Jewish World Review / April 9, 1998 / 13 Nissan, 5758


By Richard Z. Chesnoff

NOBODY LIKES TO be misled (the polite word for "lied to"). Even less so when your own government does the "misleading". I know. It happens every day. But when governmental deception is as dumb as it is blatant - it's particularly grating.

I'm talking about a request the Daily News made to the Pentagon for me to interview US federal prisoner Jonathan Pollard, the former US Navy intelligence aide found guilty 12 years ago of spying for Israel and given an unbelievably harsh life sentence. Ever since, Pollard's requests for clemency have been turned down by the White House.

So have our requests to see him -- at least under normal free press conditions. We did agree to the presence of a Navy security monitor. But the government insists it can take possession of our tapes and notebooks and review our interview before it's published. It's their right, they say, under a plea bargain agreement Pollard signed before he was sentenced -- a deal the government obviously reneged on when he was given a life term.

Then last December the News learned that two Israeli journalists had accompanied an Israeli government minister visiting Pollard, and unhindered by any restrictions, had asked him interview questions. So we applied again -- and were given a lengthy run around. When we pressed US Navy General Counsel Steven S. Honigman for a reply, Honigman crankily told us "I will respond to you as soon as we are ready to do so." Finally, last week, he did. He not only again turned down our interview request, he tried to deny that the Israeli newsmen had ever had interview access to Pollard. The Israeli journalists, he told us, "were specifically instructed that they could ask no questions ...and, in fact, they did not do so."

That's outrageous. I have spoken with one of the Israeli journalists involved: Ehud Yaari, Israel Television's respected senior correspondent. He reassures me that without restriction, he asked Pollard interview questions and broadcast the responses in Israel. Among Pollard's words: his demand that Israel finally acknowledge that he was working for them as an official agent. (Pollard, for his own reasons, insists Yaari's questions were merely "clarifications"). So what does the Navy say: even if the interview happened "inadvertently", that's no grounds for an American newsman to interview Pollard "unencumbered". Double outrage!

Why doesn't the US government want Pollard to speak out? Why has this man received a far harsher sentence than people who've spied for enemies like the Soviet Union? Whatever his motivations, Pollard broke our laws and deserved punishment. But as renowned Rabbi Alexander Schindler recently wrote in the magazine "Reform Judaism": there's a "line where justice ends and vindictiveness begins." I agree with Schindler that Pollard's case has long crossed that line.

There is some new support for Pollard. Israel is finally pressing his case, And there are friendly voices on Capital Hill. Some lawmakers, like Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd remain opposed to any clemency for Pollard. Others like Connecticut's other senator, Joe Lieberman, are less than heroic about getting involved ("The Senator doesn't comment on post judicial decisions," one of his aides told me). But there are growing Congressional voices for mercy. New Jersey Senator Bob Toricelli tells me he plans visiting Pollard. "This is a matter that needs to come to a conclusion. If the purpose of Pollard's punishment was to send a message about the price of betrayal, then the point's been amply made."

This Passover season of freedom and Easter season of renewal is a perfect time for President Bill Clinton either to grant Pollard clemency -- or to let it be known that he favors his parole. It's also high time the US government allows American journalists to talk to this man freely.


4/2/98: A breakthrough in Lebanon?
3/30/98: Full rights for all Israelis?
2/27/98: America's Schindler
1/30/98: A last chance for the Mideast?
1/11/98: The Moment for Restitution Has Arrived

JWR contributor and veteran journalist Richard Z. Chesnoff is a senior correspondent at US News And World Report and a columnist at the NY Daily News.

©1998, NY Daily News