Hillary Backs Spy's Complaint

Rachel Donadio - The Forward - September 21, 2000

Hillary Rodham Clinton might not have helped herself as much as she had hoped in her first senatorial debate with Rep. Rick Lazio last week, but she did break some new ground in the campaign for the freedom of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard.

Responding to a question by debate moderator Tim Russert, Mrs. Clinton said she was concerned about "the due process issues concerning the way [Pollard] was sentenced" and that she believed "that fair-minded people should ask similar questions" about the United States Navy analyst convicted in 1987 of spying for Israel.

With these words, Mrs. Clinton effectively endorsed the main claim of Pollard's advocates, something that no one with close ties to her husband's administration has ever done. Still, observers were divided as to whether her statement would help her at the polls. She has been eager to win over elements of the Orthodox Jewish community, in which support for Pollard runs deep and skepticism of Mrs. Clinton runs high.

It also remains to be seen whether the first lady's statements will help Pollard himself, who is now serving a life sentence in a North Carolina prison.

Nonetheless, even staunch Pollard advocates said they had not expected the first lady to go so far. "We were kind of surprised that she talked about lack of due process and secret information, which we'd been hitting her with," said Rabbi Pesach Lerner of the National Council of Young Israel, a rightward-leaning Orthodox group that is in the forefront of Pollard advocacy.

"We're hoping that Hillary Clinton's comments, in association with the fiasco with Lee, will finally give Jonathan a chance at justice," Rabbi Lerner said, referring to Dr. Wen Ho Lee, the Chinese scientist cleared last week on charges of passing nuclear secrets to China. President Clinton last week criticized the Justice Department for mishandling the Lee case.

At the debate, in her most comprehensive remarks on Pollard to date, Mrs. Clinton cited "secret evidence never shown to the court." She noted that Pollard's guilt was not the issue. "It was a great breach of trust, he pled guilty, so everyone agrees what he did was wrong," Mrs. Clinton said.

Some observers saw Mrs. Clinton's statement as paving the way for her to come out in favor of clemency for Pollard. "Not only the comments in the debate but her actions over prior months have shown she's trying to open the door to a position that would be more supportive of clemency," observed Jeremy Burton, who served as Jewish community liaison in the administration of former New York City Mayor David Dinkins.

Earlier this month, Mrs. Clinton intervened to prevent Pollard from being moved from a protected cell in North Carolina to more dangerous quarters in another prison.

Others, however, doubt Mrs. Clinton will take the next step and call for Pollard's release, noting that while that would please some Jewish conservatives, it would anger many in Washington's defense establishment. It also might damage her standing among war veterans.

In the debate, the first lady acknowledged her bind indirectly. "Two men I respect have different views" on Pollard, Mrs. Clinton said: Senator Lieberman, who is against his release, and Senator Schumer who is for it. Both senators claim to have seen the classified documents to which Mrs. Clinton had referred.

Mrs. Clinton has no shortage of advisers in the Pollard department. "Hillary has discussed the issue with many people whose judgment she respects," said Ann Lewis, a senior adviser to the Clinton campaign. Among Mrs. Clinton's advisers, Mrs. Lewis named the speaker of the State Assembly, Sheldon Silver; Rep. Jerrold Nadler; New York City's comptroller, Alan Hevesi; Dov Hikind and Sam Coleman, both members of the State Assembly, and attorney Alan Dershowitz.

Some said a statement on Pollard could mean more votes for Mrs. Clinton.

"Everyone agrees the Clinton-Lazio race is very close," said State Senator Seymour Lachman of Brooklyn, who supports Pollard's release. "The margin of difference is between 2% and 5%. Even though it might not be a major issue, it might be an issue sufficient enough to swing the election one way or the other." Mr. Lachman suggested that instead of calling for clemency, Mrs. Clinton could follow a "middle way" of calling for release of certain key documents in his case.

Yet, others acknowledged that Pollard alone would not carry many votes. "For the people who dislike Hillary Clinton, Pollard won't be the determining issue," said Mr. Hikind.

In recent weeks, Mr. Hikind has had two lengthy meetings with Mrs. Clinton and her top advisers to discuss a possible endorsement and the fate of Pollard. Some observers say a Hikind nod would be a coup for the Clinton campaign, since Mr. Hikind has been one of the first lady's most vocal critics and is seen as influential among Orthodox voters. In recent weeks Mr. Hikind, who has endorsed Republicans in the past, has shifted his bile toward Mr. Lazio, whom he said has done "zilch" for Pollard.

Mr. Lazio dodged the Pollard question in last week's televised debate, arguing that President Clinton had been expected to make a decision on the Pollard case in December 1998 but had not yet done so. "I haven't seen the classified information," Mr. Lazio said. He said Mr. Clinton was "the only person who's in a position" to rule on Pollard's fate. "National security shouldn't be affected by politics," Mr. Lazio said.

A spokesman for Mr. Lazio, when asked if the Long Island Republican was now reviewing the Pollard case, continued shifting the issue to the Democrat. "We think the ball is in President Clinton's court, and we would hope that if Mrs. Clinton wanted a resolution she would pressure her husband and not her opponent on this subject," said the spokesman, Michael Marr.

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