During the course of President Obama’s recent interview with Israel’s Channel 2 on March 21st, in response to whether he would consider commuting the life sentence of former civilian American naval intelligence analyst and convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, he remarked: “As president, my first obligation is to observe the law here in the US. I need to make sure that every individual is treated fairly and equally.”
To do so, he should begin with a question. Why have former U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Lawrence Korb, former U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dennis DeConcini, Ronald Reagan’s National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane, former CIA Director James Woolsey, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, former Deputy Attorney-General Philip Heymann, former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, 39 U.S. Congressmen, 18 U.S. ex-Senators and even the European Parliament (on September 16th, 1993) repeatedly called for Pollard’s sentence to be commuted.
This answer, quite simply, is because Pollard’s punishment did not fit his crime.
McFarlane went so far as to write that Pollard’s imprisonment was “disgraceful and mean-spirited,” and “well beyond what any court would sentence for the same action today.” He called Pollard’s life sentence a “great injustice” and disproportionate to the crime he committed.
In 1987, Pollard pleaded guilty in a plea agreement (a deal quashed by the judge at the request of Caspar Weinberger, then-Secretary of State who had a visceral dislike of Israel) to one count of providing classified American intelligence information to an ally – Israel.
However, a newly-declassified 1987 CIA Damage Assessment indicates that the information Pollard provided to Israeli intelligence related to Tunisian, Syrian, Pakistani, Iraqi, Libyan, Iranian and Soviet nuclear, chemical, and biological warfare capabilities – vital intelligence that Israel was legally entitled to receive in accordance with an Executive Order signed by President Reagan, but which was being withheld as retaliation for Israel’s pre-emptive strike on Iraq’s nuclear reactors.
It included photos of the PLO headquarters in Tunisia and information on Soviet arms shipments to Syria and other Arab states; Tunisian and Libyan air defense systems, information on Egyptian missile systems and information on planned terrorist attacks against Israeli civilian targets. With regard to Syria, in particular, Pollard provided documents concerning a suspected research and development facility, the Syrian electronics intelligence (ELINT) system, remotely piloted vehicles, a national command, control, and communications center in Damascus, Syrian military units to which Soviet advisors were assigned, and medical intelligence information on then Syrian president Hafez al-Assad.
The common denominator in these documents was that they all related to the existential threat posed to Israel by these hostile Middle Eastern Arab/Persian/Asian countries.
Pollard was never charged with treason, was not motivated by profit, and was never indicted for harming the United States or for compromising U.S. capabilities, codes, agents, or war plans. He was indicted and convicted on only one charge – one count of passing classified information to an ally – without intent to harm the United States.
Under the heading “What the Israelis Did Not Ask For,” the Assessment remarks (at page 43) that the Israelis “never expressed interest in U.S. military activities, plans, capabilities, or equipment.”
Even the sentencing judge, Aubrey Robinson, acknowledged that Pollard was an ideologue and not a mercenary.
Moreover, contrary to the extremely damaging “worst spy in history” and “betraying America’s sources and methods” comments expressed by Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger, there is no evidence that Pollard’s actions led to the loss of a single American life over the years. No less a figure than Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Leeper has characterized damage caused by the release of the information that Pollard actually gave Israel as “minimal”, and in 1994, government sources were quoted as saying that “no one died as a result of Pollard” (Washington Post, Apr. 23, 1994). As former U.S. federal prosecutor John Loftus writes ….. “Pollard was stealing Soviet secrets for Israel, not American secrets for the Soviets.”
It is true of course that Pollard committed a serious crime and his espionage should not be condoned nor should the gravity of his crime be underestimated, but his 28-year sentence is outrageous considering that the average sentence for passing classified material to an ally is 10 years, and the median time served for such an offense is between 2 to 4 years.
Pollard is the only person in U.S. history to receive a life sentence for spying for a U.S. ally – Israel. Even agents who committed far more serious crimes on behalf of hostile nations did not receive such a harsh sentence. In fact, of the more than 50 recently convicted Soviet bloc and Chinese spies (except for Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen both of whom also received life sentences for espionage activities that caused irreparable damage to U.S. interests and the loss of U.S. intelligence assets in the Soviet Union) two-thirds served or were sentenced to less time than Pollard has already served.
Pollard spied in the U.S. but not against the U.S. He has more than paid his debt. It is time for justice to be done and to commute his sentence to time served.
Mark Silverberg is a foreign policy analyst for the Ariel Center for Policy Research (Israel). He is a former member of the Canadian Justice Department, a past Director of the Canadian Jewish Congress (Western Office) based in Vancouver, a member of Hadassah’s National Academic Advisory Board and a Contributing Editor for Family Security Matters, Intellectual Conservative and Israel National News (Arutz Sheva). He also served as a Consultant to the Secretary General of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem during the first Palestinian intifada. His book “The Quartermasters of Terror: Saudi Arabia and the Global Islamic Jihad” and his articles have been archived under www. marksilverberg .com.