WASHINGTON, Dec. 18 (JTA) – With dozens of elected officials in his corner, Jonathan Pollard still sits and waits for freedom.
The U.S. Navy intelligence analyst, sentenced in 1987 to life in prison for spying for Israel, is hoping that the years of appeals will finally pay off in the closing days of the Clinton administration. Since pleading guilty to one count of passing classified information to an ally, he has become a human hot potato, his case subject to the vagaries of Middle East peace talks, a New York Senate race and presidential legacies.
President Clinton seemed close to granting clemency for Pollard in 1996, and almost released him as part of the 1998 Wye agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Each time the deal fell through at the last moment, and Pollard’s status remained unchanged.
As the White House debates Pollard’s release, his new attorneys battle the government in court. Pollard is seeking a dismissal of his life sentence, claiming that he did not receive fair legal representation and that the government broke his plea agreement.
The present moment just might be Pollard’s best chance to leave his North Carolina prison. President Clinton, who has aligned himself closely with Israel and the American Jewish community, is expected to join his predecessors in granting controversial clemencies on the last Christmas of his presidency. The White House is considering clemency for former Wall Street executive Michael Milken and several figures involved in Clinton’s Whitewater legal imbroglio. Pollard’s name also has been mentioned.
In addition to the arguments made by Pollard’s attorneys, the White House has received almost identical pleas from various lawmakers, including several members of Congress, dozens of New York officials, and Jewish organizational leaders. First lady and Sen.-elect Hillary Rodham Clinton didn’t endorse clemency for Pollard during her recent campaign, but did say that questions could be raised about the handling of the case.
Jewish activists and organizations, who have spent years keeping the Pollard case in the spotlight, are maneuvering for a final push at the Clinton White House.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, visited the White House Dec. 12 to plead Pollard’s case. After speaking with administration officials, he felt clemency was “possible,” Hoenlein said.
“I don’t come away thinking that the door is completely shut now,” Hoenlein said.
Daniel Cruise, spokesman for the National Security Council, said he has received a flood of media inquiries about the case.
Pollard’s attorneys claim he should be released, either by the courts or by executive order, for several reasons. Foremost is the contention that Pollard’s sentence was exorbitant compared to those given other spies convicted on similar charges.
Pollard’s new lawyers, Eliot Lauer and Jacques Semmelman, criticize Pollard’s previous attorney, Richard Hibey, because he did not ask for an adjournment after the government submitted a memo from then-Secretary of State Casper Weinberger a day before sentencing and did not file a motion to appeal the life sentence, they say.
Pollard’s wife Esther said that Hibey’s services were paid for by the Israeli government and were inadequate. Hibey refused to comment.
But Joseph DiGenova, the former U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia who handled the case for the government, said the case was handled by the book. He noted that none of Pollard’s claims has held up on appeal.
“There’s no justification for clemency,” DiGenova said. “It’s a classic handling of an espionage case.”
Esther Pollard claims her husband was convicted on “secret evidence,” information sensitive to national security that was excluded from the public court record. A second motion filed by his attorneys in September, to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, seeks to view those documents.
The government responded that the statute of limitations to appeal the sentencing has expired, but Pollard’s lawyers claim the statute should be extended because of new evidence, specifically Hibey’s handling of the case.
The sentence should have been appealed immediately because it violated Pollard’s plea bargain with the government, his attorneys said. DiGenova, however, claims the sentencing judge had the right to go beyond the recommendation.
DiGenova also vigorously disputes the secret evidence claim, noting that Pollard did not raise the issue in previous appeals.
“They had access to everything,” he said.
DiGenova said Pollard’s sentence was harsh because of the damage he did to national security and the amount of compromising material he gave Israel. He also said Pollard has not shown true remorse.
In his latest letter to Clinton, however, Pollard said he has expressed remorse to anyone who would listen.
“I fully appreciate that what I did was wrong. Grievously wrong,” Pollard wrote on Dec. 3. “My intent was to help Israel, but I had no right to violate the laws of this country or the trust it had placed in me. I had no right to place myself above the law.”
The intelligence community demands that Pollard stay in jail, fearful that clemency would set a bad precedent. Central Intelligence Agency Director George Tenet threatened to resign if Pollard was released in 1998, apparently scuttling any deal at the Wye summit.
DiGenova and others have said that releasing Pollard would leave a stain on Clinton’s legacy. However, Esther Pollard says that Clinton has the opportunity to take a new approach to the case now precisely because he’s a lame duck. Her husband’s chief advocate and spokesman, Esther Pollard has had to cash in her pension to pay for her efforts on Pollard’s behalf. Childhood friends, the two married in 1993 after they became reacquainted through letters in the early years of Pollard’s jail sentence.
Esther Pollard is worried about Jonathan’s health, specifically the growths in his sinus cavity that have not been biopsied. She worries that cancer will have to be added to his list of ailments, which includes arthritis and an infected gallbladder. Each afternoon, she races to her Toronto home for her daily solace, a phone call from prison that breaks up the time between her monthly treks to North Carolina.
Esther Pollard sees the current situation as a golden opportunity for Clinton to make amends for the alleged failings of the legal system.
“It is a chance for him to look at the compelling legal reasons for Jonathan’s request for clemency and to grant it because of the blotch this case has been on our American judicial system,” she said.