS A FREE MAN TODAY.

  • CLAYTON LONETREE, a marine sergeant guarding the US Embassy in Moscow, spied for the KGB and was sentenced in 1987 to 30 years. The documents he gave to the Soviets included the blueprints of the US Embassy buildings in Moscow and Vienna and the names and identities of US undercover intelligence agents in the Soviet Union jeopardizing their lives and the lives of the Embassy employees. LONETREE IS A FREE MAN TODAY.

  • RICHARD MILLER is the first FBI agent ever tried for espionage. He turned over American secrets, including a counter-intelligence manual, to the Soviets. He was sentenced to 20 years. MILLER IS A FREE MAN TODAY.

  • ABDEL KADER HELMY, a missile researcher, was sentenced in 1989 for selling technology related to the Condor Missile project to Egypt which found its way to Iraq. He got 48 months and served considerably less. HELMY IS A FREE MAN TODAY.

  • SAMUEL MORISON, a Navy analyst, removed scores of confidential material, including photos he sold that were printed in Jane's Defense Weekly. The Photos were classified SCI; exposing such sensitive material carries a mandatory life sentence. The grandson of an illustrious Navy Historian, his family ties are the only way to explain why in 1985 he was sentenced to only 2 years, and served only 3 months. What is more, in spite of extreme opposition by the CIA to clemency, Morison received a full pardon from former President Clinton in January 2001. MORISON IS A FREE MAN TODAY.
THIRDLY, I believe that what truly bothers those who criticize my husband's bid for Israeli citizenship and recognition of his agent status, is not the questions it raises about remorse, but the questions it raises about the US - Israel special relationship.


  • Why is it that Michael Schwartz, a non-Jew who committed a similar offense, but did it for a different ally, Saudi Arabia, received no more than a slap on the wrist for his crime? He confessed, was indicted and about to stand trial, when in deference to the Saudis, a quick deal was worked out. Schwartz's only punishment was a less-than-honorable discharge from the navy and loss of navy pension and rank. Schwartz did not serve a single day in jail! Whereas my husband is in his 17th year of a life sentence for the same offense as Schwartz, but on behalf of Israel.

  • Why has the Schwartz case been hushed up? Why is Congress not pursuing the probable Schwartz/Saudi connection to Al-Qaeda? Is it because it would be too embarrassing today to discover that Al-Qaeda was provided with sensitive intelligence by an American who spied for Saudi Arabia and never served a day in jail for his crimes?

  • Why is Israel's spy the only spy who can never be forgiven? Jonathan Pollard is Israel's agent. When American officials insist that Pollard can never be forgiven, it is the people of Israel that they are continuing to punish. As long as Jonathan remains in prison his case continues to be exploited by elements within the American Administration to call into question Israel's reliability as an ally and the loyalty of the American Jewish Community.
If the reason that Israel ran a spy in Washington no longer exits; if the war-in-the-shadows which deprived her of vital security information to which she was entitled is no longer being waged by elements in the administration hostile to the US-Israel special relationship, then why is Jonathan Pollard still in jail?

Falsely accusing Jonathan of a lack of remorse does not answer this troubling question.

LASTLY, and most importantly, fear of the accusation of dual loyalty, more than any other factor, accounts for the most shrill and unrelenting accusations against Jonathan by certain Jewish leaders. Prominent Jews such as Senator Joseph Lieberman continue to support efforts to block relief for Jonathan, repeating and recycling unsubstantiated government accusations as a means of proving their own bona fides as loyal Americans. To this day, such notables refuse to confront the facts of the case. Instead they continue blindly to endorse the government's worst accusations against Jonathan - accusations which have always been leveled at him in the media, never in a court of law where he might face his accusers and defend himself.

