Argument

Justice for a Spy

It's time for Obama to grant Jonathan Pollard clemency for his crimes.

The AP reported on April 9 that Jonathan Pollard has been hospitalized since April 4, 2012 due to "increasingly debilitating and incapacitating medical problems," renewing calls for his release. The White House reiterated that the president did not intend to release Pollard.

On Jan. 4, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood in front of the Knesset to read a letter that he had sent to the president of the United States, calling for the release of Jonathan Pollard. The Israeli leader admitted that Pollard, a former U.S. naval intelligence analyst serving a life sentence for espionage, "was acting as an agent of the Israeli government." He nevertheless contended that Pollard's 25 years in prison represented a sufficient punishment for his crimes and pointed to the support of a number of former U.S. officials and congressmen for clemency.

Netanyahu's request did not come as a surprise to me. On Dec. 20, 2010, after speaking to the Knesset, I met with the prime minister and urged him to go public with his request. Unless he did so, I argued, the issue would not gain the traction it needed. I also pointed out to him that he needed to publicly apologize and pledge to never again recruit Americans to spy against their country, which would allow supporters of Pollard's release to respond effectively to the argument that the Pollard case was business as usual for Israel.

The invitation to speak to the Knesset and meet with the prime minister was the culmination of two decades of my involvement with the case. I became involved when Jonathan's father, Morris Pollard, a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, wrote to me asking why my former boss, Caspar Weinberger, had written such a strong statement about the damage done by Jonathan's spying for Israel.

I answered his letter not to score political points or settle scores, but as one father to another. However, it eventually found its way into the press. As the press began to ask questions about the letter, I began researching the issues of the Pollard case more closely. Over the past 20 years, I have spoken to one of Pollard's prosecutors, a judge on the court of appeals who considered the case, a top lieutenant of former CIA Director George Tenet, several of Pollard's lawyers, and Pollard himself. And I have become convinced that Pollard's sentence of life was disproportionate to his crime.

Therefore, as a matter of simple justice, President Barack Obama should grant Netanyahu's request. Pollard has now been in prison far longer than anyone else who had spied for a friendly country -- the average sentence for a spy convicted of passing intelligence to an allied country is seven years. Information has come to light since Pollard's arrest that shows that the intelligence he passed to Israel never made its way to the United States' enemies, such as the Soviet Union. Furthermore, as U.S. diplomat Dennis Ross noted in a 2006 article in the Canadian Jewish Tribune, "Pollard has been in jail for so long that whatever facts he might know would have little if any effect on national security today."

Netanyahu was correct in saying that support for Pollard's release has come from a broad segment of American political and cultural life. In the last two months, the White House has been deluged with letters from 39 members of Congress, 500 religious leaders from all faiths, a former attorney general, and a former head of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, all urging the president to commute Pollard's sentence.

Of course, such a step will not come without a cost for Obama. Netanyahu learned this lesson in 1998, when he first pushed for Pollard's release in a meeting at the Wye Plantation with President Bill Clinton as a way of facilitating an Arab-Israeli peace agreement. Clinton had to back off when Tenet threatened to resign.

Every time the issue of Pollard's release comes up, intelligence professionals and prosecutors rise up against it. After Netanyahu's request in 1998, a group of retired admirals wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post condemning the request. Late last year, after 39 members of Congress wrote to Obama requesting clemency, a retired navy captain argued in The Intelligencer, a journal of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers, that clemency would be ill-advised. And the day after Netanyahu's public request, the attorney who prosecuted Pollard told the Washington Times that the idea of Israel seeking clemency is "a joke."

Most of these claims have been refuted by people such as former CIA Director R. James Woolsey, former Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Dennis DeConcini (D-AZ), and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey -- all supporters of granting clemency to Pollard. But I can say from personal experience that these claims resonate with some elements of the public because of concerns over Jewish Americans' supposed dual loyalty to the United States and Israel. That is, because Israel is a Jewish state, some Jewish Americans might place a commitment to Israeli survival over the interests of the United States when the two are in conflict. Since I became involved in the Pollard case two decades ago through public speeches, letters to the president, and op-eds in major newspapers, I have received volumes of hate mail for my stand.

But this is no reason to keep a man locked up for longer than he deserves. In his letter, Netanyahu noted that the United States is "based on fairness, justice, and mercy." With these principles in mind, Obama should commute Pollard's sentence to time served. It is the right thing to do.

MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

A Very American Conspiracy Theory

Forget right or left: Jared Loughner's worldview puts him in the ugly center of American paranoid tradition.

Whether or not Jared Loughner is mentally ill, it's clear that his shooting rampage last weekend, which took six lives and critically injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was motivated, at least in part, by his conspiratorial views of the U.S. government. According to his friends, he believed that Washington faked the moon landing and orchestrated the 9/11 attacks; that the Federal Reserve was a Jewish plot; and that the government was trying to control his brain through grammar.

