Column: Free Jonathan Pollard
WASHINGTON — “A Dupont Circle neighbor said he seemed ‘more like a nerd than a spy.’”
Those were my words as a young reporter on the metro staff of The Washington Post, writing 28 years ago about the arrest of Navy intelligence analyst Jonathan Pollard outside the Israeli Embassy.
“President Clinton yesterday denied clemency to convicted spy Jonathan Jay Pollard, saying that the ‘enormity’ of his crime and the ‘considerable damage’ it caused meant that Pollard’s life sentence for spying for Israel should not be reduced.”
That was me, eight years later, as a still-young reporter promoted to the White House beat.
Today, no longer young, I woke up to the news that President Obama is considering releasing Pollard in a bid to keep Israeli-Palestinian peace talks from collapsing.
It seems like time.
I hold no brief for Pollard, now 59. He betrayed his country — for money. The Post editorial page described Pollard in 1999 as a “contemptible and duplicitous mercenary whose misdeeds were reckless and threatening to American security,” and that sounds about right.
Writing in The New York Times in January, M.E. Bowman, a former Defense Department official who coordinated a damage assessment of Pollard’s espionage, asserted that “there are no other Americans who have given over to an ally information of the quantity and quality that Mr. Pollard has.”
On the other hand:
He spied for an ally, not an enemy. (This does not excuse criminal conduct, but it does seem a mitigating factor, certainly so far down the road.) The sentence seems comparatively harsh. In negotiating Pollard’s guilty plea, prosecutors agreed to ask only for a “substantial period of incarceration,” not the life sentence ultimately imposed.
Aldrich Ames was similarly sentenced to life in prison — but his spying led to the death of at least 11 Soviet intelligence officers. John Walker Lindh, an American who joined Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, received a 20-year sentence. CIA officer William Kampiles, who sold the Soviets the operating manual for a spy satellite, was sentenced to 40 years and released after 18.
I’ve avoided writing about Pollard’s case all these years. With both sides so self-righteously entrenched, who wants to be associated with either one?
On the pro-Pollard side, there has been an unwarranted tendency to portray him in heroic terms and a none-too-subtle suggestion that for Jews to be skeptical of Pollard is evidence of a tendency toward self-hatred. On the anti-Pollard side, there has been — this is impossible to prove but I know it when I see it — a similarly unsubtle air of anti-Israel (at best) animus.
But here we are, with release again on the table. Of course, there is something disconcerting — repulsive is only slightly too strong a word — about having justice used as a diplomatic bargaining chip.
From the U.S. point of view, if justice would be served by freeing Pollard at this point, this should happen — regardless of whether his release is a useful lever in peace negotiations. That Secretary of State John Kerry is scrambling to come up with crumbs to toss the Israelis to lure them to the bargaining table only underscores the desperation of his peace bid.
From the Israeli point of view, if it is in the national interest to freeze settlements, release additional Palestinian prisoners or remain at the negotiating table, this should be done whether or not Pollard is freed. Conversely, it would be wrong for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take steps to secure Pollard’s freedom if they are against his country’s interest.
But diplomacy has its ugly aspects. From the U.S. side, Pollard will be eligible for parole in November 2015, after serving 30 years. His release is not certain, but wouldn’t be surprising. What more is to be achieved from his continued incarceration for a few extra months — especially when there is the prospect, however slim, of gain from letting him go early?
From the Israeli side, it’s long past time to debate the morality of trading criminals for peace. If gaining Pollard’s freedom gives Netanyahu more bargaining space with his hard-liners, why not seize the moment?
So here are words I never imagined writing when I stood outside his Dupont Circle apartment so long ago: Go ahead. Free Jonathan Pollard.
Ruth Marcus’ email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.