Pollard's theater of the absurd

Professor Avraham Ben-Zvi - Israel Hayom - April 8, 2014

Plenty of ink has already been used in the latest installment of the Jonathan Pollard's case, describing the window of opportunity that has finally presented itself, affording all those involved a chance to end his near-three-decade incarceration. Nevertheless, it has yet to be stressed just how absurd and disproportional the sentence imposed on him was.

The best way to illustrate the issue is to compare Pollard's case to that of Steven Lalas, a Greek American who served as a Defense Department official, and who in 1993 was convicted of espionage-related offenses in connection with passing sensitive military and diplomatic information to Greece for over 16 years.

The information Lalas had divulged included sensitive files on Turkey's military capabilities in the Aegean Sea and in Cyprus. Unlike the information divulged by Pollard, which was deemed by the CIA as benign to U.S. national security, Lalas gave his Athens handlers information that included the names of U.S. intelligence assets worldwide, various counterterrorism measures taken by the U.S., and other secrets pertaining to the American strategy in other key theaters, such as the Balkans and Southeast Asia.

Still, Lalas was sentenced to only 14 years in prison and his case failed to evoke even a fraction of the media interest the Pollard affair has garnered. The Lalas affair was quickly set aside -- it did not cause a rift in U.S.-Greece relations nor did it inspire an allegiance crisis between Americans of Greek descent and Athens. The Lalas case barely registered on the public discourse in the U.S. and his 2007 release met with public and media apathy.

Unlike the vindictive approach taken by the American administration and its various proxies toward Pollard, the U.S. showed Lalas leniency right from the start, despite the fact that he failed two polygraph tests and authorities knew that the little he had confessed to was a mere fraction of his true activities.

The unusually damning memorandum compiled by then-U.S. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and delivered to Judge Aubrey Robinson, who presided over Pollard's sentencing hearing, played a key role in the character assassination of which Pollard was a victim. The memorandum, which was grounded in baseless speculations, sealed Pollard's fate for decades to come.

The assertion by senior U.S. officials that Israel had only partially met its obligations to cooperate with the Pollard investigation and their unfounded suspicions that he did not act alone only exacerbated his disproportionate sentence and the U.S.'s adamant refusal to pardon him.

An unexpected ray of light cut through that darkness over the past few days, breaking the taboo that bred a united bureaucratic front against Pollard's release. Surprisingly, this ray of light came courtesy of National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, whose actions unveiled the unprecedented scope of the U.S.'s own espionage against its partners and allies, and dwarfed Pollard's acts, making them pale in comparison. The U.S.'s voracious appetite for information has afforded a new, albeit marginal, perspective on the issue.

Only time will tell if lifting this psychological barrier will indeed facilitate Pollard's long-overdue release. It is one he is entitled to without any preconditions.

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