Pollard's Puerto Rican Opening

September 16, 1999 - NJJ News Editorial - David Twersky, Editor

By granting Puerto Rican terrorists clemency, President Bill Clinton has inadvertently created an opening for Jonathan Pollard. Convicted of a massive campaign of bombings and bank robberies, the now freed FALN (Armed Forces of National Liberation) fighters hoped to finance a war to 'liberate' Puerto Rico from the United States' despite the fact that Puerto Rican voters routinely vote to affirm the island's current status, rejecting both independence and statehood.

The FALN deal almost fell through when the terrorists refused to meet Clinton's conditions for their release, including demands that they forswear violence and express remorse for their crimes. As negotiations dragged on, Hillary Clinton, who initially backed the FALN offer, flip-flopped, advising the president to withdraw it, in the process angering leaders of New York's Puerto Rican community. The presidential deadline was extended and the deal was ultimately accepted by most of the prisoners.

Did the president make the offer on behalf of Hillary's putative race for a U.S. Senate seat from New York? The alternative story line, that the president's offer had nothing to do with Hillary's ambitions, is not only farfetched (politics is never far from the Clintons' minds) but even less complimentary to the First Couple, implying that Hillary's right hand didn't know what Bill's left hand was doing. In either case, Hillary proved herself a novice, getting the worst of the deal and satisfying no one.

Least satisfied were the legal and intelligence communities that had unanimously and vigorously opposed the clemency offer. As reported on the front page of The New York Times, the president overrode their objections, making a political decision and provoking the ire of the GOP-controlled Congress, where an overwhelming majority of the House endorsed a resolution criticizing the prisoners' release.

Standing up to Congress and the bureaucracy was precisely what Clinton failed to do a year ago at the Wye plantation, after he lured the reluctant-to-deal Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, into an agreement with the Palestinians with the promise that Jonathan Pollard would be freed.

The Pollard deal was promoted by Yasser Arafat after the Palestinian leader was assured that with Pollard freed, Israel would agree to drop its demands for the extradition of a senior Palestinian police operative. When all was agreed to, Clinton reneged, caving to intense pressure from the national security community. As the Times subsequently reported, CIA director George Tenet actually threatened to resign if Pollard were freed; the agency explained its motives in a well-orchestrated series of leaks that triggered a national media campaign against Pollard's release.

Of course, the GOP-controlled congressional leadership weighed in with a letter to Clinton demanding that Pollard never get out. Reminded once again, this time thanks to Waco, that the intelligence and law enforcement communities are fully capable of lying, we find it even more implausible that the post-Wye campaign against Pollard should retain its holy-writ credibility.

The FALN release came just as Israel was releasing several hundred Palestinian prisoners as demanded by the Palestinians during the recent Sharm el-Sheik negotiations and as previously agreed to at Wye. Both the Puerto Rican nationalist left and the Palestinians see their respective prisoners as patriots and freedom fighters, not terrorists and criminals (one man's patriot ceiling is another man's terrorist floor).

The Jewish equivalent would be those Pollard champions who justify his espionage for Israel on the grounds that he supplied vital information, unwisely and unethically withheld from Israel by Washington. But most of those pushing for Pollard's release do not argue on such grounds, citing humanitarian and legal concerns instead. Pollard has already fulfilled all of the conditions in the Clinton FALN offer; moreover, he was never indicted or convicted of waging war against the United States in league with this country's communist enemies. (The FALN benefited from Cuban military and logistical support.)

All of the arguments used against Pollard's release thus were severely undercut by the Clintons' Puerto Rican gambit. Pollard satisfies the FALN conditions; releasing Pollard would require the president to disregard opposition from the national security community and Congress, as he did with the FALN; granting Pollard clemency would no more risk broadcasting a lack of resolve to current and future spies than the FALN deal has already broadcast to current and future terrorists.

Under the circumstances, it is hard to dismiss the thought that the only element lacking is political pressure. That's why Hillary has been hearing from NY state Democrats interested in her backing clemency for Pollard. Last week U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), a Harvard Law grad, told the New York Post Pollard should receive clemency. Mrs. Clinton's likely foe, Rudolph Giuliani has also called for clemency for Pollard (although he opposed it for the FALN).

If it makes for good politics, then the president can be swayed: that's the impossible-to-ignore lesson of the FALN episode. A lesson from the Palestinian prisoners would be that Israel has to want Pollard freed. Last week, Pollard filed a petition before Israel's Supreme Court arguing just that, and demanding the release to him of the unclassified list of documents he supplied to allow him to defend himself against CIA charges that he gave away the store.

The supreme irony is that as Hillary Rodham Clinton finally prepares to break out on her own, she is being promoted on the grounds that she has the president's ear. In such an instance, we can be forgiven for adding our whispers on behalf of Pollard and justice to the wish lists submitted to Mrs. Clinton, and through her to the president.