Thank you to Amy for bringing this to my attention.

Jonathan Pollard has now spent 9001 days in a U.S. prison. Pollard was a secret agent for Israel back in the 1980s, a fact that both Pollard and the Israeli government admit to being true. The Pollard case is a strange one. For those most stridently advocating for his release, he is a martyr, a man who gave Israel information that was vital to its survival. To his enemies, he’s an egotistical traitor and one of the most dangerous spies ever working in America. The truth seems to lie somewhere in between.

Pollard, an American citizen, worked as an intelligence analyst for the U.S. Navy in the 1980s, gaining access to highly classified documents. Starting in 1984, he handed over some amount (precisely how much is still secret) of these documents to Israel in exchange for jewellery and  large sums of cash until he was arrested in 1985. Following Pollard’s arrest a plea agreement was struck between Pollard’s defense and the government: basically, Pollard would cooperate with the investigation, would not divulge information concerning his case to the public, and would plead guilty to conspiracy to deliver national defense information to a foreign government. In exchange, the prosecution would not seek the maximum life sentence. At first, everything was going swimmingly and Pollard cooperated fully with the investigation. And then, Pollard did something stupid. Instead of cooperating with the conditions of his plea agreement, he gave an interview to Wolf Blitzer (who was then a Washington correspondent for The Jerusalem Post) in which he presented himself as a crusader for Israel who was handing over information not to harm the U.S., but to protect Israel. To prove his point, he gave a list of information, ranging from “Soviet arms shipments to Syria and other Arab states” to “Pakistan’s program to build an atomic bomb.” Pollard’s strategy was to turn his case into a political one and to pressure U.S. and Israeli diplomatic circles into working on his release. The plan backfired. Pollard’s violation of his plea agreement incensed not only government prosecutors, but Judge Audrey Robinson, Jr., who was presiding over the case, as well as his own defense attorney Richard A. Hibey. He also didn’t do his case any favors when he described his African-American cell mates as “the most degenerate group of subhuman individuals collected under one roof.” Judge Robinson happened to be one of the most respected African-American judges in Washington at the time.

All of Pollard’s bumbling aside, the prosecution, still intent on not having further classified information revealed through a drawn out court case, decided to stick to the plea agreement and asked only for “a substantial number of years in prison” for Pollard. Seeing as though Pollard’s espionage had not endangered the lives of American agents and that he was working for a U.S. ally (an important distinction, as treason itself  involves cooperation with an enemy state), it was reasonable to expect that the judge would follow the prosecution’s advice (although he was never under any legal obligation to do so). In similar cases involving such friendly countries as Great Britain, Egypt, the Philippines, and South Africa, offenders typically received sentences of two to four years. The outcome might have been the same for Pollard if it wasn’t for then Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, who, at the judge’s request, submitted a secret affidavit of the damage caused by Pollard. In his affidavit, Weinberger told the judge, “It is difficult for me, in the so-called ‘year of the spy’ to conceive of a greater harm to national security.” The “year of the spy” remark was a reference to John Walker, Jerry Whitworth, and Ronald Pelton, all of whom had received life sentences that year for handing over secrets to the Soviet Union. The difference in Pollard’s case, though, was that Israel, unlike the Soviet Union, was a U.S. ally, yet in drawing the comparison to these previous cases and declaring Pollard’s case of having caused “greater harm to national security,” Weinberger was essentially asking the judge to disregard the plea agreement and sentence Pollard to life. The judge, to everybody’s surprise, did just that and Pollard has been locked up in a North Carolina prison ever since.

That might have been the end of the story, except for what happened afterwards. Pollard’s defense attorney, Hibey, who would be expected to make a notice of appeal given the severity and controversy of the punishment, inexplicably failed to file such a notice within the requisite 10 days. Because of this error, Pollard can never file for an appeal now.

Furthermore, in 2002 Defense Secretary Weinberger told reporter Edwin Black, “the Pollard matter was comparatively minor. It was made far bigger than its actual importance.” Such a statement appears to contradict his earlier affidavit wherein he decried the great damage caused by Pollard to national security. Because Weinberger’s affidavit was so vital in Pollard receiving his life sentence, to now describe the case as “comparatively minor” calls into question the fairness of that sentence.

Because he could not appeal his sentence, Pollard’s one hope was a habeas corpus petition, which, if successful, would grant him a retrial on the basis that his constitutional rights were violated (in this case, due process because of “ineffective assistance of counsel”). This was attempted in 1990 when Pollard’s then attorney Hamilton Phillip Fox III attempted to withdraw Pollard’s guilty plea, citing the government’s breach of his plea agreement. The case, however, required Fox to show that Pollard was denied “effective assistance of counsel”—in essence, that Hibey had failed Pollard as his attorney. Instead, Fox praised Hibey, thus completely undermining Pollard’s petition for a new trial. As former federal Judge George Leighton, who has studied the Pollard case, put it, “I doubt that the bar in the District of Columbia is any different from … other cities. Certain lawyers will simply not attack or criticize another member of the bar, especially one who practices in the same specialty. … Many such lawyers will not … risk ostracism within their professional community, by accusing a fellow lawyer of ineffective representation in any case—much less a high profile case, as this one was.” Pollard’s petition was denied two to one.

Pollard’s only options then are another habeas corpus petition (which, even without having to contend with the “Old Boys” club of D.C. lawyers, is notoriously difficult to obtain) or a commutation from President Obama. Given the recent strain in American-Israeli relations, an act of this sort on Obama’s part is not out of the question as a goodwill gesture towards Israel.

The issue here is not whether Pollard committed a crime (he clearly did), but whether he was given a fair trial and sentence. Pollard may not be the most noble or tactful of men, but to lock him up for life for a crime that typically gets offenders a sentence of two to four years is absurd. As such, he deserves a new trial or, in light of the 25 years he has already served, a commutation to time-served from Obama.

For instruction on how to petition Obama for Pollard’s release, go here.

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