Jonathan Pollard Should Be Released-But Not As An Obama Bargaining Chip

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s letter to President Obama requesting a pardon for convicted spy Jonathan Pollard, the former Naval intelligence analyst at the Naval Investigative Service (NIS), is the latest in a stream of communications urging the President to commute Pollard’s sentence to ‘time served.’ Israeli and American officials and politicians, five hundred Christian and Jewish clergy, and major Jewish organizations have in recent months pressed for Pollard’s release after 25 years of imprisonment.

Pollard received a life sentence in 1987 for transferring classified information to Israel. The data involved Iranian, Syrian, Iraqi, and Lebanese ballistic missile development and nuclear and biological warfare capabilities. He also transmitted information on planned terrorist attacks against Israel, probably saving Israeli lives. The U.S. withheld this data from Israel despite a 1983 memorandum of understanding entitling Israel to such disclosure.

Pollard received and is serving a much longer sentence than most others who were convicted of selling America’s secrets to its enemies. The much-publicized discovery of a Russian spy-ring in 2010 ended with the United States swapping ten Russian sleeper agents for four Americans held by Russia on charges of espionage. Michael S. Schwartz, a U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander, who between November 1992 and September 1994 illegally transferred Department of Defense classified documents and computer diskettes to the Saudis, plea-bargained to avoid a court-martial and imprisonment. He was discharged from the Navy in 1995 without serving jail time. J. Reece Roth, a professor of engineering who passed U.S. Air-Force secret technologies to China and Iran, was sentenced to four years in prison in 2008. And Robert Kim, who spied for South Korean, was sentenced to nine years in jail in 1997. He was released in 2004.

Pollard’s sentence was disproportionate and unusual. In his letter to Obama, Netanyahu noted that Pollard’s sentence greatly exceeded the penalty requested by his prosecutors at the time of the plea bargain agreement.

The disparity in sentencing has been noted by many. Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey recently called the sentence “utterly disproportionate to the crime.” Thirty-eight Congressmen signed on to Representative Barney Frank’s (D-MA) letter to the President, noting the injustice of Pollard’s sentence. Former Senator and head of the Senate Intelligence Committee Dennis DeConcini, wrote to Obama in August 2010: “commuting [Pollard’s] sentence to time served is the right and compassionate thing to do.” Former CIA Director R. James Woolsey and Congressman Anthony Weiner also noted that the severity of the punishment exceeded the damage caused by Pollard.

A letter from Lawrence Korb, an Assistant Secretary of Defense at the time of Pollard’s arrest, emphasized that the Pollard sentence was not a product of justice, but “of an almost visceral dislike of Israel and the special place it occupies in our foreign policy on the part of my boss at the time, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.”

Commuting Pollard’s sentence is a matter of stopping injustice influenced by politics and prejudice. He committed a serious crime, and has paid for it.

Throughout the years that Israel has requested his release, successive U.S. administrations’ refusal was seemingly influenced not by the merit but by other political considerations.

Pollard’s release was recently mentioned as a possible bargaining tool, meant to induce Israel to make further concessions in negotiations with its Arab neighbors. In late December 2010, Representative Barney Frank told the Jerusalem Post that he believes that pardoning Pollard will be “very helpful from the standpoint of the president in helping Netanyahu get the kind of support he needs, ” to make unpopular concessions to appease the Palestinians.

But Frank and others who wish to use Pollard’s release to help pressure the Israeli public are mistaken. Netanyahu’s letter reflects the support of the majority of the Israelis for Pollard’s release only – not for concessions with the Palestinians.

Commenting on the Pollard case, Assistant Secretary of State, PJ Crowley said: “In the context of advancing Middle East peace, if either the Palestinians or the Israelis want to raise with us issues of importance to them, we will consider all of this as we try to get them to an agreement.”

Although the White House does not always follows the State Department’s lead, releasing the sick 57 year-old to Israel would be a humanitarian gesture that would not harm America’s interests. However, if Obama obliges the Administration is likely to use Pollard’s release to obtain Israeli concessions.


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