Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Let My Pollard Go!

The onetime spy is harmless, and he has done his time. Send him home.

Jonathan_Pollard-r1

On Tuesday, news broke that in November the United States will release Jonathan Pollard, who some three decades ago pleaded guilty to one count of espionage for providing classified information to Israel, for which he was sentenced to life in prison. But, as with most of the reporting on the Pollard case, the headlines are misleading.

Pollard is not being “released.” The terms of his life sentence require that he become eligible for parole this November, 30 years after his arrest, unless the government can prove that he was not a good prisoner or that he is likely to spy again -- both of which the government could not prove at his parole hearing earlier this month.

The real issue is not that Pollard will go free in November, but why he has been kept in prison for so long. Many people, including me in these pages, have urged President Barack Obama to commute his sentence to time served. I also made the same case during the terms of Obama’s two predecessors.

On Tuesday, news broke that in November the United States will release Jonathan Pollard, who some three decades ago pleaded guilty to one count of espionage for providing classified information to Israel, for which he was sentenced to life in prison. But, as with most of the reporting on the Pollard case, the headlines are misleading.

Pollard is not being “released.” The terms of his life sentence require that he become eligible for parole this November, 30 years after his arrest, unless the government can prove that he was not a good prisoner or that he is likely to spy again — both of which the government could not prove at his parole hearing earlier this month.

The real issue is not that Pollard will go free in November, but why he has been kept in prison for so long. Many people, including me in these pages, have urged President Barack Obama to commute his sentence to time served. I also made the same case during the terms of Obama’s two predecessors.

I based my case for releasing Pollard in previous years on three main reasons. First, Pollard has been in prison far longer than anyone else who has spied for a friendly country. As R. James Woolsey, a former director of the CIA and undersecretary of the Navy, pointed out, if Pollard had spied for a friendly U.S. ally like Greece, South Korea, or the Philippines, would he have received such a harsh sentence? In comparison, Woolsey noted that the United States has caught several spies from enemy countries and has given them much lower sentences.

Individuals who have done far more damage than Pollard have received much more lenient sentences. For example, U.S. Army Private Chelsea Manning received only a 35-year sentence — instead of life — after leaking hundreds of thousands of classified files to WikiLeaks. This sentence made her eligible for parole in about seven years, 23 less than Pollard.

Second, Pollard should never have been given a life sentence in the first place. In return for his guilty plea on one count of espionage (not treason), which spared the United States from the embarrassment of a protracted and costly trial, the government agreed not to seek a life sentence. But it reneged on the deal, something that Judge Stephen Williams, a Reagan appointee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, noted in his dissent to Pollard’s 1991 appeal of his sentence, calling it “a fundamental miscarriage of justice.” (Williams’s two colleagues supported the life sentence on a technicality.)

The reason that the presiding judge decided not to support Pollard’s original plea deal was because of two classified documents submitted to him, namely a damage assessment provided by the CIA and a victim impact statement provided by then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.

But public release of these two documents shows that the claims were exaggerated. In December 2012, the National Security Archive at George Washington University released the CIA Damage Assessment. It reveals that Israel never requested — nor did Pollard ever provide — any information concerning “U.S. military activities, plans, capabilities, or equipment.”

In November 2014, significant portions of Weinberger’s victim impact statement were released. These show that there was no real harm to U.S. national security from the intelligence Pollard gave to Israel. According to Weinberger, the real harm was that it deprived the United States of its quid pro quo. In other words, the United States lost its leverage to get information from the Israelis after Pollard provided them with sensitive information on threats to their security. Given this, it is no wonder that in 2002, a few years before he died, Weinberger reportedly said that the Pollard affair was comparatively minor, and it was blown out of proportion.

Third, the claims that Pollard inflicted severe harm to our national security by some former members of the intelligence community opposed to granting parole to Pollard are without merit. These exaggerated claims by career bureaucrats have been routinely contradicted by more senior former government officials, including a vice president, a deputy attorney general, a White House counsel, a deputy national security advisor, secretaries of state, and the current chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. John McCain. These former officials essentially argue that Pollard’s sentence was disproportionate to the damage done.

Moreover, the sensitive information that these former mid-level officials imply has made its way from Israel to the Soviet Union was in fact provided by convicted CIA analyst Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, an FBI special agent, who collaborated with the Soviets directly — not Pollard or Israel — as former intelligence officers and staffers on the Senate Intelligence Committee have attested.

I am glad that the Obama administration will not oppose granting Pollard parole. But to view this as a humane gesture or something that will garner support in Israel and appease Netanyahu after the signing of the contentious Iran nuclear agreement is unrealistic. If President Obama or his predecessors wanted to amass support in Israel for restarting the peace process in the Middle East or for the Iran agreement, they waited too long. They all missed the opportunity to do the right thing for Pollard or to enhance the tenuous state of U.S.-Israeli relations. History will not judge them kindly for this, nor should it.

Photoillustration by FP

Lawrence J. Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and served as an assistant secretary of defense in U.S. President Ronald Reagan's administration.

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