Why Obama should commute this life sentence

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By Morris Pollard and David Kirshenbaum
Saturday, November 20, 2010

Twenty-five years ago this month, Jonathan Pollard, a civilian naval intelligence analyst, was arrested for passing to Israel classified U.S. data concerning Iraq, Syria and other Arab states, including evidence of Saddam Hussein's development of chemical weapons. Pollard was later sentenced to life in prison - the only person to receive such a punishment for spying for an American ally or neutral country. Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary of defense at the time of Pollard's arrest, cited this dubious distinction in a recent letter to President Obama urging the president to commute Pollard's sentence to the 25 years served. Korb attributed Pollard's aberrational sentence to the "almost visceral dislike of Israel" on the part of Caspar Weinberger, who was then defense secretary.

In December 1993, The Post editorialized on a campaign seeking presidential commutation of Pollard's sentence. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was urging President Bill Clinton to commute Pollard's sentence to the eight years then served. That call was supported by members of Congress and a range of prominent religious and political figures. Longtime NAACP director Benjamin Hooks, who had himself served as a judge, wrote to Clinton: "I have rarely encountered a case in which government arbitrariness was so clear cut and inexcusable." While opposing Pollard's release at the end of 1993, The Post opined that "certainly a case can be made that a prison term ending when [Pollard] becomes eligible for parole in 1997 would be plenty long enough." Pollard has served more than double the 12 years The Post cited as sufficient punishment.

A little background on the case itself: The type of information Pollard transmitted was part of an intelligence flow the United States had previously shared with Israel but that was cut off after Israel destroyed Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981. Former deputy CIA director Bobby Inman has acknowledged that he was so disconcerted that American-supplied satellite photography had been used to carry out that operation that he ordered withheld all intelligence data covering areas more than 250 miles from Israel's borders. Thus it was a criminal action to transmit to Israel photographs of the eastern sections of Syria and Iraq, including chemical weapons plants in eastern Iraq. This became the basis of Pollard's life sentence.

This information is presented not in an effort to exonerate Pollard but to question the severity of his punishment. It is uncontestable that Pollard has been singled out among all Americans who spied for non-adversaries. Of the more than 20 Americans caught spying for friendly or neutral countries, before and after Pollard's arrest, none received a sentence remotely close to life. Of the more than 60 people caught spying for U.S. adversaries over the past quarter-century, many of whom caused massive and demonstrable harm to the United States, only a handful received life terms.

CIA agent David Barnett, who sold the Soviets the names of 30 American agents, was sentenced to 18 years and paroled after 10. Michael Walker, a key figure in the Walker family Soviet spy ring, was sentenced to 25 years and released after serving 15. William Kampiles, a CIA officer who sold the Soviets the operating manual to the KH-11 satellite, America's "eye in the sky," received a 40-year sentence and was released after 18 years.

Abdul Kedar Helmy, an Egyptian-born American, transmitted classified materials to Egypt used in a joint weapons program with Iraq to vastly increase the range of ballistic missiles, including Scud missiles, which were later fired on U.S. troops during the Persian Gulf War. Helmy received a prison term of less than four years. John Walker Lindh, an American who joined the Taliban terrorists fighting the United States, received a 21-year sentence.

In more than two decades, no evidence has been put forth of damage caused to the United States as a result of Pollard's actions. Nothing that could begin to justify a life sentence. Even Weinberger, the former defense secretary, acknowledged in a 2002 interview that, "The Pollard matter was comparatively minor. It was made far bigger than its actual importance."

The message of those still opposed to Pollard's release is that, apparently, we can wink at espionage on behalf of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and China; we can limit the punishments of those who expose American agents, compromise sophisticated U.S. electronic intelligence capabilities, advance the development of enemy weapons systems and even fight alongside enemy combatants - but that unauthorized transmittal of classified data about Arab states to warn Israel of existential threats is unforgivable. For that crime even 25 years in prison is not enough.

A petition for executive clemency for Jonathan Pollard sits on President Obama's desk. Will he bring the injustice in this affair to a long overdue end or be a partner in its perpetuation?

Morris Pollard, a professor emeritus of biological sciences at Notre Dame University and director of its Lobund Institute, is Jonathan Pollard's father. David Kirshenbaum is an attorney in Israel and New York.


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