The past few weeks have confirmed something that was always true about the way the Obama administration wages political battles. There is no stunt too cheap or statement so cynical that the White House won’t employ in order to advance its agenda. That’s the only way to interpret the bizarre Friday afternoon leak to the Wall Street Journal in which ”administration officials” said convicted spy Jonathan Pollard would be released later this year in order to help smooth relations between the U.S. and Israel in the wake of the Iran nuclear deal. Other officials, including the Attorney General, speaking on the record rather than off it, quickly denied the plan. There is a scheduled parole hearing for Pollard in November. Yet there is no assurance that the spy, who will have served 30 years in prison by then, will be released. But either way, the attempt to inject this emotion issue into the already inflamed debate about Iran was a deeply cynical ploy that was clearly aimed at defusing anger about the administration’s efforts to defend a nuclear agreement by isolating Israel and its defenders. Whatever one may think of the merits of the case for clemency for Pollard — and at this point it is a strong one — this issue has no place in the discussion about Iran and should be dismissed out of hand by those seeking to push back against the administration’s efforts to silence its critics.
The Pollard affair has been an irritant in U.S.-Israel relations since his arrest in 1985. As I explained in detail in my March 2011 COMMENTARY article on the issue when Pollard had already been in jail for 25 years, this is a tragic story in which the misconduct of the oath-breaking former U.S. Navy analyst and his Israeli handlers has done great damage both the alliance and to the position of the many loyal American Jews working in the defense establishment that have since then labored under false charges of dual loyalty.
Pollard’s crime was serious, but it is also unprecedented in that no other spy for a friendly country has ever received a punishment anything like the life sentence he received. Those who foolishly labor him a hero have hurt his cause as well as that of Israel since such talk continues to inflame the U.S. intelligence establishment to oppose his release. Indeed, Pollard might well have been released long ago had he and those close to him ever learned to stop trying to defend his indefensible conduct and stuck to the entirely reasonable case to be made about his sentence being unreasonably harsh. But even if we are hearing less about him being a martyr these days, it is far from unlikely that U.S. intelligence will again intervene in the parole process as they have before. But like those of Pollard’s supporters who make improbable claims about the nature of the information he gave illegally transferred to Israel, so, too, do his opponents continue to exaggerate the impact of his spying. What he did was bad enough but there is no reason to believe that his efforts had much impact on the disasters befalling U.S. intelligence at the time. Had it been known at the time of his sentencing that the real source of the problem was a pair of Russian spies (Aldrich Ames at the CIA and the FBI’s Robert Hanssen) it would have been far more difficult for the government or the judge in the case (who threw out a plea bargain to which Pollard had agreed in order to spare the government the problem of a trial) to justify such a draconian sentence.
But regardless of the rights and wrongs of this 30-year ordeal, involving Pollard in the question of the Iran deal would be wrong from the point of view of both U.S. and Israeli security.
As with past U.S. efforts to use Pollard’s possible release as a carrot with which to entice Israel to make territorial withdrawals to the Palestinians (such as President Clinton’s stillborn initiative at the time of the 1998 Wye Plantation Agreement that was scuttled by threats of resignations from U.S. security officials), the spy’s fate is irrelevant to the question of whether appeasement of Iran is justified.
While many Israelis rightly feel that Pollard is their country’s responsibility and seek to have him freed after such a long imprisonment, doing so in no way compensates the Jewish state for the grave harm that an agreement that empowers and enriches Iran will do to its security as well as that of the United States. Raising the prospect of his release is merely one more effort to convince supporters of Israel to acquiesce to President Obama’s embrace of détente with an Islamist regime that remains the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism as well as still dedicated to Israel’s destruction.
While there is good reason to finally end Pollard’s imprisonment after him having already served far longer than anyone else guilty of a comparable crime, his fate has no more place in the Iran discussion than it does in negotiations with the Palestinians. The Pollard leak should be put down as just one more underhanded tactic by an administration that prefers to answer arguments about its Iran policy with smears about critics being warmongers rather than to defend it on the merits.