Freedom for Pollard is just, despite failed deal to advance peace talks

Israelis call for the release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard during President Obama’s visit to Jerusalem, March 19, 2013.
Israelis call for the release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard during President Obama’s visit to Jerusalem, March 19, 2013.

In a last, desperate, attempt to save the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks from failure, a tripartite deal was hurriedly cooked: Israel would reportedly freeze settlements and release Palestinian prisoners, the Palestinians would stay at the negotiating table, and the Americans would release Jonathan Pollard, the former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst, who was jailed for life in 1987 for passing secret documents to Israel.

The deal failed, not the least because Pollard himself, who has been serving an unprecedented 28 years in prison, his health deteriorating, has reportedly rejected it. The deal, however, shouldn’t have been suggested in the first place. Pollard should have been released long ago, on the grounds of both justice and humanity.

Indeed, it’s really not nice to spy on your allies. This is just “not done,” as proper British gentlemen would say. Unless, of course, you are the United States of America. When ex-intelligence analyst Edward Snowden leaked that the NSA had monitored its European friends and allies, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius expressed shock, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel was fuming. What was the American response? National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden had this to say: “As a matter of policy we have made clear that the United States gathers foreign intelligence of the type gathered by all nations.” Aha.

So the real sin is not spying; it is being caught spying. But this way or another, did Pollard the spy harm vital American interests? It seems that he didn’t. According to a damage assessment of the Pollard case conducted by the CIA in 1987, and which has been declassified and released last December by the National Security Archives at George Washington University, “[Pollard’s] Israeli handlers asked primarily for nuclear, military and technical information on the Arab states, Pakistan, and the Soviet Union — not on the United States.”

However, even spies who had actually injured American interests didn’t fare as bad as Pollard. James Woolsey, former director of the CIA, wrote in the Wall Street Journal (July 4, 2012), that “The recently convicted spies for such countries as Saudi Arabia, Ghana, Ecuador, Egypt, the Philippines and South Korea are serving less than a decade. One especially damaging Greek-American spy, Steven Lalas, received a 14-year sentence, just over half of what Pollard has already served.” Woolsey was aware of American Jews’ sensitivity to the Pollard case, being afraid of the charge of dual loyalty, so he had an original suggestion: “For those hung up for some reason on the fact that he’s an American Jew, pretend he’s a Greek- or Korean- or Filipino-American and free him.”

Woolsey is not alone in calling for the commuting of the remainder of Pollard’s sentence of life imprisonment. Former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Schultz also urged President Obama to release him. So did 17 senators, in a letter from Oct. 26, 2011. Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, later a judge, wrote to the president that in more than 18 years on the bench, he imposed life sentences on four defendants only: “Two of them committed and ordered multiple murders,” the others being terrorists.

“Pollard’s offence does not really approach any of those,” he concluded. Phillip Heymann, law professor at Harvard University, who, as deputy attorney general (1993-4) reviewed the Pollard file, enthusiastically concurred. “Pollard’s conviction was justified,” he wrote to the president, “but his sentence was entirely out-of-line with others engaged in similar behavior.”

Why did Jonathan Pollard receive a life sentence when Robert Kim, a former naval intelligence analyst, who was convicted of passing classified information to South Korea, has been given only a nine-year sentence, and released after seven years in prison? Heymann seems to know the answer. He points to Caspar Weinberger, secretary of defense at the time of Pollard’s trial, who asked the judge to impose a sentence even harsher than what the prosecution had asked. “Treacherous recommendations,” Prof. Heymann calls this conduct.

Lawrence Korb, who had been assistant secretary of defense at the time of Pollard’s arrest, wrote to the president as well, referring to his former boss Weinberger in even harsher terms.

The last word should be given to William Webster, director of the FBI at the time of Pollard’s arrest, who later headed the CIA and today serves as chairman of the Homeland Security Advisory Council. The 90-year-old Webster, who probably knows more about the Pollard case than anyone, gave an interview to the Jerusalem Post (Jan. 2, 2014), in which he explained why he now supports the release of Pollard: “My reason is that there are circumstances where compassion is in order. That can be tested against sentences that have been meted out to others with as serious offenses. All those are matters of judgment that can be made on their own individual facts, but there is nothing there that would lead me to oppose the exercise of commutation.”

With so many distinguished Americans who know something about national security saying that enough is enough, the time has come to free Jonathan Pollard. And there is no better timing: Next week is Pesach, the festival of freedom. Let him go.

Uri Dromi is executive director of the Jerusalem Press Club.