This November marked the 28th anniversary of the conviction and life imprisonment of Jonathan Pollard, the Navy intelligence analyst who is the only individual in U.S. history to be given a life sentence for spying for on a U.S. ally. At the time of Pollard’s sentencing he pleaded guilty to one count of providing classified U.S. intelligence information to Israel, America’s best friend in the Middle East.
Given the recent stories about the U.S. government’s spying on many foreign leaders, including our allies, it is time to review the case and the moral argument for presidential clemency for Pollard.
First, when asked about the possibility for commutation of Pollard’s sentence during an interview with Israel’s Channel 2 this past March, President Obama responded:
“As the President, my first obligation is to observe the law here in the U.S. and to make sure that it’s applied consistently…I’ve got to make sure that every individual is treated fairly and equally.”
Although Pollard committed a serious crime that cannot be condoned, government sources in 1994 acknowledged that “no one died as a result of the Pollard” breach and as Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Leeper originally characterized the damage done by Pollard as “minimal.”
Jonathan Pollard when he was arrested in 1985 for providing classified documents to Israel. Photo Credit: wikipedia.com
His imprisonment, according to former National Security Advisor Robert MacFarlane, is a “great injustice.” In fact, as noted by former Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence J. Korb, Pollard’s imprisonment is, “three times longer than anybody who’s ever provided classified information to a friendly country or a neutral country.”
In a letter to President Obama, former Congressman Robert Wexler reiterated this position stating that Pollard, “is the only American citizen convicted of such a crime to be sentenced to more than 14 years in prison. Currently the punishment for such a crime is set at a maximum of 10 years.”
If President Obama’s standard is fairness, equality and consistency under the law, the imprisonment of Jonathan Pollard is is unjust. Mr. President, your own words provide the basis for granting clemency.
Second, Pollard’s collection of information on behalf of Israel focused entirely on intelligence concerning Israel’s enemies, not intelligence on the United States. So as far as we know, what he passed to Israel was useful to Israel’s existential struggle to survive as a democratic and free state in the dangerous Middle East.
A sign stands outside the National Security Administration (NSA) campus on Thursday, June 6, 2013, in Fort Meade, Md. The Obama administration on Thursday defended the National Security Agency's need to collect telephone records of U.S. citizens, calling such information "a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats." (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
While perhaps the U.S. had reasons not to hand certain intelligence to Israel, it could hardly dispute the outcome of Pollard’s work, which was to make Israel, a loyal friend of the United States, more secure.
American intelligence functions in a similar manner with regard to intelligence gathering all over the world. As U. S. State Department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki stated in response to recent spying stories, “We will of course continue to gather the information we need to keep ourselves and our allies safe.”
But most importantly, the core violation – that Pollard spied on Israel’s ally – is strikingly similar to the allegations now made against the United States. Through a series of embarrassing revelations, we now know that the U.S. regularly collects and analyzes communications of foreign leaders, including key allies, in Europe and elsewhere. It appears that for the U.S., spying on friends is perfectly normal. If so, the U.S. government can no longer maintain that Pollard’s actions were so egregious.
[sharequote align="center"]It appears that for the U.S., spying on friends is perfectly normal.[/sharequote]
Finally, we must remember that many of those who either oversaw Pollard’s prosecution or rejected early entreaties for early release have reached the conclusion that he has suffered enough. James Woolsey, former director of the CIA, as well as William Webster, who was head of the FBI, both have urged Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama to release Pollard.
There is no doubting that Pollard’s crime struck a nerve within the defense establishment and the intelligence community. And so we should not dismiss those who have long held that Pollard’s crimes were inexcusable and unpardonable.
However, if we were to apply the “Pollard standard” for espionage crimes to our own government, it would appear that many employees of the National Security Agency, as well as those who have received briefing reports on the communications of our allies, will have to answer for their own inexcusable and unpardonable actions.
A portrait of U.S. President Barack Obama lies on the pavement during a demonstration by activists against the electronic surveillance tactics of the NSA and in support of whistleblowers Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden on July 27, 2013 in Berlin, Germany. The NSA scandal has been especially contentious in Germany after media reports claimed the NSA had conducted wide scale gathering of electonic data, including e-mails, of German citizens. Activists are demonstrating against the NSA in cities across Germany today. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Perhaps German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich was thinking of the Pollard case when he charged, “if the Americans intercepted cell phones in Germany they broke German law on German soil…and those responsible must be held accountable.”
Unless our leaders and their top aides stand behind their own spying on our friends, it seems grossly unfair to continue to punish a man who has already spent 28 years in jail for the very same thing. Whatever one thinks about Jonathan Pollard or his crimes, he has certainly paid dearly for them, more than anyone else in his position ever has, and certainly more than people who do the same thing while serving on the payroll of the U.S. government.
Mr. President, as we prepare to usher in this holiday season, please recall your own eloquence when you said, “Days such as this are a time of reflection…to recognize ourselves in each other; to treat one another with compassion.”
It is time to show compassion towards Jonathan Pollard and grant him clemency.
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