Rupert Cornwell: The mystery of Jonathan Pollard's missing pardon

Out of America: An American who spied for Israel has languished in jail for 23 years – and US authorities are loath to reveal why they want him to stay there
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The Independent Online

Somewhat belatedly, President Obama has just issued his first presidential pardons, but don't hold the front page. The nine recipients include a coin mutilator sentenced to a year's probation in 1963, a former serviceman who used cocaine and bounced the odd modest cheque, and a Utah man given two years on probation in 1972 for illegal possession of government property.

But despite considerable pressure and no little expectation, he did not pardon Jonathan Pollard, the US naval intelligence analyst sentenced to life in jail in 1987 for passing secrets to Israel.

A quarter of a century on, Pollard's is the espionage case that never goes away, and he languishes in a North Carolina prison to this day. His best hope of release is now 2015, 30 years after his original arrest. Nor is Obama the first president to reject Pollard's appeals for clemency. Although he scandalously pardoned Marc Rich, the fugitive financier and huge benefactor of Israel, on his last day in office on January 20, 2001, Bill Clinton turned down every plea for Pollard. Likewise George W Bush, arguably the most pro-Israeli president ever, was deaf to every request of clemency for Pollard.

In Israel itself, by contrast, the spy is a hero. A square in Jerusalem has been renamed after him, and supporters compare him as a victim of anti-Semitism with Alfred Dreyfus, the French officer convicted on trumped-up charges of treason in 1895 and later exonerated. Pollard, of course, has admitted his guilt, but insists he was merely passing on vital security information that the US should have supplied under a 1983 memorandum with Israel, including details of Iranian, Iraqi and Libyan WMD programmes, all targeted at Israel.

In early 1996 Israel granted Pollard's request for citizenship. Two years later, after long claiming Pollard was a rogue operator, the country acknowledged that he had been a paid agent of its security services. Every Israeli prime minister since Yitzhak Rabin has sought Pollard's release; one of them, Benjamin Netanyahu, actually visited him in jail (though at the time, in 2002, Netanyahu was out of office).

Here in Washington, congressmen (usually from districts with large Jewish constituencies) regularly try to secure his freedom. At least twice Pollard has been a bargaining chip in efforts to obtain a Middle East peace settlement.

This autumn, the idea of a Pollard release was floated again, this time as a quid pro quo for agreement by Netanyahu to extend the freeze on new settlements and thus allow stalled talks with the Palestinians to resume. If Obama was tempted, he did not bite. The freeze is over, the "peace process" again lies in ruins, and Jonathan Pollard remains in jail. So Pollard the spy must have been a pretty big deal. But was he?

The problem is that the exact charges against Pollard and his then wife Anne were never made public. He was not convicted of treason, a crime that in the US applies only in time of war. Instead, after agreeing to co-operate with government prosecutors, he pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to deliver national defence information to a foreign government. Though that offence carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, all seemed set for Pollard to receive a sentence of 10 or 15 years at most. The judge, however, deemed otherwise, and imposed a life term. As an accessory, Anne was given five years.

Two factors probably tipped the scales. One was the Pollards' claim as they awaited sentencing that as Jews they had been morally obliged to hand over the information (implying that if similar circumstances arose, they would do so again).

The other was a secret memorandum signed by Caspar Weinberger, the Defence Secretary of the day, and seen only by the judge. The document, say Pollard supporters, gave a grossly exaggerated account of the damage to US intelligence. Pollard, it is further claimed, never caused the betrayal of an American agent; indeed, some of the leaks for which he was blamed were in fact due to the CIA mole Aldrich Ames, who was not detected until 1994.

Even so, Pollard apparently did hand the Israelis something close to the crown jewels: the detailed manuals of Raisin, or "Radio-Signal Notations", a compendium of US military signals and data-collection systems around the world, as well as daily top-secret US appraisals of developments in the Middle East. Worse still, some officials still suspect Israel may have traded some of this information to the Soviet Union, in return for Moscow allowing Soviet Jews to emigrate.

If so, the Pollard case was a very big deal indeed. Earlier this month his former wife Anne, who had been living in poverty in New York, was flown to Israel. It may be five years or more before her ex-husband makes his own hero's return to his new homeland.