By Jonathan S. Tobin
Throughout the decades during which the fate of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard has been debated, those advocating for his freedom have been told that they need to follow the legal process rather than relying on political pressure, whether from sympathetic Israelis or Americans, to grant him clemency. In particular, once the time drew near for his first parole hearing, those who considered his life sentence disproportionate were warned to focus on that avenue rather than others that merely provoked the usual round of apoplectic responses from the U.S. security establishment. But now that the news has belatedly come out that Pollard was summarily denied parole in August after his first request for parole since his 1985 imprisonment on grounds that are inarguably false, the arguments for some sort of presidential intervention in the issue appear much stronger.
Let’s specify, as I wrote in a COMMENTARY magazine essay in 2011 after he had already spent 25 years in prison, that Jonathan Pollard is not the hero or the martyr some of his less reasonable supporters claim him to be. The former U.S. Navy analyst did great damage to the United States when he spied for Israel from 1984 to 1985. He also did great harm to the alliance between the two countries, the blame for which also belongs to his cynical Israeli handlers as well as the trio of leaders of the Jewish state at the time, of which only one, Shimon Peres, is still alive after the deaths of Yitzhak Rabin and Yitzhak Shamir. The spy also deserves opprobrium for lending credence to those anti-Semites and foes of Israel who have tried to cast a shadow on the service of the many loyal American Jews that work in the defense establishment.
But once we admit that, the argument for his continued incarceration is insubstantial. Pollard’s sentence was far greater than that given to anyone who has ever spied for a nation that is a close ally of the United States. Moreover, the claims made at the time of his arrest that he was somehow responsible for the penetration of U.S. intelligence by the Soviet Union was exploded in the years following his arrest when it was revealed that naval officer John Walker, national security analyst Ronald Pelton, and especially Aldrich Ames, a top CIA counterintelligence officer, were actually working for the Russians. Those facts now make the over-the-top claims that Pollard’s espionage was the worst in American history by then Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger look more like hyperbole than analysis. Even Weinberger subsequently backtracked from that assertion and admitted that the Pollard case was a relatively “minor matter.”
But if reports of the Parole Board’s deliberations are correct, Weinberger’s outdated claims were precisely what led to Pollard being denied parole.
That’s why a group of eight former top U.S. defense officials have signed a letter denouncing the decision and calling for clemency for Pollard.
It should be understood that although what Pollard did was wrong and deserved harsh punishment, there is simply no rationale for keeping him in prison. Considering that other spies for friendly foreign powers have been routinely deported, exchanged, or given far less harsh sentences, the treatment meted out to Pollard is disproportionate and therefore unjust. Nor, despite the hysteria in the defense establishment about keeping him in prison, is there any reason to keep him there for security purposes. There is literally nothing secret that he might still remember from his days at the Navy Department that is of the least utility to anyone 30 years later.
One doesn’t have to think well of Pollard or even of some of his vocal supporters to understand that there is something egregious about the desire of some in the government to see him die in prison after so much time served. As I documented in my magazine article, Pollard has suffered from bad legal representation and just as inept efforts by some who have worked on his behalf in the public sphere. But for the Parole Commission to buy into the old Weinberger myths about the fantastic nature of his crime presented by the government at the hearing was wrong.
The Obama administration, which is the least friendly to Israel since that of Dwight Eisenhower, would seem an unlikely candidate to free Pollard and it is doubtful that anyone in the White House is seriously considering his fate. But if the president is interested in a cost-free way to lower tensions with Jerusalem caused by the egregious “chickensh*t” controversy as well as the debate about nuclear negotiations with Iran, they might consider putting an end to the travesty of his continued imprisonment. Pollard constitutes a permanent irritant to the alliance. That is especially true because of the predilection on the part of some in both the Clinton and Obama administrations for spreading loose talk about using his freedom as a bargaining chip in Middle East negotiations even though it is doubtful than any Israeli government would give up on its security interests for the sake of the spy.
Keeping Pollard in prison on the basis of old and inaccurate accusations is just wrong. What he did was bad enough and for that all associated with the incident should hang their heads in shame. But it is time for someone in the U.S. government to put an end to this mockery of justice and let him go.