Clinton Refuses to Pardon Pollard

Conference of Presidents shocked that President didn't announce decision while meeting with them.

Matthew Dorf (JTA) - The Jewish Exponent (PA) - August 1, 1996


- When Seymour Reich asked President Clinton last week to release Jonathan Pollard from jail, little did he know that the White House spokesman had just announced that the convicted spy would not gain executive clemency.

Reich, former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, was one of about 45 Jewish leaders in a meeting with Clinton on July 26 when unbeknown to them, the announcement came down that the American Jew convicted of spying for Israel would not be granted freedom.

In what many of those in attendance denounced as a "travesty", Clinton did not tell the Conference of Presidents of his decision.

Members of the Conference of Presidents learned of the president's decision when a reporter from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency asked Clinton about the decision as he left the private meeting with the Jewish leaders.

The president did not respond to two requests to make a comment.

Leaders 'dumbfounded'

"I am dumbfounded that he would do this to us," said Reich, who once led the organized Jewish communal effort to win Pollard's release. "It is as if he is trying to give the world a signal that he would not pander to the Jewish community."

Jewish officials who have long called for Pollard's release condemned Clinton's decision to deny clemency to the former U.S. Navy civilian intelligence analyst who was arrested in 1985 outside the Israeli Embassy here.

Pollard pleaded guilty in 1986 to passing secrets for the Israeli government and in 1987 was sentenced to life imprisonment.

White House spokesman Mike McCurry did not mince words when announcing the president's decision.

"The enormity of Mr. Pollard's offenses, his lack of remorse, the damage done to our national security, the need for general deterrence and the continuing threat to national security that he posed made the original life sentence imposed by he court warranted," McCurry said.

Clinton also effused to shorten Pollard's sentence. McCurry said, because doing so at this time "is unwarranted and would disserve the goal of deterrence."

Esther Pollard, in a telephone interview from Jerusalem, called the denial of clemency "plain wrong, and the president's excuses false on all counts" and said her husband's incarceration "has to end now."

"He has had it," said Esther Pollard, who began a hunger strike Sunday to call attention to her husband's plight. "His strength is limited. We can't go on."

Two days later, she was hospitalized for dehydration.

Clinton's decision to deny clemency formalized White House policy announced in March.

White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta told a caller to CNN's "Larry King Live" talk show at that time that the president believed that a pardon is not "justified."

Clinton has now formally denied Pollard clemency two times, the first coming in March 1994.

President Bush also refused to commute Pollard's sentence before leaving office.

Some Jewish officials recalled that Clinton in 1994 rejected Pollard's appeal one day before meeting with the Conference of Presidents.

"It is as if the president has gone out of his way to act his way to act when he meets with the leaders of the Jewish community," Reich said.

Contradicting McCurry, who told reporters that is was his understanding the president was going to notify the Jewish leaders of his decision. White House aides later said that Clinton never planned to tell the Conference of Presidents of his most recent decision.

Leaders of the Conference of Presidents took a diplomatic tone after the Clinton meeting while protesting the president's snub.

"He should have told us," said Malcolm Hoenlein, the group's executive vice chairman.

Members of Congress who have supported Pollard's quest to gain release from jail were swift to condemn Clinton's decision.

"Pollard's case is truly a miscarriage of justice, said Rep. Jon Fox, (R-Pa.)

"While there is no excuse for his conduct, the life sentence given to Pollard was clearly disproportionate to his crime. Out of friendship and respect for our Israeli ally as well as a sense of fundamental fairness, we should release Pollard now."

"He has already paid the price for his crime," Fox added.

Fox and Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.) teamed up last year to sign a letter to Clinton demanding Pollard's release.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement saying that Israel "regrets the decision."

Netanyahu, as well as his predecessors, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, had raised Pollard's fate during meetings with Clinton.

Pollard now Israeli citizen

Earlier this year, the Peres government granted Pollard Israeli citizenship, a move the convicted spy had hoped would bolster his chances of release.

Pollard's closest supporters have long maintained that his sentence was unjust.

"Jonathan Pollard has always been a convenient tool in the hands of those who want to discredit Israel as a reliable ally," Esther Pollard said.

With his decision, she said, "Mr. Clinton abdicated his constitutional responsibility to remain above the fray of vested interests" conspiring to keep her husband in prison.

Rabbi Avi Weis, Pollard's rabbi and president of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns - AMCHA, decried Clinton's denial as unjust and pledged to make the Pollard case an issue in the presidential election campaign.

"We vow that wherever the president will go, he will hear from those who are convinced that he has acquiesced to a grave injustice," Weiss said in a statement.

In a telephone interview, Weiss said he had spoken to Pollard after Clinton's denial but refused to disclose what was said, calling it a "private conversation."

Pollard was eligible for parole after completing 10 years of his sentence late last year, but the date for a meeting of the parole board was delayed several times.

Pollard apparently decided to forgo the parole path while the White House mulled his clemency request.

Without endorsing a future application for parole, McCurry pointedly told reporters that this option remains available.

JTA staff writer Cynthia Mann in New York contributed to this report.