'Enough is enough': Obama bombarded with demands for release of polarizing spy Jonathan Pollard

Scott Barber - National Post - March 22, 2013

Much has been made of U.S. President Barack Obama's inability to close down the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, and the government's failure to extend basic civil liberties to the inmates. At least those being held at Guantanamo are enemies of the United States. Much less attention has been given to the treatment of one of America's allies, who has been languishing in a North Carolina prison cell for 28 years.

Jonathan Pollard was a United States Navy intelligence analyst who, in the mid-1980s, discovered the U.S. government was deliberately withholding vital intelligence about nuclear and chemical weapons being developed by Syria, Iraq, Lybia and Iran from the Israelis - information Israel was legally entitled to under the terms of a Memorandum of Understanding between the two countries.

Politicians, protesters, even a heckler united during Barack Obama's first presidential visit to Israel to urge him to release spy Jonathan Pollard from a U.S. prison.

Mr. Obama had just landed at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport when he was bombarded with requests for clemency for the 58-year-old.

Housing Minister Uri Ariel begged "please, free Pollard," while shaking the president's hand. Livnor Livnat, the culture and sport minister, asked him "not to forget our brother Jonathan Pollard."

Thousands of Israeli protesters shouted "Yes, you can," a play on Mr. Obama's famous campaign theme, at him in support of the jailed American intelligence agent. And when the U.S. president gave a major speech to Israeli students, he was interrupted by a heckler calling for Pollard to be freed.

During Pollard's 28 years of incarceration - the longest period ever served for spying for an ally - he has been a lighting rod of controversy, hailed as a hero by many on the Israeli right, viewed as a dangerous symbol of dual loyalty by others.

"After such a long term, it is clear that keeping him in prison no longer serves any rational purpose," said Mordechai Kremnitzer, vice-president of research for the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem. "Taking into account that he was not even charged with the intent to harm the United States, his life sentence is excessive."

As Pollard nears his 10,000th day behind bars and as the growing chorus for his release gets louder, the U.S. appears more intransigent than ever.

This is despite the release of hundreds of declassified documents from his file by the Central Intelligence Agency in December that validate the claim Pollard passed information to increase Israel's security, not to harm the United States.

So why does he deserve such unusual treatment?

Pollard was convicted of espionage in 1987, after handing Israeli intelligence officials thousands of classified documents procured in his role as an intelligence analyst with the U.S. Navy. He pleaded guilty and cooperated with investigators in a plea bargain deal to avoid a life sentence.

But the deal was quashed by the judge under the direction of Caspar Weinberger, then-secretary of state

The circumstances surrounding the broken plea deal were mysterious. Ostensibly, it was broken because of an interview Pollard gave to Wolf Blitzer, then a reporter for the Jerusalem Post.

"Pollard's willingness to grant an interview to journalist Wolf Blitzer for the Jerusalem Post without obtaining advance approval of the resulting text from the Justice Department violated the terms of his plea bargain," says one of the newly declassified documents.

But as Pollard's wife, Esther, told the newspaper recently, no one had banned her husband from speaking to the press. Also, he would have had to obtain written permission from the Bureau of Prisons and the government could have sent someone to monitor the interview.

Ms. Pollard also said Mr. Blitzer said several years later it appeared approval for the interview was "part of a calculated scheme" by prosecutors to violate the plea agreement.

The year of Pollard's arrest - 1985 - has been called The Year of the Spy. There were eight high-profile arrests, but Pollard got the harshest treatment, including seven years in solitary confinement.

Other spies, like Randy Jeffries, a Federal Bureau of Investigations clerk who snooped for the Soviet Union, and Sharon Scranage, who spied for Ghana, were sentenced to three and two years respectively. Richard Smyth got 40 months for illegally shipping krytron- used electrical switches that detonate nuclear weapons - to Israel.

In the mid-1990s, Robert Kim, who spied for another U.S. ally, South Korea, was punished with nine years in prison, of which he served seven.

Pollard's disproportionate sentence led to conspiracy theories.

"There has been speculation that Pollard revealed more information than has been made public," said Gil Troy, research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

"Some believe that behind the scenes, he was accused of giving up American agents who were being killed at the time. But the subsequent cases of [Aldrich] Ames and [Robert] Hanssen would seem to vindicate him."

Ames and Hanssen are seen as two of the worst spies in U.S. history, responsible for identifying scores of CIA operatives to the Soviets during the 1980s and 1990s. But neither was caught until years after Pollard's trial.

"When these new revelations came out 10, 20 years later, why not just release the guy?" Mr. Troy asked.

There were also suggestions there "may have been some other American Jews in the government that were working with Pollard," said Seymour Reich, former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

"Some people thought [Pollard] was holding names back during the investigation."

However, the newly released CIA documents show the information Pollard turned over was limited to states such as Tunisia, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and the Soviet Union. It was intelligence on mutual enemies, Pollard's supporters say, Israel was entitled to under a memorandum of understanding signed with the United States in 1983.

However, detractors describe Pollard as a mercenary who sold secrets to the highest bidder. He received thousands of dollars from Israeli officials, as well the diamond engagement ring he gave his first wife when they got engaged.

Now, with Pollard in ill health, a humanitarian case is being made for his release.

There's a greater sense that this is a real injustice

"Increasingly as the years accumulate and the gap between Pollard's sentence and the years served by other spies grows, there's a greater sense that this is a real injustice," Mr Troy said.

Both President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were expected to raise the Pollard case privately with Mr. Obama during his visit.

Israel society has embraced his cause, with polls in the Jerusalem Post showing nearly 80% of respondents support his release. But his popularity and superstar status may have hurt his chances for clemency.

"In the past, there was a misconceived idea to make him into a hero," said Mr. Kremnitzer. "It was not helpful because it's not appealing for the Americans to think that they are releasing a hero."

Meanwhile, the list of Americans calling for his release grows.

"It's a bipartisan issue," Mr. Reich said.

"You have former secretaries of state George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former assistant secretary of defence [under Caspar Weinberger] Lawrence Korb, and even former CIA director James Woolsey who has seen Pollard's file, all supporting a pardon."

But before his Israel visit, Mr. Obama said he had "no plans for releasing Jonathan Pollard immediately."

Some have suggested Pollard is a bargaining chip for the U.S. government.

Former U.S. diplomat Dennis Ross admitted then-president Bill Clinton used Pollard in this way during the Wye negotiations, an Israeli-Palestinian peace summit in 1998.

A deal was nearly reached that would have seen Pollard pardoned, but it was quashed when George Tenet, the CIA head, threatened to resign.

Others suggest Pollard's crimes were much wider, including deals with Pakistan and South Africa, and caused billions of dollars worth of damage, though such claims were essentially repudiated by the declassification of the CIA's damage assessment of the spy.

Still, some observers have argued regardless of who Pollard spied for or how his sentence compared to other cases, he is a criminal who deserved his fate.

"Pollard is no hero of Israel," Martin Peretz wrote in The New Republic last year.

"He was paid for his filthy work which, in any case, he had offered to do for other countries, including the Judaeophobic Pakistan. His moral profile is, then, truly disgusting."

Bret Stephens, writing in the Wall Street Journal this month, also made the case for Pollard's continued incarceration.

"What's inequitable about Pollard's sentence isn't that his is too heavy, it's that the sentences of spies like Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen and Robert Kim have been too light."

For Mr. Troy, three words sum up the Pollard case: "Enough is enough."

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