Caspar Weinberger, the former U.S. secretary of defense who pushed for a life sentence for Jonathan Pollard and oversaw U.S. forces in Lebanon, has died. Weinberger led the Pentagon under President Reagan from 1981 to 1987. He died Tuesday in a Maine hospital at age 88.
Weinberger was best known for his entanglement in the Iran-Contra scandal, but he made headlines in the Jewish community when he pushed for a strict sentence against Jonathan Pollard, a U.S. Navy intelligence analyst who pled guilty in 1987 to spying for Israel.
Weinberger authored a 40-page, classified assessment of the damage Pollard’s actions caused to U.S. interests. A four-page version, which was not classified, compared Pollard to other well-known spies.
In the unclassified version, Weinberger said it was difficult to conceive a greater harm to national security than what Pollard had caused. He said Pollard “both damaged and destroyed policies and national assets which have taken many years, great effort and enormous national resources to secure.”
The statements were “a significant, if not the most significant factor in implementing the breach by the government in their agreement to not seek a life sentence against Jonathan Pollard,” said Eliot Lauer, one of Pollard’s attorneys.
A request by Pollard’s attorneys to view the classified Weinberger declaration in order to prepare a clemency argument was denied recently by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Pollard told the American Spectator earlier this month from prison in Butner, N.C. that Weinberger has since said that Pollard’s spying was a “very minor matter” that was blown out of proportion to serve other ends. That claim could not be confirmed, and Pollard could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Weinberger had a Jewish grandfather, but — given his surname — always stressed that he was not Jewish, according to “Jewish Power,” a book on the relationship between American Jews and the U.S. government by J.J. Goldberg.
“Even close aides agree that Weinberger’s apparent discomfort may have played a role in his occasional tilt against Israel in debates within the Reagan administration,” Goldberg wrote.
Weinberger counterbalanced a Reagan administration that was quick to support Israel. Reagan and his secretaries of state, Alexander Haig and George Schultz, were seen as more responsive than Weinberger to the Jewish community during the Lebanon War.
Weinberger led the chorus of opposition to Israel’s 1981 bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak — which has since been hailed as key to stopping Saddam Hussein from developing weapons of mass destruction — because of its effect on U.S.-Arab relations.
Weinberger led the Pentagon during the U.S. mission to Lebanon, and frequently had called for the removal of American and international troops before 241 U.S. Marines were killed in the bombing of their Beirut barracks in 1983. Weinberger responded by creating his own doctrine for the use of military force, arguing that the U.S. mission in Lebanon was not clearly defined.
Weinberger also was credited with orchestrating the sale of Airborne Warning and Control System planes, or AWACS, to Saudi Arabia, which was fiercely opposed by Israel and the American Jewish community. The sale went through, but contributed to the growth of the pro-Israel lobby in the United States.
Jewish leaders said they found that Weinberger often was “tense” in his dealings with the community.
Weinberger was born in 1917. After receiving two degrees from Harvard University and serving in the U.S. Army, he won election to the California State Assembly. He served as chairman of the Federal Trade Commission in 1970 before leading the White House Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
Weinberger was charged in federal court for his role in the sale of weapons to Iran to finance the Nicaraguan Contra rebels, but was pardoned by President George H. W. Bush in 1992.
He went on to serve as publisher of Forbes Magazine.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.