Clemency for Jonathan Pollard? No

A child born today will grow up with absolutely no conception of privacy at all,” said Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, in his “Alternative Christmas Message” on Channel 4.

I don’t mind the absurd hyperbole so much as Snowden’s incomprehension that democratic states have legitimate security concerns. If national security is to be second-guessed by private citizens who have access to classified information, they should make their case before the courts rather than claim asylum or special privileges on account of their conscience.

As it happens, Snowden’s plea coincided over the holiday season with an appeal by American Jewish leaders for the release of Jonathan Pollard, the Israeli agent now serving his 29th year of a life sentence for espionage. Gilad Shalit, the former kidnapped Israeli soldier, joined the calls for Pollard’s release.

The cases of Snowden and Pollard are unalike in numerous ways yet they have one thing in common: both men believed that their private judgment entitled them to act above the law in cases of national security. That notion should be abhorrent to democrats. Jewish leaders who intervene in the Pollard case should reflect on the similarity of their appeal to the case advanced by Snowden’s supporters. Both are bogus. If President Obama or one of his successors chooses to release Pollard on grounds of clemency, that will be an issue for the US government alone. Pollard’s incarceration is no injustice, and the campaign for his release, let alone his pardon, is misconceived.

Pollard broke his oath and betrayed his calling

Israel is an ally of the United States. For all its imperfections, it is a constitutional democracy and pluralist society founded on the values of the Enlightenment, in a region that is sorely lacking them. Its security concerns, especially in the context of an eventual two-state solution with a sovereign Palestine, are not always taken seriously enough by Western governments. It shouldn’t need to be said that these considerations do not justify Pollard’s actions, or even mitigate his guilt.

Pollard was a civilian analyst with US Naval Intelligence. He broke his oath and betrayed his calling. It does not make a difference to the principle of the case that he volunteered information to an ally. Apologists for the Manhattan spy ring, which betrayed America’s atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, offer the same misguided argument.

Whom to give secrets to is the prerogative of a democratic government, not its employees or contractors. If they are conscientiously unable to carry out their duties, they should resign. If they disclose secrets to third parties, not limited to foreign governments, they should face trial. It is unconscionable for anyone to claim both a conscientious right to subvert the law and the privilege to escape its consequences.

Pollard’s defenders point out that three decades in jail is a harsh sentence for any crime, especially a non-capital one, and the secrets that he divulged will be no longer relevant. But deterrence and retribution are a part of justice.

Global security depends on America’s advantage in intelligence and communications. Its agencies are seeking malevolent people who wish Western democracies harm. Perhaps there are exceptional circumstances that justify mercy for Pollard after all this time. Yet, consider the effect his release would have on other intelligence analysts tempted to divulge information to whoever they think merits it. The Pollard case is a bad one, and friends of Israel should stand aside from it.

Last updated: 10:36am, January 2 2014