Bonded by a common belief that the punishment should fit the crime, New Jersey’s U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-Dist. 8) joined with Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass. Dist. 4) and Anthony Weiner (D-NY Dist. 9) and leaders of the Jewish community to call upon President Barack Obama to grant clemency to Jonathan Pollard.
Pollard was a former civilian intelligence analyst who was convicted of spying for Israel. He received a life sentence in 1987 — the longest sentence possible for spying for an ally. Israel granted Pollard citizenship in 1995, while publicly denying, until 1998, that he was an Israeli spy. Israeli activist groups, as well as high-profile Israeli politicians, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have lobbied for his release.
“We are not questioning Mr. Pollard’s guilt, but rather appealing for clemency based on the vast disparity between his sentence and his crime,” said Pascrell, who visited Pollard in a federal prison in North Carolina in the late 1990s. “Israel is one of America’s strongest allies, and I believe that 25 years behind bars is far too many for Mr. Pollard, especially considering the sentences to those convicted of similar crimes on behalf of countries who are not our friends.”
Many respected figures in the defense and intelligence community agree that Pollard should now be released, including Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration; former CIA director James Woolsey; and former Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), who sat on the intelligence committee when Pollard was arrested.
The current push to free Pollard is the strongest in years, resulting from a combination of timing, diplomatic considerations, and, above all, old-fashioned nudging.
Insiders associated with the push, which resulted last week in a congressional letter to Obama asking for clemency for Pollard, say the main factor was one man: David Nyer, an Orthodox activist from Monsey, NY.
Nyer, working under the auspices of the National Council of Young Israel and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, repeatedly called dozens of congressional offices and pressed Jewish groups asking for a leader to take on the case.
Congressional staffers described Nyer as “relentless,” and he eventually struck gold: Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who chairs the U.S. House of Representatives Banking Committee, agreed to sign on. That prompted a total of 39 signatures — all from Democrats — on the letter sent to the president.
Launching the initiative at a Capitol Hill news conference Nov. 18, Frank listed two factors that made the matter timely: Pollard’s 25 years in prison as of Nov. 21 and the parlous state of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
“The justification of this is the humanitarian one and the notion that the American justice system should be a fair one,” Frank said. “We believe that clemency after 25 years for the offenses of Jonathan Pollard would do that.
“My own hope is that if the president would do this, it would contribute to the political climate within the democracy of Israel and would enhance the peace process.”
Frank alluded to Obama’s low popularity in Israel where, fairly or not, the president has been saddled with a reputation as cool to Israeli interests.
“There are clearly people in Israel who are concerned about the nature of the American-Israeli relationship,” Frank said. “An affirmation of that relationship would go forward” to alleviating such concern.
The letter emphasizes what it says is the disproportionate length of Pollard’s sentence.
“We believe that there has been a great disparity from the standpoint of justice between the amount of time Mr. Pollard has served and the time that has been served — or not served at all — by many others who were found guilty of similar activity on behalf of nations that, like Israel, are not adversarial to us,” the letter says. “It is indisputable in our view that the nearly twenty-five years that Mr. Pollard has served stands as a sufficient time from the standpoint of either punishment or deterrence.”
It also emphasizes that Pollard is guilty.
“Such an exercise of the clemency power would not in any way imply doubt about his guilt, nor cast any aspersions on the process by which he was convicted,” the letter says.
The absence of Republicans on the letter was striking.
Frank said he had reached out to Republicans and had delayed sending the letter until after the elections in order not to make it a political issue.
Two congressional Republicans known to have been on Nyer’s call list did not return calls seeking comment.
Nyer said he had secured the endorsement of conservative figures known for their closeness to the party, including Gary Bauer, the president of American Values, and John Hagee, the founder of Christians United for Israel. Hagee had reached out to Republicans, Nyer said, but to no avail.
Among the Jewish groups backing the effort were, in addition to the Presidents’ Conference and NCYI, B’nai B’rith International, the Religious Action Center of the Reform movement, the Zionist Organization of America, Agudath Israel of America, and the Rabbinical Council of America.
Beyond the congressional letter, the 25th anniversary of Pollard’s incarceration has spawned a number of op-eds calling for Pollard’s release, including one in The Washington Post over the weekend of Nov. 20-21 by his father, Morris Pollard.
The reasons for the U.S. intelligence community’s strong stance against Pollard remain unknown.