About 25 years ago, Jonathan Jay Pollard, a U.S. naval intelligence analyst, betrayed his country by providing highly classified information to Israel. Even though Israel was and still is a U.S. ally and is routinely supplied with U.S. intelligence, Pollard deserved to be severely punished for his actions. However, the punishment should fit the crime. In his case, it does not.
After his arrest and indictment by a grand jury, Pollard agreed to plead guilty to one count of giving classified information to a U.S. ally. In return for his guilty plea — which spared the government the embarrassment of conducting a trial involving highly sensitive information — and his cooperation with the U.S. government, the U.S. attorney pledged not to seek a life sentence for Pollard.
This seemed like a reasonable resolution. The average sentence meted out to individuals convicted of giving classified information to an ally is seven years, with average time served about four years.
Despite the terms of the plea bargain, in 1987 Pollard was sentenced to life, a sentence generally reserved for spies such as Aldrich Ames, who pleaded guilty to giving classified information to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, information that led to the loss of many lives.
The question is why Pollard received such a harsh sentence and why he still languishes in prison despite the pleas of hundreds of U.S. legislators, dozens of distinguished attorneys (including a former solicitor general), a former CIA director, one former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and several Israeli leaders to have him released.
There are at least three reasons for this state of affairs.
First is the victim impact statement of my former boss, Caspar Weinberger, the secretary of Defense at the time of Pollard's arrest. The statement, much of which remains classified, implied that some of the information that Pollard had supplied to Israel made its way to the Soviet Union. Weinberger argued that Pollard was no different from spies who provided information to the Soviets and was guilty of treason.
Second, at the time of his arrest, the Israeli government refused to acknowledge that Pollard was one of its agents, claiming that he was part of a rogue operation. Not surprisingly, the Israelis also steadfastly refused to return the reams of documents that Pollard had delivered to them or debrief the U.S. about their contents. This added fuel to the notion that Pollard was working for the Soviets or another U.S. enemy rather than for an American ally.
Third, Pollard was an unsympathetic character. He not only took about $45,000 from the Israelis in exchange for the information he handed over, he gave two highly publicized interviews from jail before his sentencing, one with Wolf Blitzer and another with Mike Wallace. In these interviews, which the government claimed were not authorized, he didn't express remorse but instead attempted to rationalize his behavior.
But none of these conditions exists now. Weinberger's contention has been debunked. Information that Pollard gave to Israel did not make its way to the USSR. Instead, the information that the Soviets received during the 18 months Pollard was spying for Israel most likely came from Ames and Robert Hanssen, a onetime FBI agent who spied for the USSR and Russia from 1979 to 2001.
R. James Woolsey, the CIA director from 1993 to 1995, stated after examining the Pollard case file that none of Pollard's information went to the Soviet Union. Moreover, Woolsey now believes that Pollard has served long enough and should be released. And in a 2004 interview, Weinberger himself admitted that in retrospect, the Pollard matter was comparatively minor. In fact, he does not even mention it in his memoirs.
In 1998, the Israeli government finally admitted that Pollard was one of its agents, granted him Israeli citizenship and has sought clemency for him from three U.S. presidents. Finally, Pollard himself not only expressed remorse before the sentencing judge but has done so several times publicly over the past 25 years (and the government has conceded that the jailhouse interviews had to have been authorized).
One president actually agreed to grant clemency to Pollard. In October 1998, President Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu worked out an agreement to release Pollard as a way of facilitating an Arab-Israeli peace agreement. However, the deal was scuttled when George Tenet, the CIA director at the time, threatened to resign. Tenet was apparently concerned about the signal Pollard's release would send to the intelligence community and believed he still had information that could jeopardize national security.
Some now argue that Pollard should be released because it would improve U.S.-Israeli relations and enhance the prospects of success of the Obama administration's Middle East peace process. Although that may be true, it is not the reason I and many others have recently written to the president requesting that he grant Pollard clemency. The reason is that Pollard has already served far too long for the crime for which he was convicted, and by now, whatever facts he might know would have little effect on national security.
Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration, is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.