Wacky as they may seem, the anti-government conspiracy theories that appear to have partially inspired Loughner have a long tradition in the United States. Conspiracy theories may be a globalized phenomenon, but Loughner's particular brand of government paranoia is purely all-American.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Americans primarily worried that their republic was vulnerable to foreign conspirators. They particularly feared Masons, Catholics, Mormons, and Jews, viewing them as seditious groups that followed the instructions of an alien power.

These conspiracy theories produced some powerful political movements in the United States: The Anti-Masons dominated New England politics in the 1830s, and the anti-Catholic American Protective Association boasted hundreds of thousands of members in the 1890s. Sometimes, conspiracy theories had lethal consequences: Some paranoiacs lynched alleged plotters and burned their churches.

Suspicion of other races, religions, or ethnicities is still the common currency of conspiracy theories elsewhere in the world -- the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that thrive in Arab countries are a case in point. In the 20th century, however, American conspiracy theories underwent a fundamental transformation. No longer were conspiracy theorists chiefly concerned that alien forces were plotting to capture the federal government; instead, they began to argue that the federal government itself was the alien force.

Some Americans had very legitimate reason to believe that the government was conspiring against them. Beginning in World War I, the U.S. government began to create and expand the agencies it needed to carry out secret operations. The modern surveillance state was born during World War I, as the government criminalized dissent with the Espionage Act and Sedition Act and empowered Bureau of Investigation agents to spy on potential dissidents. As the government grew, it gained the power to conspire against its citizens, and it soon began exercising that power.

After the end of World War II, new, more powerful secret agencies -- including the CIA -- sprang up to wage the trench battles of the Cold War. Locked in an existential struggle with the Soviet Union, the country's secret warriors believed in using any means necessary to fight the forces of godless communism. But because the government plotters were not accountable to anyone except their fellow agents, their plans sometimes distorted into bizarre form.

By the height of the Cold War, government agents were plotting with the mafia to kill Fidel Castro, dropping hallucinogenic drugs into the drinks of unsuspecting Americans at random bars, and debating the possibility of launching fake terrorist attacks on Americans in the United States. Public officials denied potentially lifesaving treatment to African-American men in medical experiments, sold arms to terrorists in return for American hostages, and faked documents to frame past presidents for crimes they had not committed.

Given the U.S. government's commitment to openness and democracy, light was eventually cast into the dark corners of the secret state. In 1975 and 1976, the special Senate investigating committee chaired by Sen. Frank Church of Idaho, known as the Church Committee, exposed and documented crimes and abuses by the CIA and FBI. For many Americans, the most popular and most distressing revelations involved the CIA program of drug-testing and mind-control experiments known as MKULTRA. The news of these experiments inspired generations of psychotics to wonder whether the voices in their heads really came from CIA headquarters.

The Church committee spurred a series of congressional and journalistic investigations of other secret government conspiracies. Many Americans were now ready to believe their government could be involved in nefarious plots. Church and his successors had hoped to restore faith in government by revealing its mistakes, but instead they helped accelerate Americans' post-Vietnam spiral into apathy and cynicism.

By the 1990s, conspiracy theories about the government transcended race and ideology. Suspicions about long-hidden government plots appealed to black separatists and white supremacists, to left-wing activists and right-wing militias, to anarchists and neofascists. Conspiracism bent the political spectrum and fused its extremes into an endless circle of paranoia.

The Internet allowed conspiracy theorists to find and link to one another's ramblings, giving hope to those who believed, in the words of The X-Files, that "the truth is out there." To spread their theories, skeptics in the early 20th century needed to crank hand-operated printing presses and, in one famous case, fling their tracts from the windows of tall buildings. But by the late 20th century, anyone with a computer could potentially address an audience of millions.

As the 20th century neared its end, the anti-government skeptics infused their theories with a millennial sense of urgency. "The wolf," said popular conspiracy writer Milton William Cooper, "is at the door." The X-Files' many devoted fans agreed with one character's assessment of the federal government in the show's fifth season: "No matter how paranoid you are," she explained, "you're not paranoid enough." No one could say that about Jared Loughner, cluttered with a toxic jumble of left- and right-wing conspiracy theories, his sources ranging from Marx to Hitler to heavy metal.

In fact, Arizona has, by some measures, become a ground zero for anti-government conspiracy theories. Loughner lived in a politically polarized state in which the federal government's policies, from health care to immigration, were excoriated by mainstream politicians as evidence of a tyrannical plot against liberty. And these theories took root beyond Arizona's borders. Throughout the United States, conspiracists rage against the alleged subversion of their country by "un-American" forces that reside in the U.S. government itself.

Conspiracy theories may seem to thrive on the margins of American politics: When historian Richard Hofstadter diagnosed a "paranoid style" in American politics in the 1960s, these views were easily characterized as fringe. But they become central when they gain powerful sponsors in the media and politics who inject their paranoid theories into the body politic. These conspiracy theories can be ridiculed in pop culture, but they will eventually lash out against reality -- as they tragically did last Saturday.

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