Justice for a Spy

Lawrence Korb - January 12, 2011 - Foreign Policy Magazine

On Jan. 4, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood in front of the Knesset to read a letter that he had sent to the president of the United States, calling for the release of Jonathan Pollard. The Israeli leader admitted that Pollard, a former U.S. naval intelligence analyst serving a life sentence for espionage, "was acting as an agent of the Israeli government." He nevertheless contended that Pollard's 25 years in prison represented a sufficient punishment for his crimes and pointed to the support of a number of former U.S. officials and congressmen for clemency.

Netanyahu's request did not come as a surprise to me. On Dec. 20, 2010, after speaking to the Knesset, I met with the prime minister and urged him to go public with his request. Unless he did so, I argued, the issue would not gain the traction it needed. I also pointed out to him that he needed to publicly apologize and pledge to never again recruit Americans to spy against their country, which would allow supporters of Pollard's release to respond effectively to the argument that the Pollard case was business as usual for Israel.

The invitation to speak to the Knesset and meet with the prime minister was the culmination of two decades of my involvement with the case. I became involved when Jonathan's father, Morris Pollard, a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, wrote to me asking why my former boss, Caspar Weinberger, had written such a strong statement about the damage done by Jonathan's spying for Israel.

I answered his letter not to score political points or settle scores, but as one father to another. However, it eventually found its way into the press. As the press began to ask questions about the letter, I began researching the issues of the Pollard case more closely. Over the past 20 years, I have spoken to one of Pollard's prosecutors, a judge on the court of appeals who considered the case, a top lieutenant of former CIA Director George Tenet, several of Pollard's lawyers, and Pollard himself. And I have become convinced that Pollard's sentence of life was disproportionate to his crime.

Therefore, as a matter of simple justice, President Barack Obama should grant Netanyahu's request. Pollard has now been in prison far longer than anyone else who had spied for a friendly country -- the average sentence for a spy convicted of passing intelligence to an allied country is seven years. Information has come to light since Pollard's arrest that shows that the intelligence he passed to Israel never made its way to the United States' enemies, such as the Soviet Union. Furthermore, as U.S. diplomat Dennis Ross noted in a 2006 article in the Canadian Jewish Tribune, "Pollard has been in jail for so long that whatever facts he might know would have little if any effect on national security today."

Netanyahu was correct in saying that support for Pollard's release has come from a broad segment of American political and cultural life. In the last two months, the White House has been deluged with letters from 39 members of Congress, 500 religious leaders from all faiths, a former attorney general, and a former head of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, all urging the president to commute Pollard's sentence.

Of course, such a step will not come without a cost for Obama. Netanyahu learned this lesson in 1998, when he first pushed for Pollard's release in a meeting at the Wye Plantation with President Bill Clinton as a way of facilitating an Arab-Israeli peace agreement. Clinton had to back off when Tenet threatened to resign.

Every time the issue of Pollard's release comes up, intelligence professionals and prosecutors rise up against it. After Netanyahu's request in 1998, a group of retired admirals wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post condemning the request. Late last year, after 39 members of Congress wrote to Obama requesting clemency, a retired navy captain argued in The Intelligencer, a journal of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers, that clemency would be ill-advised. And the day after Netanyahu's public request, the attorney who prosecuted Pollard told the Washington Times that the idea of Israel seeking clemency is "a joke."

Most of these claims have been refuted by people such as former CIA Director R. James Woolsey, former Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Dennis DeConcini (D-AZ), and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey -- all supporters of granting clemency to Pollard. But I can say from personal experience that these claims resonate with some elements of the public because of concerns over Jewish Americans' supposed dual loyalty to the United States and Israel. That is, because Israel is a Jewish state, some Jewish Americans might place a commitment to Israeli survival over the interests of the United States when the two are in conflict. Since I became involved in the Pollard case two decades ago through public speeches, letters to the president, and op-eds in major newspapers, I have received volumes of hate mail for my stand.

But this is no reason to keep a man locked up for longer than he deserves. In his letter, Netanyahu noted that the United States is "based on fairness, justice, and mercy." With these principles in mind, Obama should commute Pollard's sentence to time served. It is the right thing to do.

Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense in Ronald Reagan's administration, is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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