The U.S. government’s emphatic and uncompromising position on the secrecy of information relating to the case of Jonathan Pollard, and the alleged underlying reasons to justify the severity of his sentence, have been largely acceptable to those who view Pollard as a traitor. And that is the justification for the government’s insistence that information relating to the specific espionage activities in which Pollard, a former Navy analyst, was involved remain classified.
But there are those who have questioned the need for the government’s secrecy — particularly since Pollard was convicted of passing U.S. intelligence information to Israel, not treason. Those Pollard advocates argue that although Pollard’s actions were unquestionably illegal, the mean sentence given to Americans who, like Pollard, spied for U.S. allies — South Korea, Greece, South Africa and Egypt, for example, — is two to four years, not a life sentence.
The uncertainty in the Pollard case focuses upon a simple question: What did Pollard do that justifies him being locked away for life?
Much of the government’s approach seems to follow the lead of then-Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger, who wrote an influential memorandum to the judge just prior to Pollard’s sentencing. That document remains heavily redacted, even 25 years later. But in a supplemental memorandum that has been released, Weinberger’s argument was clear. He stated: “The punishment imposed should reflect the perfidy of the individual’s actions, the magnitude of the treason committed and the needs of national security.”
So, according to then-Secretary Weinberger, Pollard’s offense was treason.
Last month, a 1987 CIA damage assessment on Pollard’s activity was declassified. It raises doubt over Weinberger’s judgment of Pollard’s “perfidy.” The assessment shows that Pollard never turned over information on U.S. military activities to Israeli intelligence, as was widely thought. It also indicates that Pollard cooperated fully with U.S. authorities in a debriefing after he and his then-wife were arrested at the gates of the Israeli embassy. Finally, the theory that Pollard was a sleeper Soviet agent, an un-exposed Aldrich Ames or Robert Hanssen, was quickly debunked. These disclosures raise the same question: What is it the Jonathan Pollard did to warrant a life sentence?
Could it be that Pollard’s life sentencing was based upon a misunderstanding of the severity (or perfidy) of what Pollard had done?
Days before the damage assessment was released by the National Security Archive of George Washington University, a bipartisan letter began circulating in Congress, urging President Obama to commute Pollard’s sentence to time served. Authored by Reps. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) the letter also won the backing of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
With the president about to begin his second term, Obama is free to act on the Pollard matter without fear of the political consequences that were present during the lengthy election campaign. The release of the CIA damage assessment offers a strong argument for commuting Pollard’s sentence and is consistent with the “time served” recommendations Obama has received from former members of the intelligence community and several political leaders. It also appears to be the right thing to do.