In January, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent a letter to President Obama asking for the early release of Jonathan Jay Pollard, who was convicted of spying for Israel and sentenced to life in prison in 1987. The United States has steadfastly refused? requests for Pollard's release; it has every reason to continue that policy.
The Pollard clemency pleas are partly based on the close relationship between Israel and the United States. Under this theory, spying for Israel was not serious because it was on behalf of an ally and a friendly government, rather than an enemy of America.
But espionage on behalf of any foreign power is a serious crime for which there are severe punishments. It is a deed that should "shock the conscience" and evoke strong condemnation.
Although spying for another country might sometimes fall short of the legal definition of treason, it is always a betrayal of the spy's duty to his country and countrymen.
The "tradecraft" of the intelligence business takes this into consideration. Because persuading someone entrusted with his or her nation's secrets to betray that trust is extremely difficult, intelligence operatives are trained to use "false flag" recruitments to lower the barrier of conscience to such betrayal.
The Soviets successfully penetrated the British defense establishment during the Cold War by having a Soviet military intelligence officer pass himself off as a Canadian who was seeking secrets as part of a NATO "quality assurance" program.
If we were to accept that providing secrets to, say, the friendly South Korean government is somehow a lesser betrayal, we'd provide a field day to our North Korean enemies who would need only a phony ID to pass as our friends. Chinese Communists would have no trouble passing themselves off as Nationalist Chinese. Cubans could easily disguise themselves as Argentines, Mexicans or Puerto Rican Americans.
The essential point is that any nation that steals American defense or intelligence secrets does serious damage to our nation. It might be our friend in many other important ways. In this, it is the enemy. Pollard's crime would not be less heinous had he committed it on behalf of Canada or Ireland. His betrayal would not be more serious had he acted for Russia or North Korea.
The judge who sentenced Pollard did not choose the punishment because of the country Pollard spied for but because disclosure of the secrets Pollard peddled did such damage to our country.
In addition, Pollard violated a plea agreement that might otherwise have led to a lesser sentence. He launched a media campaign to portray himself as a valiant defender of Israel rather than a venal traitor of America. It was Pollard who broke the deal and brought maximum punishment upon himself.
A legal argument has been advanced that, once that plea agreement was broken, a new trial or new sentencing procedure should have followed, rather than the judge's immediate imposition of a life sentence. Pollard and his attorneys have, so far, failed to succeed in pressing that case. Pollard also has chosen not to apply for parole, expecting (probably correctly) that his application would not succeed.
The judicial system, however, is in fact the arena in which Pollard should seek to reduce his time in prison. Despite his violation of the oath he swore, as a U.S. Navy intelligence analyst, to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States from all enemies, foreign and domestic," it's that Constitution, not diplomatic efforts by another nation, that provides Pollard a means to get his sentenced vacated or reduced.
The bottom line for Jonathan Pollard and those who bought his secrets is one I learned early in my youth: "If you can't do the time, don't do the crime."
Frank Anderson served for 27 years as a CIA operations officer. He retired in 1995 as chief of the CIA's Near East and South Asia division.