The Washington festivities honoring Israeli President Shimon Peres have come and gone, without an assurance of clemency for jailed spy Jonathan Pollard.
But while Pollard’s 27th year in federal prison continues, so do calls for his release.
“While I certainly don’t condone what he did—no question, he did wrong, and was paid to do it—still, he should not be treated neither more leniently nor worse than anybody else who provided information to a friendly government,” U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), who has visited Pollard in prison twice, said in an interview with JNS.org. “It’s gone from bad to worse. After  years, it’s enough.”
Pollard’s advocates in Congress and elsewhere say his life sentence resulting from a conviction of spying for Israel—without intent to harm the United States—is disproportionate to his crime. Prior to his June 13 private meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama, Peres—the Medal of Freedom awardee—said he would request clemency for Pollard. Speaking from Washington, he told Israel’s Channel 2 that Obama “has humanitarian authority” and therefore “can mull considerations [for Pollard] that the courts did not.”
However, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, at a briefing for reporters the day of the Medal of Freedom presentation, quashed all discussion of a possible clemency. “Our position has not changed and will not change today…I would simply remind you that Mr. Pollard was convicted of very serious crimes,” Carney said.
A request for the commutation of Pollard’s sentence was the subject of a June 11 bi-partisan letter spearheaded Engel and U.S. Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ). The letter appeals to Obama, saying “There is no doubt that [Pollard] has paid a heavy price, and, from the standpoint of either punishment or deterrence, we believe he has been imprisoned long enough…We join our voices to those who see clemency as an act of compassion justified on humanitarian grounds and for purposes of fairness and equity.”
In 1985, Pollard had pleaded guilty to one count of “conspiracy to delivery national defense information to a foreign government” and was set to receive “a substantial number of years in prison.” While the prosecutor in this judicial process (there was no trial) did not technically ask for a life sentence, former secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger did, and Judge Aubrey E. Robinson acquiesced.
Engel told JNS.org that the government “double crossed” Pollard. “In making a plea bargain,” said Engel, “you do so with the expectation that it will be implemented.”
Why is Engel appealing for Pollard’s release specifically at this time? “Pollard is in ill health,” Engel said. “It’s time to commute his sentence to time served. It’s a mistake for it not to have happened earlier—now we should re double our efforts and keep trying.”
The collaboration of Engel, a Democrat, and the Republican legislator Smith is an example of bipartisan support for Pollard. “It’s important for us [Democrats] to have a good relationship with people on the other side [of the political spectrum]—we can come together with them on Israel and things like the Pollard issue,” Engel said. “Chris Smith does not play it safe. He will stick his neck out for what he believes is right.”
Engel called the Pollard situation “a thorn in the side of relations between the U.S. and Israel, one successfully used by Israel bashers to drive a wedge.”
“Having Pollard in jail is like a festering sore,” he said. “It’s time to heal that sore.”
Engel said every recent president—Clinton, Bush, and now Obama—has been thwarted from considering the release of Pollard because of strong opposition from the intelligence and military communities. Obama may find it “easier to do nothing” based on the history of his predecessors’ inaction, Engel said.
“Whatever [Obama] does will be controversial and bound to result in sharp disagreement,” Engel said. “To do anything in an election year is a difficult and tricky, unpredictable situation.”
Opinions about the appropriateness of releasing Pollard have changed significantly. The former head of the CIA, R. James Woolsey, and former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, now support clemency. U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), who is believed to have seen the Caspar Weinberger memo, says nothing in Pollard’s file justifies denying him clemency.
“No one is able to tell us any reason why it should not be granted,” Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive director of the National Council of Young Israel, told JNS.org.
Lerner, who has been a consistent voice lobbying for Pollard’s release for more than 15 years, said he “is encouraged” by Carney’s use of the word “today” in his statement about Pollard.
“No one expected the keys on the spot,” Lerner said. “It’s part of a process.”
Lerner emphasized that Pollard is seriously ill and not receiving adequate medical care. “A man’s life is at stake… The bottom line is, someone tell us why he is still in jail? What relevant information could he have? What could be top-secret 27 later?” he said.
The rabbi last visited Pollard in May, and told JNS.org that Pollard is “not well” and suffering from numerous serious illnesses, including kidney problems and diabetes.
“These are medical issues that won’t be solved in prison,” Lerner said.
Although no letter addressed to the president regarding Pollard’s case has ever been directly answered, Lerner stressed that “the Jewish community must join together and write” on Pollard’s behalf.
“We accept that he committed a serious crime, that he should spend several years in prison, but not be there for life,” Lerner said. “We are calling on the president and every person who cares about justice to end this injustice. President Obama just gave the Medal of Freedom to a man he respects. That man has expressed a wish for Pollard’s freedom. You would think that when the President of an allied country asks for a favor, one would think that wish would be granted.”