Making Pollard's Case

Ira Rifkin, Assistant Editor - Baltimore Jewish Times - March 22, 1991

Kenneth Lasson believes that convicted spy Jonathan Pollard is legally and "maybe even morally" culpable for providing Israel with classified U.S. military information, including data about Iraqi chemical and nuclear weapons production.

"As an American citizen, Jonathan Pollard should not have given information to another country without permission" from his government, said Mr. Lasson, a University of Baltimore law professor who specializes in civil liberty issues.

Despite those sentiments, Mr. Lasson is coordinating preparation of the supporting or amicus curiae, legal brief to be filed on behalf of Mr. Pollard in his upcoming appeal. Moreover, he has undertaken the task pro bono publico - a legal term meaning he will not be paid for his efforts.

In an interview at his Upper Park Heights home, Mr. Lasson said he volunteered for the job because he also believes that Mr. Pollard has been denied a fair application of the law; specifically the manner in which Mr. Pollard's life sentence was arrived at by the sentencing judge.

"He has been treated wrongly, legally speaking." Mr. Lasson, 47, said of Mr. Pollard, "I am involved in this as a lawyer interested in the fair administration of justice, which has not occurred in this case."

Mr. Pollard, a Jew who worked in U.S. Navy intelligence, was arrested some five years ago and charged with giving Israel classified military information about Iraq and other Arab nations. Mr. Pollard has maintained that he was motivated by his concern for Israel, and his supporters insist that the documents he passed along did not in any way compromise American military efforts.

The formal charge was one count of giving national defense information to a foreign government, the maximum term for which is life in prison. Mr. Lasson said Mr. Pollard pleaded guilty with the understanding that his then wife, Anne, who was also indicted, would be treated leniently by the court, that the government would not seek the maximum sentence, and that his cooperation following his arrest would be acknowledged by the government to the court.

On all accounts, Mr. Lasson continued, the federal government double-crossed Mr. Pollard.

"The basic argument in the appeal is that the government never honored its side of the plea bargain," Mr. Lasson said. "The government took, but never gave."

According to Mr. Lasson and other Pollard backers, the real villain in this drama is former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who sent a secret memo to the judge in the case purportedly claiming that Mr. Pollard gave Israel information it could use against Arab nations "friendly" to the U.S.

The letter, which the Pollard defense team has been denied access to, also reportedly said that Mr. Pollard should be "shot" or "hanged" for his crime.

The memo, which was never made part of the formal case record, is additionally reported by Pollard supporters to have referred to military ties between Israel and South Africa, an aspect that is said to have strongly influenced the sentencing judge, Aubrey E. Robinson Jr., who is black.

While Mr. Pollard received life in prison, with Judge Robinson also recommending against the possibility of parole, Pollard backers claim that the average time served by convicted spies is 12 years. Mr. Pollard's sentence, they argue, is grossly out of line with the seriousness of the crime he actually pleaded guilty to.

Weinberger, by many accounts, was about as harsh and vindictive as he could be, Mr. Lasson said.

"The most credible explanation of why Mr. Weinberger acted this way," according to Mr. Lasson, "is that he wanted to weaken Israel so that the Jewish state would be beholden to the U.S. for its security. That way, the U.S. could impose on Israel its own terms for a Middle East settlement," Mr. Lasson maintained.

When Mr. Pollard provided Israel with information that Mr. Weinberger did not want Jerusalem to have, Mr. Lasson continued, "it skewered Weinberger's whole scenario" and angered him.

In addition to arguing that the government abrogated the plea bargain agreement under which Mr. Pollard agreed to plead guilty, Mr. Lasson's supportive brief will ask that Mr. Pollard be granted a new trial, that Judge Robinson be removed from the case, and that the defense be allowed to see the secret Weinberger memorandum.

And while it is not legally germane, Mr. Lasson also said he would "try and squeeze into the brief by reference" the harsh manner in which Mr. Pollard has been treated during his incarceration.

For the past three years, he has been kept in solitary confinement. Before that, he spent 10 and a half months in a ward for the criminally insane, even though federal Director of Prisons Michael Quinlan stated in writing that Mr. Pollard was not there for treatment.

"The disproportionate nature of his sentence cannot be overlooked," Mr. Lasson said. "There is no justification for it."

While Kenneth Lasson's interest in the case goes back to Jonathan Pollard's arrest, his active involvement is relatively recent.

Mr. Lasson, who is president of the Baltimore Religious Zionists of America chapter and chairs the Baltimore Jewish Council's Middle East Committee, said that from its inception, something about the Pollard affair struck him as "out of the ordinary, even for an espionage case."

His "basic suspicion," he said, was that Mr. Pollard had been treated unfairly by the U.S. and Israel [which denied him access to its Washington Embassy when Mr. Pollard sought to avoid arrest].

Mr. Lasson attended a Baltimore meeting addressed by Pollard family members, received calls from Mr. Pollard's sister, Carol, and Hannah Storch, a Baltimore woman long active in the pro-Pollard movement, and spoke with defense attorneys. Over time, he was pulled into the case.

Late last year, he was asked to coordinate the amicus brief, which is filed in support of the primary brief submitted by the defense, and represents argument made by parties not directly involved in the case, but who are supportive of, in this instance, Mr. Pollard.

His role is to coordinate the legal research being done by volunteer attorneys and law students around the country, and to incorporate their findings into the final document., which is to be submitted to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington in June. The case is to be heard by a three-judge panel in September.

"What I was concerned about was the way this man has been treated. The Israelis acted abominably, and the Americans acted every bit as abominable," Mr. Lasson said.

Mr. Lasson, who has never met Mr. Pollard, also makes clear his upset over the "arms-length" manner in which mainstream American Jewish groups have reacted to the case.

"Some elements of the community were more concerned about how their support of a convicted spy would reflect upon them as Jews than about what actually has happened in this case," he said.

"I think it's incumbent on the [Jewish] community to exercise its rights as citizens to protest something it perceives as unfair, and not to shrink back because others might be upset."

Mr. Lasson is hopeful that the appeal court will grant Mr. Pollard a new trial. He notes this will be the first time that a court other than the U.S. District Court presided over by Judge Robinson will hear the case.

However, he also believes chances "are just as good" that international diplomacy and not U.S. law will be the final arbiter of Mr. Pollard's fate. Mr. Lasson, like other pro-Pollard backers, hints at a possible deal between Israel and the U.S. that would spring Mr. Pollard from his American prison cell and settle him in Israel.

Should that occur, all of Mr. Lasson's effort would be rendered academic. But that would suit him just fine.

"I'd be happy if all this goes for naught, as long as this man receives some justice," Mr. Lasson said.