While fear of dual loyalty does not justify the antipathy of these Jewish leaders to the Pollard case, it should be noted that their fears are not baseless. In an article in the L.A. Jewish Journal, J.J. Goldberg, now editor of NY Forward, wrote that according to high-ranking sources Jonathan's sentence has less to do with the offense he committed than it does with the government's need to send a message to the Jews:

"High-ranking sources say that it was the Joint Chiefs of Staff who urged the judge, through then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, to ignore the plea agreement and throw the book at Pollard. The reason was their fear of thousands more Pollards inside the defense establishment. They wanted to send a message: This isn't acceptable... Pollard is still in jail, these sources say, not because his crime merits his lengthy sentence -- it doesn't -- but because too many American Jews still haven't gotten the message." (CRIME AND PUNISHMENT - L.A. Jewish Journal, April 3, 1998),

Rather than confront those elements within the Administration that are using the Pollard case to intimidate Israel and the American Jewish community, these craven Jews blame the victim.


Did gaining Israeli citizenship help your cause, hurt your cause, or is it essentially irrelevant to your fight to get out of jail?


Some background first:

During the time that he served as Israel's agent, Jonathan had been promised Israeli citizenship. After Jonathan's arrest, as a damage control measure, Israel revoked its offer of citizenship and colluded with the US during his plea hearing to deny that he was ever an Israeli agent. This effectively stripped Jonathan of all the political protections that automatically accrue to a bona fide agent.

For 10 years Jonathan worked through quiet channels to secure his citizenship and to have his agent status acknowledged. Throughout that time Israel stalled, insisting that it was engaged in "quiet diplomacy" and that he would soon be free, so just be patient.

For 10 years this stalling tactic played itself out: Israel continued to lie about its involvement in the affair and Jonathan continued to be smeared in the media as a rogue operator, and worse. Throughout that time, Israel insisted that it had no official standing in Jonathan's case and therefore refused to openly intervene on his behalf for fear of being accused of meddling in American internal affairs.

After 10 years of this farce, Jonathan decided to go public. Citizenship and acknowledgment as a bona fide Israeli agent were hard-won victories which, ipso facto, conferred upon Israel the necessary standing to intervene in the US on behalf of their agent.

Now to respond to your question about the relevance of citizenship to Jonathan's struggle:

In granting Jonathan citizenship in 1995, Israel finally acknowledged its responsibility for him and laid to rest years of lies about its involvement in the Pollard affair. This was a critical development since Jonathan's legal case had been so thoroughly botched by ineffective counsel.

Jonathan's Israeli citizenship and his agent status remain essential to a possible political solution in a case that has been a festering wound between Israel and the US for 17 years. It also continues to be critical to combating the old lies and slander that resurface in the media from time to time about Jonathan being a rogue agent and a mercenary.

Israel's openly granting Jonathan citizenship was a signal to the US that it was willing to take responsibility for Jonathan and that it was ready to negotiate his release. Between close friends and strong allies that should have been enough. The late Prime Minister Rabin sought Jonathan's release from then-President Clinton who promised to free him as part of the Oslo process then underway. When Rabin was assassinated, Clinton reneged and used the opportunity to try to renegotiate the price for Jonathan's release with Shimon Peres who then took office. Jonathan continued to languish.

Jonathan's 1995 citizenship paved the way in 1998 for Israel to admit openly that he was their agent and to state publicly that it would take full responsibility for him. This official recognition as a bona fide Israeli agent finally and definitively put the lie to a smear campaign in the media which for years characterized Jonathan as a rogue operator and a mercenary.

In 1998, Prime Minister Netanyahu negotiated for Jonathan's release as an integral part of the Wye Accords. At Wye, President Clinton committed the US to Jonathan's release but then reneged at the last moment. That US commitment to Israel for Jonathan's release still stands. It has yet to be honored.

Jonathan's status as a citizen and agent continues to legitimize efforts on the part of Israel to demonstrate its concern for him. Recently, in a historically unprecedented move, 110 Members of Knesset put aside their political differences to send a petition to President Bush calling for the release of Jonathan Pollard. The petition was signed by the Prime Minister and every Cabinet Minister as well as every member of every Jewish political faction. Never before in the history of Israel has any one issue received such unanimous support. (It is the equivalent of President Bush and the entire American Congress signing a petition to a close ally.)

The petition was hand-delivered to the White House on February 7, 2002. We are still waiting for a response...

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