The Pollard Momentum

The movement to free convicted spy Jonathan Pollard is getting a new lease on life.

Jonathan Pollard supporter 521 (photo credit: YOSSI ZAMIR / FLASH90)
Jonathan Pollard supporter 521
(photo credit: YOSSI ZAMIR / FLASH90)
AS HE ENTERED HIS THIRD decade in prison, convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard – incarcerated since 1985 on a life sentence – may not have been forgotten, but the case for his early release certainly appeared to be cold, with a decreasing amount of attention being paid to it by politicians and the organized Jewish community.
But in the past year, and particularly in recent months, the Pollard case seems to have gotten a new lease on life. Several high-profile former US government officials – among them, most notably, former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz and former attorney general Michael Mukasey – have written public letters to President Barack Obama asking him to consider granting Pollard clemency, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in early January made a similar official request to the president. At the same time, a growing number of Congressmen, among them Michael Grimm, the first Republican member of the House to publicly come out in support of Pollard, have been adding their names to the list of those calling for the convicted spy to be released from jail.
The rejuvenated campaign on behalf of Pollard is being driven by a new generation of activists who have joined together with a reenergized older generation of supporters and decided to bring his case back into the headlines. Although opposition to Pollard’s early release still exists in Washington among some Republicans and members of the intelligence community, the passing of the years appears to have muted this opposition significantly, leaving many to believe that clemency for the convicted spy is closer than ever before.
“I do think that there has been momentum building, with new statements issued by people who know this issue, some of them who were opposed to his release in the past and have now reversed themselves,” says Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “Having all these prominent people come out is a significant difference. It gives the case greater legitimacy and urgency and gives cover to others who want to make their voice heard and maybe were afraid to,” he tells The Report.
As University of Baltimore law professor Kenneth Lasson, a key longtime activist on Pollard’s behalf, recently told JTA, “In 25 years, I’ve never seen this degree of momentum or widespread support from both within and outside the Jewish community, both nationally and internationally.”
AN INTELLIGENCE ANALYST with the United States Navy, Pollard was arrested in 1985 and accused of selling a treasure trove of classified documents to Israel. Pollard and his supporters have claimed that his actions were motivated by a concern that the US was not sharing crucial security-related information with Israel. While in custody, Pollard agreed to a plea bargain, but despite the agreement, was sentenced to life in prison. The judge’s decision to reject the plea bargain and sentence Pollard to the maximum possible sentence was apparently especially swayed by the four-page affidavit submitted by then-secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger, which claimed that Pollard’s actions caused severe damage to American security.
The sentiment in Washington that Pollard – who was granted Israeli citizenship in 1995 – betrayed his country has not necessarily dissipated. The renewed interest in his case seems to be driven by a growing sense that Pollard was unfairly punished for what he did and that he has already served enough time in jail.
“I think the new momentum is the result of a feeling that what he did is horrible, but after 25 years enough is enough. That feeling I think has galvanized a lot of people, like Kissinger and Schultz and Mukasey, that after 25 years it’s time for him to be treated like other people who committed similar crimes were treated,” Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense under Weinberger, tells The Report. Korb has become a vocal supporter of granting Pollard clemency.
Dennis DeConcini, a former Democratic senator from Arizona who was chairman of the Senate’s Intelligence Committee a few years after Pollard’s arrest, says the passing of time has led to a change in his and others’ view of the case. Although he didn’t see any red flags when he first took a look at Pollard’s file, some 20 years ago, DeConcini, who served as a prosecutor before he became senator, says he now believes Pollard has spent enough time in jail for what he did.
“In my opinion, he has paid a price that was appropriate. Twenty-some years in prison for doing what he did is an appropriate punishment,” he says. “I think many of the new voices we are hearing have come to the same conclusion that I came to a few years sooner, that maybe he has paid an appropriate price.”
THE PASSING OF MORE THAN 20 years since Pollard was jailed has also meant that today’s Washington is populated by a new cast of characters, many of whom don’t have the same reaction to the case that some politicians had when he was first convicted.
Indeed, in a letter to Obama in September 2010, Korb told the president that Weinberger’s request that Pollard receive a heavy sentence had little to do with any actual damage caused by his spying. “Based on my firsthand knowledge, I can say with confidence that the severity of Pollard’s sentence is a result of an almost visceral dislike of Israel and the special place it occupies in our foreign policy on the part of my boss at the time, secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger,” Korb wrote in his letter.
