Over the past months, momentum had been building toward the United States perhaps releasing Jonathan Pollard, the man who in 1987 was convicted of and sentenced to life for spying on behalf of Israel. You had early chatter that Pollard could be released in exchange for some sort of peace process deal; then you had former deputy defense secretary Lawrence Korb claim that his former boss Caspar Weinberger’s anti-Israel bias contributed to Pollard’s life sentence; then you had 39 Democratic congressmen, including influential ones like Barney Frank and Anthony Weiner, asking President Obama to commute Pollard’s sentence; and finally you had reports that Prime Minister Netanyahu had asked for the freedom of Pollard (since honorarily made an Israeli citizen) as part of a deal in which his cabinet would approve a 90-day West Bank construction freeze. (The case for Pollard’s release, perhaps best articulated by Gil Troy in Tablet Magazine, rests not on his innocence, but on the arguable lack of damage his crimes did and on the disproportionate nature of his sentence compared to similar spies.)
But in the past week, two things have happened to make Pollard’s release less likely. First and most important, of course: The United States has given up on attempting to secure an extension of the freeze, in turn leaving Bibi with less of a quid to offer for the Pollard quo. But secondarily and more interestingly, M.E. “Spike” Bowman, a former Navy and FBI lawyer who told a Washington Post reporter that he was “the only person who actually touched all aspects of the case,” has come out and opposed Pollard’s release, on the grounds that the disclosures did immense damage.
In a forthcoming essay [PDF] published by the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (whose Board of Directors he chairs), Bowman argues, “No other spy in the history of the United States stole so many secrets, so highly classified, in such a short period of time.” These included a “TOP SECRET” list of the locations of all the communication signals the U.S. was intercepting and of all known Soviet communications links.
Bowman also notes that the full extent of Pollard’s leaks remains sealed due to a plea bargain, and says that officials informally accused Pollard of having given information to other countries, including Pakistan and South Africa. And he finally argues that if Pollard’s offenses are properly understood, then his sentence appears commensurate even in the context of similar cases.
There are certain oddities in Bowman’s essay that stand out, most notably references to the “Gaza peace process” and “Gaza antagonists.” These seem to betray an ignorance about current Mideast politics, since the “peace process,” such as it is, tends to leave Gaza out, and nobody has suggested that releasing Pollard could help the situation in Gaza, which would be unaffected by a freeze; moreover, while “Gaza antagonists” seems to refer to Israel and the Palestinians, the Palestinians who are participating in the peace process don’t run Gaza right now.
Toward its conclusion, Bowman’s brief devolves into an irrelevant ad hominem attack: He calls Pollard “a self-serving, gluttonous character seeking financial reward and personal gratification. … arrogantly venal, unscrupulous, and self-obsessed.” None of which I doubt, but all of which seems beside the point.
I don’t presume remotely Korb or Bowman’s knowledge of the Pollard affair or expertise in these matters. But, as one of the citizens Pollard was spying on and who is currently imprisoning him, I think that if Pollard’s crimes merit a life sentence, then he should stay in jail even if freeing him would help the cause of peace; and I think that if Pollard’s crimes merit his release now, he should be freed even if he is an asshole.
Ex-Intelligence Official Blasts Pollard Lobbying [SpyTalk]
The Drumbeats for Clemency for Jonathan Jay Pollard Reverberate Again [Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies]
Related: National Insecurity [Tablet Magazine]
Early: Bibi Reportedly Seeking Pollard’s Release
Congressmen Backing Pollard’s Freedom
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.