The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
The Spy Who Didn’t Walk

The close relationship between America and Israel is one of the strongest and most famous in the world. Yet, like any relationship, it is not without its sore points, of which perhaps one of the most sensitive is the case of Jonathan Pollard, an Israeli spy convicted of passing thousands of classified U.S. documents along to Israel.

Pollard is currently serving the 26th year of a life sentence for espionage that American officials believe did grave harm to U.S. security interests. The documents he stole revealed sensitive US intelligence concerning a number of countries from Tunisia to Pakistan, as well as China. He has also been accused of selling information to Pakistan and South Africa, and some believe that information he sold may have lead to the deaths of CIA agents in Eastern Europe. In the view of the American security establishment, Pollard deserved what he got, and more.

Yet for more than 26 years the Israel lobby, said to be omnipotent and irresistible by so many people, has done everything in its power to spring him.

And for 26 years he has rotted in jail. Ronald Reagan didn’t free him. George H.W. Bush didn’t free him. Bill Clinton didn’t free him. George W. Bush didn’t free him. And Barack Obama hasn’t freed him. Now Shimon Peres is asking for his release, after President Obama has already turned down a request for Pollard’s release backed by a major petition drive.

Someday, it may be appropriate to release Pollard. Or it may not. That decision will be made by U.S. officials, looking at U.S. interests and making what they believe to be the decision that best serves the country that Pollard harmed and betrayed. Personally, I believe that as Pollard ages (as in the case of other criminals serving life sentences) there may well come a time when compassion has a place. Every legal system needs a place for mercy in it somewhere—though the prospect of Pollard being treated as a hero in Israel makes it significantly harder for mercy to find a voice in this case.

There may also be a diplomatic case someday for releasing him. A Pollard release could be part of a package that sweetens painful concessions that Israelis decide to make on other issues of concern to the United States. But this is a card that the United States can and will play when it suits American interests and not before. Pollard betrayed his country; his country will now use him as a pawn — and that is the way life works.

Jonathan Pollard is not a name that comes up when critics of the Israel Lobby call it omnipotent and talk about the irresistible power of Jewish money and media influence to control American politics. But it should. The supposedly mighty and invincible “Israel Lobby” is toothless when it comes to this case.

One of the ways in which Pollard is paying down his enormous debt to American society is by demonstrating to all who have eyes to see that when it comes to vital state interests, the U.S. takes orders from no one.

One understands his family’s desire to see him freed, and one understands also the emotions of his supporters in Israel. But those who agitate for his release should understand that making him a cause célèbre only delays the day of Pollard’s freedom. No U.S. president would want to appear as if he, unlike his predecessors for almost 30 years, could be swayed by political pressure to release a felon who, in the opinion of senior U.S. officials in both parties, recklessly endangered this country.

Given the gravity of his offenses in the eyes of his former colleagues, there is at least a fifty/fifty chance that Jonathan Pollard will die in jail. The more Pollard is seen as a symbol, the greater the chance that will happen. The more he is seen as a man, aging and harmless, the greater the chance that an act of clemency might someday come his way.

But today, as for 26 years, Jonathan Pollard is living proof that the Israel Lobby is not the irresistible force so many people think that it is. American officials in both parties are perfectly capable of resisting its full court press when they think that the national interest requires it.

Published on April 24, 2012 5:00 pm
  • WigWag

    Professor Mead is right; no one knows if Jonathan Pollard will ever “walk.” So far Obama has refused to grant clemency to Pollard and Romney suggested that while he was open to the possibility of releasing Pollard on humanitarian grounds he couldn’t offer any guarantees. Speaking to a Jewish audience, Vice President Biden said that Obama would grant clemency to the convicted spy over “my dead body.”

    On the other hand many of Romney’s foreign policy advisors have expressed sympathy about the idea of freeing Pollard including one of Romney’s key advisors on Israel, Dan Senor.

    My guess is that Romney is far more likely to release Pollard than any of his predecessors of either political party. It’s just one more reason I plan to vote for him.

  • http://facingzionwards.blogspot.com/ Luke Lea

    Why does the Israeli government care so much to get him out?

  • Government Drone

    @Luke: Because it seems to be the Israelis’ policy never to leave one of their boys behind. They will trade 500 Palestinian terrorists for one Israeli soldier, with little if any complaint about such a deal. There’s something to recommend that attitude, though it doesn’t always mean the best policy. In the case of the soldier-for-terrorists swap, they often get renewed attacks by the just-released prisoners, & in the case of Pollard, their petitions become one of the few genuinely universal irritants in US-Israeli relations.

  • Jeffrey Marsh

    I am disappointed that in your post on Jonathan Pollard case you have failed to display the admirably tough minded and realistic approach that makes your usual work so refreshing and stimulating. Your summary of the Pollard case quotes a number of vague and unduly alarmist accusations about his actions 27 years ago: “American officials believe [the actions] did grave harm to U.S. security interests. The documents he stole revealed sensitive US intelligence concerning a number of countries from Tunisia to Pakistan, as well as China. He has also been accused of selling information to Pakistan and South Africa, and some believe that information he sold may have lead (sic) to the deaths of CIA agents in Eastern Europe.” (my emphasis added)

    You also state “In the view of the American security establishment, Pollard deserved what he got, and more.” Nobody to my knowledge is arguing that Pollard did not deserve a serious sentence for espionage, there is a widespread consensus — including many members of the security establishment – that the life sentence he received was disproportionate compared with other, more serious, cases and that he has already been punished more than he deserved.

    Those who have issued calls for clemency include senior officials who were familiar with the case from its inception, most notably Secretary of State George Shultz, National Security Adviser Robert “Bud” McFarlane, David Durenberger and Lee Hamilton, who were respective Chairmen of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees. More recent appointees who share this view include former CIA Director James Woolsey and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey.

    Lawrence Korb, another former senior defense official, later the CFR’s Director of National Security Studies, has written that the unprecedented sentence handed out to Pollard, which was more severe that the pleas bargain previously agreed to by government prosecutors, was a result of intervention by then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. In Korb’s opinion, Weinbeger’s still publicly unrevealed hysterical assertions of the damage caused by Pollard’s actions, were a product of Weinberger’s “visceral dislike for Israel and its impact on US policy.”

    Perhaps you might consider revising your opinion of the Pollard case.

  • Frank Berger

    It’s interesting and revealing that so many of those writing in an outraged manner about Pollard being released simply ignore the one fact that justifies it after 26 years – that no one convicted of spying against the U.S. for an ally has *ever* been sentenced nearly as harshly as Pollard. An honest journalist couldn’t possibly ignore that issue altogether.

    Nor would a competent and honest journalist repeat unsubstantiated charges against Pollard for which he was not convicted as if they were facts.