“Alot of these issues in Washington have to do with where the passion and energy are on at any given moment and I think that what’s happened is that the passion seesaw has tipped,” says Mark Pelavin, Associate Director of the Washington-based Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “What’s happened in the last year or so is that there is a new energy and passion behind the call for commutation and more compassion. And the people who were on the other side and just not as involved are no longer involved in government and so are less involved in decision-making.”
Helping to decisively tip that passion seesaw has been a small group of Pollard activists – some longtime, some newer to his cause – who have decided to forcefully bring his case onto Washington’s agenda, doing so by getting letters of support from a wide circle of personalities, including even Rabbi Capers Funnye, a cousin of first lady Michelle Obama.
“I think there’s a great story about what a couple of dedicated activists can do. These guys really rolled up their sleeves and really started to get people active,” says Pelavin.
David Nyer, a 25-year-old social worker from Monsey, NY, is one of these activists. Nyer bombarded Pelavin’s office – and those of other Jewish organizations – with phone calls about the Pollard case. Nyer was also instrumental in getting a group of 39 congressional Democrats to sign a letter last November calling for Obama to commute Pollard’s sentence.
“It’s testament to what one nudnik with a cause can do,” Pelavin says about the recent flurry of activity on behalf of the jailed Pollard. (Although still deeply involved in the issue, Nyer is no longer speaking to the press, for fear of diverting attention away from the call for clemency.)
DESPITE THE SUCCESSES, resistance to Pollard’s release – though muted when compared to previous years – still remains on Capitol Hill and within intelligence and defense circles. Soon after Netanyahu made his public appeal for clemency to Obama at the beginning of the year, the “Los Angeles Times” ran an opinion piece by a former CIA officer named Frank Anderson with this blunt title: “Free Pollard? Never.” According to Anderson, betraying one’s nation, regardless of if it was to a friendly country or not, is nonetheless a betrayal.
One Jewish organization executive in Washington, who is engaged in pro-Israel activity and who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, says there is still a “great deal of hesitation” among many in the organized Jewish world about making the Pollard case front and center in the US-Israel relationship.
“His spying was a betrayal of the oath he took as an American and it highlights the issue of dual loyalty, the canard that always hangs over the US-Israeli relationship,” the executive tells The Report. “On the [Capitol] Hill, you have conservative Republicans who are solid supporters of the US-Israel relationship” – people so supportive of Israel that they wear Israeli flags on their lapel – “and the Pollard story doesn’t play well with them at all.”
“Our focus as an American Jewish community needs to be on the bigger picture of what we need to do to solidify the US-Israeli relationship and the Pollard issue doesn’t help,” he says.
Others reject the claim that the Pollard issue could somehow damage relations between Washington and Jerusalem.
“It’s not going to damage anything if it’s done correctly. I understand the sensitivity, but this is a humanitarian issue. The effort is not to try and dismiss what happened, but to say this is a matter of humanity and justice,” says the Conference of Presidents’ Hoenlein. DeConcini, the former senator, says he also doesn’t believe the Pollard case threatens US-Israel ties, particularly with other issues, such as profound disagreements over Israel’s settlement policy, standing between the two countries. “There are other issues that are much more damaging to US-Israeli relations,” he says.
After this recent string of high-profile letters of support and other lobbying efforts on Pollard’s behalf, how will the Obama Administration respond? Korb says he believes Pollard’s case is likely wrapped up in some of the other issues that stand in between the US and Israel, and especially with the frustration the Administration is feeling with Netanyahu and his stance on the peace process.
“I believe that people in the Administration are so upset at Netanyahu that they look at this through those glasses: ‘Would this be good for Netanyahu? If so, we don’t want to do it,’” he says. “Unfortunately, that’s the case. That’s the only thing I can see here.”
Earlier this year, after Netanyahu’s clemency request was made to Obama, then-White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the request was being considered, but also added, “I think it is important to underscore that Mr. Pollard was convicted of some of the most serious crimes that anybody can be charged with.”
Granting clemency in a charged case like Pollard’s is not a simple matter. But considering the new momentum behind the Pollard case, the Obama Administration may find itself increasingly having to explain its position on the issue.