It’s not clear whether the idea was leaked by the Obama administration or advanced by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But the very suggestion that convicted spy Jonathan J. Pollard may be released from his North Carolina prison as part of an effort to resuscitate the flailing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations has accomplished something rare in Middle East disputes: It has united people on the right, on the left and in the middle. In condemnation.
Nobody seems to think that it’s a wise idea to sew Pollard into the fraying fabric of these negotiations. Conservatives oppose the move because they are afraid it will prompt Israel to surrender too much in return. Mainstream groups like the Anti-Defamation League say Pollard’s case unnecessarily muddies an already-complex situation. Those on the left worry that it signals desperation on the Obama administration’s part — not a welcome stand when its foreign policy is already under attack for being weak-kneed and inconsistent.
We agree with all of the above. We side with those who further believe that, while Pollard may deserve release on humanitarian grounds, pardoning this convicted, unrepentant spy is unwise.
There’s a déjà vu quality to the swirling rumors, harkening back to 1998, when then President Bill Clinton was prepared to release Pollard during the Wye River summit at the urging of then Prime Minister Netanyahu. But American intelligence officials vehemently protested and, when the CIA chief threatened to resign, the deal was scuttled.
A dispassionate examination of Pollard’s case makes it clear why those intelligence officials reacted the way they did and why they continue to voice those opinions today. As Dafna Linzer wrote recently on msnbc.com: “The U.S. government wasn’t exaggerating when it claimed in court that ‘the breadth and scope of classified information compromised by Mr. Pollard is among the greatest of any espionage operations uncovered by federal authorities.’”
Pollard was sentenced in 1987 to life in prison after pleading guilty to giving U.S. military and intelligence secrets to Israel. Since he was caught spying for an ally, since he is now old and sickly, his supporters in the United States and Israel have maintained a consistent, determined campaign for his freedom, painting him as a victim of anti-Semitism and of anti-Zionist politics.
He is older and, evidently, unwell. He has served time for decades. He certainly deserves consideration for early release on humanitarian grounds before his next chance for parole in 2015.
But a pardon wipes the slate clean: It effectively announces that it was all a mistake, he did no wrong and he is excused. That is a far more problematic statement.
American intelligence officials contend to this day that Pollard did more than simply give Israel a stack of documents that, by his own estimation, would have measured 6 feet by 6 feet and stood 10-feet high.
According to internal government documents cited by msnbc.com, Pollard “copied, delivered and sold scientific, technical and military information about U.S. ship positions, aircraft stations, tactics and training operations; classified analyses of Soviet missile systems, three separate categories of daily message or cable traffic and intelligence on military hardware still in development at the time. The information he shared revealed the way in which the United States collected intelligence, revealed the names of human sources and exposed the identities of numerous U.S. intelligence officers and analysts.”
For all this, Pollard was paid handsomely, with the promise of more. And even when pleading guilty, he never expressed remorse.
Yet the myths surrounding his case persist, the arguments continue. Pollard’s long sentence was unfair. He should have been treated more leniently because he was spying for an ally. The defense secretary at the time, Casper Weinberger, had it in for Pollard.
As the Forward’s contributing editor Jerome Chanes details in an excellent analysis on our website, those arguments simply don’t hold up to the facts. “Pollard’s sentence was harsh, but hardly the harshest meted out to a convicted spy in the 1980s,” Chanes shows, naming names of those treated more harshly. Weinberger didn’t unfairly intervene in the case; he was obliged to issue a memorandum assessing the damage of Pollard’s espionage.
And not only do the laws of espionage not distinguish between allies and enemies, Chanes writes, “espionage conducted even on behalf of a friendly nation compromises national security interests and could endanger the lives of American agents.” Indeed, many experts have said that the information Pollard gave to Israel probably made its way into Soviet hands.
Morever, Chanes notes, American Jewish groups scrupulously examined the case at the time and found that “anti-Semitism and discrimination were not factors in Pollard’s conviction or sentencing.”
But since he has become a cause celebre for many Israeli and American Jewish leaders — why, even Gilad Shalit, who suffered for years as a prisoner in Gaza, recently pleaded for his release — Pollard’s name is now bandied about as some sort of sweetener to counteract the distinct souring of negotiations in the last few days.
Tying this complicated spy case to the fate of the two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is all wrong. Worse, it inserts the United States directly into what ought to be, indeed must be, a bilateral agreement. The U.S. can be the mediator, the nudge, the guarantor and, probably, the banker if such an agreement ever comes to pass. But it should not be offering its own concessions.
In the end, as Secretary of State John Kerry is learning the very hard way, Israeli and Palestinian leaders have to want to resolve this conflict. Pardoning an American who spied will not hasten that day. Unfortunately, it’s not clear what will.