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Jonathan Pollard: Why wasn't he freed earlier?

Dave Gordon - Friday, 20 November, 2015

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Jonathan Pollard, convicted in the US for spying for Israel, was freed on parole today, after thirty years in prison.

Pollard was a U.S. civilian naval intelligence analyst and was the only person in the history of the United States to receive a life sentence for spying for an American ally.

The maximum sentence today for any similar offence is 10 years.

The crux of the highly controversial case centers around the question of whether Pollard caused harm to the US, and whether his punishment fit his crime.

David Zwiebel, in the June, 1997 edition of Middle East Quarterly, noted that “since the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953, during the Korean War, no spy has received a harsher sentence, even during wartime.”

Furthermore, evidence has been presented to show that the information Pollard provided to Israel was supposed to have been shared anyway, according to a deal between the two countries.

A Mole in the Intelligence Community

Former CIA agent John Loftus described the whole debacle as “a terrible miscarriage of justice.” Loftus, a former Justice Department Attorney with insider intelligence sources, says that US authorities knew that someone in the intelligence community was passing secrets to Soviets.

When Pollard was arrested, in 1985, the CIA believed that they had found the double agent who had disclosed a list of every American spy inside the Soviet Union during the early 1980s. Since no direct evidence linked Pollard to the Soviets, the theory was that he had been trading information with a Soviet agent posing as an Israeli intelligence official in Israel.

They also believed that Pollard’s disclosure of this information resulted in the capture or execution of more than 40 American agents in the USSR, leaving the US more vulnerable for attack. “But this basis for [the government’s severe treatment of Pollard] had been kept secret from Pollard and his defense counsel,” said Loftus.

In his article “The Truth About Jonathan Pollard” in Moment Magazine (June 2003), Loftus sums up the mistake that was made: “Pollard was stealing Soviet secrets for Israel, not American secrets for the Soviets.”

Though Pollard was promised that in return for pleading guilty and foregoing a formal trial, he would not receive a life sentence, the court and the government reneged on this agreement.

Before his sentencing, a court memo authored by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger  – which in it’s complete form was kept from Pollard’s team–  referred to the “enormous” harm that he had caused to national security.

Ostensibly because it was believed that Pollard’s information ended up in Soviet hands, Weinberger implicitly accused Pollard of treason – a term defined as acting in war or aiding America’s enemies. Notably though, Pollard was never charged or convicted of treason.

Double Agent Double Take

The case became even more muddled when the Washington Times reported a week after the sentencing that the United States believed it had identified Pollard’s Soviet spy in Israel, Shabtai Kalmanovich.

Several months later, in December, 1987, US intelligence sources, in their zeal to pin the blame on Pollard, leaked to United Press International that Kalmanovich had infiltrated the Mossad, passing Pollard’s secrets to the KGB.

In actuality, the CIA mole who was passing secrets to the Soviets had no Israel connection and continued to operate freely for over eight years after Pollard’s arrest – a fact which only came to light in February, 1994, when master spy Aldrich Ames was arrested and confessed to being a double agent for the Russians.

But Ames told the authorities he was only responsible for revealing some of the names of American covert operatives.

The CIA leapt to the conclusion that Pollard had to have been accountable for the rest, according to Loftus. In truth, it was a second high-level US official working in parallel with Ames who was guilty of what Pollard was being blamed for.

Fifteen years after Pollard’s arrest, the FBI paid $7 million to a former KGB officer (whose identity remains classified to this day) for the Soviet intelligence file that identified FBI Special Agent, Robert Hanssen, as the double agent. Hanssen was arrested in February 2001, and confessed. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

With Hanssen and Ames convicted, the Navy’s intelligence service began to compare the classified materials these men could obtain, with what was accessible to Pollard. According to Loftus, the revelation was stunning: “The list of our secret agents inside Russia had been kept in a special safe in a special room with a special blue stripe clearance needed for access.”

“Nothing with a blue stripe could leave the building without being scrutinized by CIA security.” While Ames and Hanssen both had clearance for transporting such classified documents, Pollard did not.

“No one has had the guts to say, ‘Let Pollard out,’” Loftus says, adding that Pollard actually took information about the identities of Arab agents and terrorists, such as Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda.

The US had an agreement with Israel to share this kind of information, under an executive order signed by President Reagan, but it had not done so. Until Pollard acted on it, the US had not shared with Israel data on Iraqi and Syrian chemical weapons, the Pakistani atomic bomb project and Libyan air defense systems.

Ironically, according to Zweibel, Israel today receives real-time data throughout the day from US intelligence satellites.

 Advocates for Release

Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Leeper characterized the damage to the US from Pollard’s activities as “minimal.” In a Washington Post article printed on April 23, 1994, government sources were quoted as saying that “no one died as a result.”

In October, 2010, Dr. Lawrence J. Korb, Assistant Secretary of Defense during Pollard’s arrest, wrote a letter to President Obama, requesting Pollard’s release. The incarceration, he claimed, was due to Secretary Weinberger’s “visceral dislike of Israel,” and he blamed Weinberger for Pollard’s harsh prison term.

Mayor Rudy Giuliani, in a New York Times article that appeared on August 15, 1999, expressed his dismay with Pollard’s long sentencing. In late 2007, I asked him where he stood on the issue.

“His treatment was disproportionate,” he said. “That is, he was serving a lot more time than others who were convicted, and who did other similar things or things of equal gravity.”

According to Pollard’s official website, five Prime Ministers of Israel and three Presidents of Israel have requested his release.

In 1992, Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Williams called the case “a fundamental miscarriage of justice” and wrote that if it wasn’t for the 2-1 ruling against Pollard, he would have recommended the case be thrown out.

Pollard’s Detractors

In 2007, I asked Arizona Senator and presidential candidate John McCain whether he might consider pardoning Pollard if elected.

He replied, “No. He was a traitor. And I understand the Jewish community and the Israeli community. But he broke our laws. I am familiar with the Pollard case intimately. I have been asked to review it time after time after time.”

When asked to reevaluate his position in the light of the recent case of Ronald Monteperto, the US intelligence official who spied for China for two years and was jailed for a mere 90 days, Senator McCain was nonplussed.

“Well, because someone didn’t get the right punishment, I’m not going to pardon [Pollard]. Listen, I understand. I’ve had conversations with Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon on this.”

The issue went to the White House in the 1990s. President Bill Clinton wrote to Bert Raphael – retained by Pollard as a Canadian counsel – saying he would investigate the Pollard matter.

But Clinton refused to issue a pardon, and according to White House documents, he cited “the damage done to our national security” as the basis for his refusal. Pollard, for his part, has admitted in writing to Clinton that he acted wrongly.

Toward the end of his presidency, Clinton received sharp criticism for pardoning 14 Puerto Rican FALN terrorists charged with bank robbery, various acts of terrorism, and deaths of US police officers. Pollard, it was argued by many, did far less damage, but was languishing in prison.

For seven years, Pollard was kept in a cell three stories beneath the ground in Marion, Illinois, and never let out for fresh air, according to his wife Esther, on their website. Until recently, he was held at Butner Prison in North Carolina.

His defense team says that petitioning for parole was impossible without the Weinberger classified information.

Prevented from proving evidence showing the mitigating extent of his actions, betrayed by a broken plea agreement, and sentenced for crimes perpetrated by others, Pollard was finally set free on Friday, Nov. 20.


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