So Jonathan Pollard will finally be getting out of prison in November, after exactly one day less than thirty years in federal custody.
I won’t discuss the details of the injustice done to Pollard – his shockingly disproportionate sentence, the government’s failure to honor its plea agreement, the improper behavior of the judge, the exaggeration of the damage he did, the way he took the rap for far more damaging spies. I’ve written about these things before (see here and here for example).
Pollard is being released because according to the law in effect when his offense was committed, a prisoner serving a life sentence becomes eligible for mandatory parole after 30 years. The Parole Board is required to consider whether he is likely to re-offend or be dangerous in some other way, and if he has been well-behaved in custody.
This is an entirely routine procedure. No action by the government is necessary for it to happen, although a phone call from the Justice Department or the President would surely have been sufficient to stop it. A hearing was held, and the Parole Board decided to release him; it even advanced the date by one day so that he would not have to be released on Shabbat.
There have been suggestions that the release is intended to somehow induce Israel to behave differently toward the administration’s Iran deal. This makes no sense at all. Would US officials really believe that Israel’s opposition to the deal, which it sees as a threat to its existence, could be softened by the early release of one prisoner, no matter how strongly the public feels about him? Most likely the administration simply did not want to upset US Jews, who have strong feelings in both directions about the case, and whose support will be important in the coming congressional struggle over the deal. So it chose to avoid involvement in Pollard’s parole altogether.
Parole is not clemency. The government can place restrictions on a parolee for a period of time depending on the nature of his crime. If a parolee violates the terms of his parole he may be arrested and sent back to prison for the remainder of his sentence. These restrictions may include regular reporting to a parole officer, drug tests, prohibition against talking to the media, and limitations on travel; but the parole board can impose any conditions that it likes as long as they are ‘reasonable’. In Pollard’s case, his lawyers report that one condition is that he may not leave the US for a period of 5 years. Without seeing the Parole Board’s Notice of Action, I am willing to bet there are also restrictions on speaking to journalists.
His lawyers have asked President Obama to grant Pollard executive clemency, which would enable him to go to Israel where his wife, Esther, lives. Alternatively, and without any implication of forgiveness for his crime, Obama has the power to simply waive the travel restriction. But an official of the National Security Council has announced that the president “has no intention of altering the terms of Mr. Pollard’s parole.”
I am not surprised. Michael Oren noted Obama’s coldness, approvingly quoting a “European colleague” who said “Obama’s problem is not a tin ear. It’s a tin heart.” Unlike Bill Clinton, who apparently considered pardoning Pollard before his CIA head, George Tenet, got him to back down, Obama has never given the slightest indication that he would countenance mercy toward Pollard. But there’s more to it than that.
I am convinced that this administration knows (and so did previous ones) that Pollard has information that might become a political bombshell if revealed. And there was a lot going on from 1979, when Pollard took his naval intelligence job, through 1985, when he was arrested.
I am not going to speculate about what Pollard might know. But the hypothesis that he does know something explains a lot about the way his case proceeded, which was much different from a run-of-the-mill espionage case. For this reason, I fully expected that he would die in prison. I believe today that he will never be allowed to be in a position from which he can speak freely.
Only the fortuitous combination of the need for Obama to tread lightly at this critical point in the congressional debate over the Iran deal and the 30-year anniversary of Pollard’s arrest has made his release possible. But if I’m right, then the severe limitations on his ability to talk will never be removed.
I’ve had arguments with American Jews who like to emphasize their own patriotism by vehemently attacking Pollard, usually relying more on emotional heat than the light of facts and logic. I don’t think what he actually did, or the damage it actually caused even come close to justifying his punishment.
The truth is that Pollard was treated as harshly as he was for two reasons: most importantly, to keep him quiet; and secondarily, as a lesson for American Jews who might be tempted to place their concern for their Jewish homeland above their loyalty to their Diaspora residence. Apparently this lesson was taken to heart by many.
He’s paid his debt, suffered more than enough. I would like to believe that someday he will be able to come home to live a quiet life with his wife in Israel.
But I doubt it.