With a presidential pardon denied, Jonathan Pollard’s best chance for freedom after 15 years behind bars is once again through the court system, according to advocates for the convicted spy.
Pollard’s new attorneys are expected to push to set aside the guilty verdict and hold a new trial.
Pollard supporters had hoped that President Clinton, who came close to releasing Pollard as part of an American- brokered Mideast peace deal in October 1998, would include him among his final presidential pardons to release the former U.S. Navy intelligence officer.
Many even anticipated that Clinton, who rebuffed heavy pressure from former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Pollard’s behalf, would issue the pardon as a “gift” to boost beleaguered Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s chances for re-election in Israel’s Feb. 6 election.
It is widely believed that Clinton was swayed by the intelligence community’s opposition to freeing Pollard, and the new administration of George W. Bush is expected to be even more beholden to the defense establishment.
Nevertheless, on his first workday as president, Bush was immediately beseeched by Congressman Anthony Weiner (D-NY) to “show compassion” and grant Pollard clemency.
Other supporters, meanwhile, vented their anger that Clinton refused to include Pollard in a flurry of last-minute pardons before he left office Saturday.
“To be harsh, I think it reflects a lack of guts,” said Seymour Reich, former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. In the early 1990s, Reich was among the first Jewish leaders to speak out publicly on Pollard’s behalf.
President Clinton “seems to have pardoned, or exercised clemency, for those people for whom there was no prior publicity,” Reich said. “He would have been criticized for pardoning Pollard, but people would have forgotten it. It would have been a gesture toward the people and the state of Israel.”
Clinton also did not pardon Michael Milken, the convicted junk bond king who is a major contributor to Jewish day schools in California.
However, Clinton did pardon four New York men convicted of fraud and embezzlement in a scheme to use federal money to finance a fictitious yeshiva. He also pardoned Marc Rich, a major benefactor to Israeli museums who fled the United States to evade alleged racketeering and tax evasion charges.
Pollard, a U.S. Navy intelligence analyst, was sentenced in 1987 to life in prison for spying for Israel. He pleaded guilty to one count of passing along classified information, albeit to an American ally.
In a plea bargain with prosecutors, Pollard reportedly agreed to talk on condition that he would not receive life imprisonment. Supporters cite his harsh sentence as proof that he was “double-crossed” by the government.
Pollard reportedly has been incarcerated longer than any other American ever convicted of spying for a U.S. ally.
Clinton’s own vulnerability on military issues – he was accused of dodging the draft for the Vietnam War, a major issue in his 1992 presidential campaign – made him especially sensitive to pressure from the defense establishment, observers suggested.
“The president has always had difficulty with the military. He never served, and it even took him a while to learn to salute when getting off Air Force One,” Reich said. “I guess he didn’t want that criticism from the intelligence community as a legacy.”
Despite mounting pressure from a number of Jewish politicians and community leaders, clemency from Clinton always was a long shot, Pollard supporters say.
“We tried to be realistic about it,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference, which lobbied the Clinton administration.
“I thought this was the opportunity for the president, and I’m disappointed he didn’t take it,” Hoenlein said. “It’s regrettable that we couldn’t close this chapter, at least on humanitarian grounds.”
Pollard reportedly suffers from an infected gall bladder, serious sinus problems, and other ailments.
Pollard himself was upset by Clinton’s denial but is ready to continue his battle, said Rabbi Pesach Lerner, a Pollard confidant.
Lerner, executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel, said he spoke with Pollard Monday morning from Pollard’s jail cell in Butner, N.C.
“Deep down, intellectually, I don’t think he was expecting it, but emotionally all of us were hoping for” clemency, Lerner said. “But I have to say, he perked up and said, ‘OK, it’s behind me, we have to keep going.’ He’s really amazing. I don’t know what any of us would do in that situation.”
Lerner called on the Jewish community to redouble its efforts to “demand basic justice” for Pollard.
“I’m not justifying what Jonathan Pollard did. He’s told people he blew it, that he broke the law. He accepts that. But that’s not the issue,” Lerner said. “What he did was worth a couple years in prison. Now he’s in his 16th year in prison. Some of that time in a mental unit, part of it in solitary confinement. No similar case has matched the punishment Jonathan has received.”
The Jewish community has to get out en masse, demanding that Pollard gets his day in court, Lerner said.
“If you don’t want to come out for Jonathan Pollard, fine,” he said. “But come out for fair play.”