Peter Bergen, CNN’s terrorism analyst, has made a career out of espousing conventional wisdom. That’s what made his recent interpretation regarding treason charges for a Pakistani doctor who allegedly helped the CIA collect evidence about bin Laden so troubling. As CNN reported:
Some analysts, however, draw parallels between Pakistan’s possible decision to prosecute [Shakeel] Afridi for treason and an earlier U.S. decision to prosecute former U.S. Navy intelligence official Jonathan Pollard on the same charge. Pollard was caught spying for Israel — a close U.S. ally — in 1985. He was ultimately sentenced to life imprisonment. “Pakistan has a pretty legitimate” case, said Peter Bergen, a national security expert and director of the New America Foundation, a non-partisan Washington think tank. “It doesn’t really matter how valid the goal is. That doesn’t change the fact that you’re spying for a foreign intelligence service.” Why, Bergen asked, “should Pakistan somehow not play by the same rules that a lot of countries play by?”
Now, much has been said about Pollard, the American defense analyst convicted of spying for Israel. For his espionage, Pollard deserved prison, although not knowing the inside details of the case, I’m agnostic on the debate about the length of his sentence. When it comes to Bergen’s analysis of the Afridi case, however, the reference to Pollard is bizarre. While Bergen essentially calls the American case against Pollard and the Pakistani case against Afridi the same, there is no similarity between the two cases: Pollard was a defense analyst working for a government and holding a security clearance for which he took—and knowingly violated—an oath. He was not charged with treason, and there is no evidence he sought to harm the United States. Pollard is in prison because he was found guilty of conspiracy to deliver national defense information to a foreign government.
Afridi, in contrast, is a doctor who, even if he was working within the bloated Pakistani bureaucracy, was not in a sensitive position, and there is no evidence he took any oath besides his medical one. Rather than rally for a Pakistani hero whose life is now in jeopardy, Bergen excuses Islamabad’s actions and the charge which might lead Afridi to the gallows. Here, Bergen misses the larger point: If Pakistan is charging Afridi with treason because he had access to Pakistani state secrets with regard to bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad, then by even leveling such charges, the Pakistani government is admitting its complicity with bin Laden. But why focus on Islamabad’s links to al-Qaeda if it would mean missing an opportunity to once again condemn Pollard?