Why Won't Clinton Free Pollard Now?

11 years is more than enough

Avi Weiss - Jewish Sentinel - September 12, 1996

The Clinton administration has again turned down Jonathan Pollard's request for clemency. The rejection was based on three elements: Pollard has expressed no remorse; the crime he committed was so great that it deserves more punishment; and it is important to send a message that such offenses will be treated with the utmost gravity.

The White House is wrong on all three counts. I have met with Jonathan over 40 times and am well aware of his deep feelings of remorse. In a letter to his parents in 1991 he stated, "I know that I was wrong. I should have made the effort to discover a legal solution to the predicament I faced. For this error in judgment I am profoundly sorry."

The position that Pollard's crime deserves further punishment is refuted by a comparison of his sentence with those who have committed comparable offenses - spying for an American ally.

Adulkader Helmy spied for Egypt, giving Cairo information about SCUD missiles that made its way to Iraq and was used by Baghdad in the Gulf War, resulting in the deaths of American servicemen. Helmy received a sentence of 46 months. Michael Schwartz, a non-Jew, was recently caught spying for Saudi Arabia. The U.S. government, citing its special relationship with the Saudis, dropped all charges.

Pollard, on the other hand, is now in the eleventh year of a life sentence. He will soon have served longer than any Jew imprisoned in the former Soviet Union. Pollard was guilty, but the excessiveness of his sentence is a perversion of the American justice system. He has served more than twice as much time as any American convicted of a comparable crime.

The prosecution has sometimes defended Pollard's life sentence claiming that his action is responsible for irreparable damage to U.S. interests. However, when Pollard demands evidence, the government stonewalls, insisting the material is classified. Making such unsubstantiated accusations is un-American and denies Pollard the right to respond in court.

What Pollard did was illegal. But, whereas Pollard was indicted on one count - the illegal transfer of classified material to Israel, he was not charged with the more serious crime of damaging American security, causing harm to U.S. agents or treason. Nor was there even any evidence by which the government could show that someone in Pollard's position, with all the information he had at his disposal, would have had any reason to believe that the information transmitted by Pollard to Israel would or could cause injury to the United States. Indeed, eleven years after Pollard's arrest, nobody, including the president, has yet to give one specific example of how Pollard actually hurt the United States.

Contrary to the president's assertion, the length and severity of Pollard's sentence has already sent a powerful message. Pollard endured six years in isolation at the Federal Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, considered the nation's toughest prison. Prior to Marion, he was illegally placed in a hospital for the criminally insane in Springfield, Miss.

Sadly, President Clinton turned down Pollard's request without ever allowing the case to be on the formal agenda of any meeting between Clinton and Jewish organizations. It is nothing less than shameful that the president has even refused to discuss the Pollard matter with the four heads of national rabbinic organizations.

American Jewish leaders must share the blame. Some representatives of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations were "troubled" that Clinton failed to mention the denial of clemency announced by the White House at the very time that he was meeting with their group. But the issue is not that President Clinton failed to mention Jonathan Pollard, but that the Presidents Conference, once again, refused to take advantage of a face to face meeting with the president to raise the Pollard case during the formal session.

Even though Clinton did not permit questions, it was the responsibility of Presidents Conference members to speak up about this vital item on the American Jewish agenda. It is to the shame of the Presidents Conference that Pollard's freedom has never been formally raised at any of the meetings with Clinton. We cannot expect the president of the United States to do that which w do not openly demand of him to do.

Two years ago in Cleveland, I met formally with Clinton advisor George Stephanopolous on the Pollard case. Stephanopolous' first words were, "Pollard is not remorseful." I took out the letter Pollard had sent to his parents in 1991. Stephanopolous read it carefully, looked up and said, "This is impressive."

Pollard's remorse is impressive. As former Senator Dennis DeConcini (D-AZ), who was a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, wrote Clinton in a letter dated July 2, 1996, "I am convinced that Mr. Pollard has expressed the appropriate remorse and served adequate time and should be considered for parole or pardon."

In his most recent denial of clemency, Clinton added that Pollard is, at present, a threat to national security. If so, why was he transferred from isolation in Marion to an open prison in Bunter, N.C. where he can freely speak to anyone in the prison or on his visitors list? The information Pollard gave Israel eleven years ago during the Cold War is of little significance today.

Clinton ought to remember that the world today is different than it was when Pollard spied. There is no more Soviet Union, no more Berlin Wall. Yasser Arafat, who ordered the murder of American diplomats and citizens, is entertained on the White House lawn. If Clinton can forgive Arafat, certainly the time has come for the chief executive to commute Pollard's sentence to time serve.

Avi Weiss is national president of the Coalition for Jewish Concern-Amcha and senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.

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