The politics of pardoning a spy for Israel

Even the thought of clemency for Jonathan Pollard upsets US intelligence officials.

To many Israelis, he's a long-suffering patriot who's earned his freedom.

To the American intelligence community, he's a snared mole, lucky not to have been executed: At minimum he should serve his entire life term in prison.

When President Clinton agreed in October in the heat of the Wye River peace talks to reconsider the sentence of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, he reopened a dispute between the two nations that many in US intelligence circles want left closed.

The high-profile reexamination now under way, launched at the request of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has led Mr. Clinton to seek the advice of his top intelligence, diplomatic, and law-enforcement officials in considering clemency for Pollard. But in advance of their answers, due in mid-January, the intelligence community is already making its views known.

Pardoning a convicted spy would be devastating to the already low morale in the American intelligence community, analysts contend. To some, it's embarrassing that the president even agreed to reconsider the matter.

"We are not talking about a Nathan Hale here," says Rep. Porter Goss (R) of Florida, chairman of the House Select Intelligence Committee and a former CIA case officer. "We are talking about someone who sold out his country for a few bucks, got caught, and he's whining, playing the national, ethnic card."

Last week the White House counsel's office acknowledged it sent a memo to top foreign-policy officials in mid-November. The memo solicits the recommendations of Attorney General Janet Reno, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Secretary of Defense William Cohen, and Central Intelligence Agency Director George Tenet.

The document also requests any information or evidence relevant to the clemency decision.

Mr. Goss suggests going public with the memo is an exploratory effort, a test to determine if there is enough public support to sustain a pardon. Goss cosigned a letter along with the House and Senate leadership to Mr. Clinton, rebuking Israel's effort. Pollard is "one of the most notorious traitors in US history," the letter read, admonishing the president to deny the request.

POLLARD, a former US Navy analyst, is 13 years into a life sentence for what has been described as one of the worst breaches of American intelligence in history. He pleaded guilty to transferring stacks of classified documents to Israel in 1984 and 1985 that contained thousands of US secrets.

Clinton has already denied two clemency appeals, most recently in 1996. Earlier, President Bush refused a request for a pardon. Still, Pollard's freedom remains a top priority for the Netanyahu government, which insisted on a new review of the case as a condition of signing the Wye accord.

The White House says it won't discuss the Pollard issue further until the review is finished. The president is scheduled to make a historic trip to Israel and the occupied territories next week.

To the Netanyahu government, Pollard has already served a lengthy sentence. "This should no longer be an irritant between the US and Israel," says Avi Granot, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, who describes the Pollard case as a humanitarian issue, not an intelligence issue.

The Israelis say that, when considering time accrued for good behavior, Pollard has actually served 20 years toward his life sentence. "He has been punished, no doubt about that," says Mr. Granot. "We believe the time is right for his release."

"The other thing that has changed is the government of Israel has taken responsibility," Granot adds, recounting how, early in the case, Pollard was described as a rogue agent working on his own.

But others suggest Israel has taken scant responsibility. "The Israeli government has not been very forthcoming," says former CIA Director Robert Gates. "They haven't returned the documents or cooperated in any investigations into the matter. And that is a big consideration with a lot of people in Washington."

Mr. Gates doubts if clemency would have any effect on the newly appointed CIA role of monitoring compliance with the peace accord. Officially, the CIA is making no comment on the ongoing reevaluation. But director Tenet has made it clear that he would resign if clemency were granted.

To outside analysts, the review under way is diplomatic Kabuki - theater promised last October to keep the peace accord going. "This is all window dressing," says Ronald Kessler, author of "Inside the CIA."

"It would be unprecedented to trade an American traitor for anybody or in return for any kind of deal. I think it would totally devastate the intelligence community and FBI."

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