The Pollard Case: Something Strange Going On

Dovid Zwiebel, Esq. - Coalition Magazine - Summer 1991

On March 4, 1987, the Honorable Aubrey E. Robinson, Jr. a judge in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, sentenced Jonathan J. Pollard to life in prison for the crime of espionage - conspiracy to deliver national defense information to a foreign government. Pollard was a Jew, and the foreign government in question was Israel.

Since then, Pollard has been incarcerated in various federal correctional facilities, under the most severe conditions. Members of Pollard's family report that he spent nearly one year in a ward for the criminally insane at the prison in Springfield, Missouri, and, for the past several years, he has been kept in isolation - locked in his cell 23 hours a day - at the maximum security facility in Marion, Illinois.

The prospects of Pollard being paroled are not good. In fact, the attorney who prosecuted Pollard's case has been quoted quite explicitly "It's highly unlikely that he'll become eligible for parole---Mr. Pollardwill not see the light of day."

Harsh, Harsher, Harshest

The severity of Pollard's sentence is incredible, for several reasons. Life imprisonment is apparently he harshest punishment ever meted out to someone found guilty of spying during a time of peace. Indeed, since the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg during the Korean War, no spy has received a harsher sentence even during a time of war.

Pollard did not stand trial for his crime. Rather, he received his life sentence after entering into a plea bargain agreement with the government. He entered into that agreement, relinquished his right to a trial, cooperated with government investigators, pleaded guilty - all with the reasonable expectation that some lenience would be shown in his sentence. The expectation was reasonable, but it proved illusory. The "bargain" was all one-sided.

Perhaps most incredibly of all, Pollard was sentenced to life in prison despite the fact that he was never accused of delivering classified information to an enemy of the United States. He was accused of spying for Israel, a staunch American ally.

A comparison of Pollard's sentence with those recently received by other convicted spies - some of whom spied for enemy countries, some of whom did not plea bargain - reveals an extraordinary and inexplicable disparity.

How, for example, can one justify imprisoning Pollard for life when William Bell received only an eight year sentence for delivering anti-tank missile radar technology to a Polish agent [N.Y. Times, Jan 9, 1981]? When Abdel Kader Helmy received a 46 month sentence for illegally exporting to Egypt classified ballistic missile technology [N.Y. Times, Dec. 7, 1989]? When Richard Miller received a 20 year sentence for delivering a counter-intelligence manual to the Soviet Union [N.Y. Times, Feb. 5 1991]?

Strange, Stranger, Strangest

Because Jonathan Pollard never went to trial, the precise nature of his crime may never be known. Perhaps then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger did indeed possess facts that justified his telling judge Robinson in pre-sentencing memoranda that Pollard's crime was treasonous, that it was difficult for him to conceive of greater harm to American national security than that caused by Pollard, and that no crime was deserving of more severe punishment. Perhaps - but it surely strains credulity to accept those charges at face value.

One person who has expressed skepticism is Lawrence J. Korb, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense under Secretary Weinberger, and the current director of the Brookings Institution's Center for Public Policy Education. In a letter to Dr. Morris Pollard, Jonathan's father, Korb writes:

"I am not aware of exactly what Weinberger told the Court about the impact of the information Jonathan passed to Israel, I do know that Weinberger had an almost visceral dislike of Israel and the special place it occupies in our foreign policy. In my opinion, the severity of the sentence that Jonathan received was out of proportion to his alleged offense."

Questions abound. If the prosecution's case against Pollard is so strong, and his crime so heinous, why is the government so fiercely resisting the efforts of Pollard's counsel - who has obtained all appropriate security clearances - to gain access to the classified portions of Secretary Weinberger's pre-sentencing memoranda? Why has Judge Robinson refused to permit Pollard to pursue claims backed up by sworn affidavits that the judge may have been influenced to impose a life sentence as a result of secret communications from the government that Pollard never was aware of, and never had an opportunity to rebut?


Jonathan Pollard, for his part, contends that the information he passed on to Israel was information he believed the Israelis were entitled to receive by law, but which Department of Defense officials deliberately withheld. Some of the information, says Pollard, related specifically to Iraqi chemical and poison gas capabilities - information vital to Israeli survival. And, Pollard claims, his decision to deliver the information to the Israelis was prompted by the anti-Israel, anti-Jewish bias he saw all around him in the Navy. In Pollard's own words.

Moreover, despite the commonly held belief that the U.S. provides 'everything ' to the Israelis, the intelligence exchange from the Navy, at any rate, is anything but equitable. I participated in two official intelligence conferences with the Israelis and was amazed to see how high level directives about releasing certain types of information to Jerusalem were routinely shelved by the men in the trenches, who felt that the 'Jews' didn't need to know anything.

"For example, one analyst, when asked for releasable information on Soviet chemical warfare agents, turned to me laughing, and said that he thought the Jews were overly sensitive about gas due to their experiences during the Second World War and suggested that they should just calm down a bit. The underlying attitude of many of the American participants in these meetings was overtly racist, which produced a corresponding degree of anger and distrust on the part of the Israelis, most of whom felt that their country's security concerns were being totally overlooked."

It is impossible for the general public to know at this point if Pollard is telling the truth - and, unless he is granted a full trial, we never will know the full truth.

Agudath Israel's Involvement

Several months ago, Jonathan Pollard's parents made a personal presentation before the Nesius {Rabbinic presidium} of Agudath Israel of America. They told of their son's unswerving commitment to Jewish survival, and of his motivation in spying for Israel. They pointed out the irregularities of his conviction, the disparities of his sentence, and the terrible circumstances of his incarceration. They appealed for help ("We felt like we were before the Sanhedrin," they told me after emerging from the room full of eminent rabbonim) - and the Nesius was moved.

The decision of the Nesius was clear: Principles of pidyon shvuyim (redemption of Jewish captives) - to say nothing of simple justice - demanded at least that Pollard be given an opportunity to back out of a plea bargain that was no bargain for him, and another chance at a full and fair hearing before an impartial court. Although Pollard's crime cannot be condoned, neither can the shockingly disproportionate punishment be ignored.

Agudath Israel is therefore about to join with other concerned Jewish and non-Jewish organizations and individuals in submitting an [amicus] friend of the court brief to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals on Pollard's behalf. The brief, which is being coordinated by Professor Kenneth Lasson of the University of Baltimore Law School, will spell out all of the irregularities and disparities surrounding Pollard's life sentence, and urge a new trial.

Espionage is among the most serious and abhorrent of all crimes, and even Jonathan Pollard admits that he committed espionage. But one need not condone his act, however, to understand his motivation. One need not necessarily accept his version of the facts to recognize his right to a fair and impartial hearing on that version. And one need not train a microscope on his life sentence to see that something very strange is going on.

Dovid Zwiebel is the chief legal counsel for Agudath Yisrael, USA.

  • See Also: MEQ: Why Jonathan Pollard Got Life - The Victim Impact Statement