Behind convicted spy Jonathan Pollard's return home

Kenneth Lasson - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - January 11, 2021

Almost 35 years to the day after he was arrested outside the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C., Jonathan Pollard finally arrived in the Holy Land he has often proclaimed his true home. Here are the pertinent facts behind his case:

In the mid-1980's Pollard, a civilian intelligence analyst for the U.S. Navy, discovered that information vital to Israel's security was being deliberately withheld by certain elements of the national security establishment. Although legally entitled to the data according to a 1983 memorandum of understanding between the two countries. The material being held back included Syrian, Iraqi, Libyan and Iranian nuclear, chemical and biological warfare capabilities against the Jewish state, as well as planned terrorist attacks against Israeli civilian targets.

In 1986, Pollard pled guilty to providing top-secret classified information to Israel because, as he declared at the time, "the American intelligence establishment collectively endangered Israel's security by withholding crucial information." He also learned that the objective of cutting off the flow of intelligence data was to curtail Israel's ability to act independently in defense of its own interests. When he asked his superiors about the suppression, he was told to "mind his own business. ... Jews get nervous talking about poison gas; they don't need to know."

One of Pollard's motivations to enter a guilty plea was to avoid punishment of his first wife, Anne Henderson-Pollard --- the daughter of Bernie Henderson, a former executive with Quaker State Oil and a resident of Oil City, Pa.

The only American ever sentenced to life in prison for violations of the Espionage Act, Pollard served 30 years behind bars in various federal penitentiaries.

Over the course of his incarceration, Israel repeatedly attempted to secure Pollard's release through both official and unofficial channels. In 1995 he was granted Israeli citizenship. Three years later, Israel's Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu publicly admitted that Pollard had in fact been an Israeli agent.

At the time many U.S. officials, including several secretaries of defense, opposed any form of clemency. Among them was President-elect Joe Biden, who at the time of Pollard's arrest was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In 2011, Mr. Biden reportedly told then-President Barack Obama, who'd been considering clemency for Pollard, "Over my dead body are we going to let him out before his time. If it were up to me, he would stay in jail for life."

What Mr. Biden (and many others) ignored was that his sentence was grossly disproportionate. Indeed the average penalty for unlawfully passing classified information was four years. When Pollard's plight was brought before the D.C. Court of Appeals, it ruled against him (2-1) on technical procedural grounds. As the late Judge Stephen Williams put it in his dissenting opinion, "The government's conduct in this case resulted in a fundamental and complete miscarriage of justice."

What defendant, after all, would bargain away his right to a fair trial in return for a life term?

Particularly galling were the potshots taken against Pollard by the late Caspar Weinberger, then secretary of defense, and Joseph diGenova, then U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. Weinberger filed a false declaration accusing Pollard of treason, based on a damage assessment written by Aldrich Ames, a former CIA officer turned KGB double-agent. (Ames was convicted of espionage in 1994 and is now serving a life sentence, without the possibility of parole.)

Pollard was never accused or indicted for treason, which is legally considered to be the act of aiding an enemy during wartime.

Mr. diGenova had effectively bargained Pollard out of a trial by promising not to seek a maximum sentence. But that did not prevent the former prosecutor from proclaiming in the New York Times that Pollard's action "was the largest physical compromise of United States classified information in the 20th century" nor from opining on the courthouse steps when Pollard was sentenced that he would "never see the light of day."

It's been almost three decades since a few people began to note that then-President Bill Clinton, who'd said he'd been visibly moved by "Schindler's List" (the quintessential horror film about the Holocaust), might sympathize with the moral impulse that drove Pollard to give vital defense information to Israel. Mr. Clinton could see to it that Pollard's life sentence be commuted to time served. He didn't.

Eventually a large and diverse cross-section of individuals and groups from around the world likewise protested the outrageously disproportionate nature of Pollard's sentence. They included U.S. Sen. Carol Mosely-Braun, the Rev. Benjamin Hooks, Cardinal Bernard Law, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, evangelist Pat Robertson and Notre Dame University President Father Theodore Hesburgh, as well as the city councils of Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami Beach and New York.

Everyone from the Canadian Jewish Congress to the chief rabbis of Denmark, France and South Africa sent letters to Mr. Clinton, as did virtually every major American Jewish organization. All went for naught.

Eventually the restrictions on Pollard's parole were relaxed, and he was no longer subject to a strict 7-p.m.-to-7-a.m. curfew, prohibited from working for a company that did not have U.S. government monitoring software on its computer systems, nor required to wear a wrist monitor that tracked his whereabouts. But he still could not travel outside his county -- and certainly not to Israel.

Not any more.

He was brought home on Dec. 30 on a special flight arranged by Israel -- where he was greeted warmly at the airport by Mr. Netanyahu, who presented Pollard and his wife, Esther, with Israeli ID cards, granting them citizenship.

"You're home," Mr. Netanyahu said, reciting a Hebrew blessing of thanks. "What a moment."

Kenneth Lasson is a law professor at the University of Baltimore.

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