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Convicted Israeli Spy Hoping to Appeal Life Sentence

Aired September 1, 2003 - 20:17   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Tomorrow, we'll get a rare glimpse of the convicted spy Jonathan J. Pollard. He'll be in court hoping a judge will let his attorneys appeal the life sentence he's serving because he spied for Israel.

BLITZER (voice-over): Jonathan J. Pollard was arrested by the FBI in November 1985 and charged with selling classified material to Israel. He was an American citizen working for the Navy as a civilian intelligence analyst. He pled guilty and was sentenced to life.

Upon his arrest, Israeli leaders apologized, but tried to deny responsibility, saying his mission had been unauthorized. But, in 1998, they admitted that, indeed, his operation was known at the highest levels of the Israeli government. He's now an Israeli citizen. For his part, Pollard has denied spying against the United States, saying he was only giving information he believed was vital to Israeli security.

The Israelis have never revealed to the U.S. government exactly what it was he gave them, although it is said to include information on Iraqi and Syrian chemical weapons, Soviet arms shipments to Syria, and a Pakistani atomic bomb project. President Clinton came close to pardoning Jonathan Pollard in the closing days of his administration, but didn't, after CIA Director George Tenet said he would resign if Clinton did so.


BLITZER: So was Jonathan Pollard's life sentence too harsh?

Joining me now from Irvine, California, is the former CIA case officer Bob Baer. And with me here in New York, Alon Pinkas. He's the Israeli consul general.

Mr. Ambassador, first of all, let me start with you.

The Israeli government's position right now, what is it as far as letting Pollard get some sort of reduced sentence and move to Israel?

ALON PINKAS, ISRAELI CONSUL GENERAL: Well, we don't have an official position vis-a-vis the U.S. government. We have applied several times informally and unofficially on a humanitarian basis.

BLITZER: When you say informally and unofficially, the former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, pressed President Clinton at the time repeatedly at the Wye talks to release Pollard.

PINKAS: That's in late 1998. You're absolutely right.

But since then, what we have said is that his health is failing, that he has paid his duties, that the state of Israel acknowledged that he was a spy, that a terrible mistake has been made, that everyone involved bore the responsibility and paid a certain price, and that his sentence was severe, given what other spies -- now, the comparison is always made to Aldrich Ames, who, A, spied for an enemy of the United States, and, B, was apparently indirectly responsible for the deaths of American agents.

BLITZER: Not indirectly, directly.

But let me press you on this point, because our national security correspondent David Ensor is quoting U.S. officials as saying they might be more open to some sort of reduced sentence if Israel, the government of Israel, finally came clean and shared with the United States officially all the information Pollard provided them.

PINKAS: As you know, when you research this better than anyone at the time, Wolf, he wasn't working for the Israeli government. He was working for a rogue little operation that we share the responsibility, that we are responsible for.

BLITZER: But that scientific liaison bureau was part of the Defense Ministry and had generals involved, as well as top intelligence operatives.

PINKAS: Absolutely. And they were punished by both the U.S. government and the Israeli government. Some of them are still barred for life, I think, from entering the United States of America and holding any defense positions in Israel.

But just to answer your direct question, we have made these appeals on a humanitarian basis. Now, that unit that you mentioned was disbanded at the time. We took and claimed the responsibility because we're a state and a state has to take responsibility. What we're asking now is that his sentence...

BLITZER: All right, be reduced. That's what you're asking.

PINKAS: Be reduced on a humanitarian basis, not in terms of justifying what he had done, which was a -- and whoever employed him was a fool.

BLITZER: Bob Baer, you used to work for the CIA. Why do you think Pollard should not be let out of prison?

BOB BAER, FORMER CIA AGENT: Wolf, because he passed our best secrets.

A lot was from the National Security Agency. It was top secret. You go through all this code word stuff. And our laws, our national security laws, are a very effective deterrent against other people spying. Yes, he did less damage because he passed it to a friend. But, on the other hand, you can't let employees of the national security agencies decide who is friendly and who is not, because you're opening the door wide to anybody claiming listen, I was just helping relations. It's a mistake.

BLITZER: But there are plenty of spies who were arrested and convicted of espionage who didn't get life, who got 10, 15, 20 years, some of them released after serving only a brief part of that. Why should Pollard, who spied for Israel, get life?

BAER: Well, it's because of the nature of the secrets he passed. He did comparatively much more damage that equals Ames in a lot of ways, although no one died that we're aware of. He passed everything he could get his hands on, and he had very high clearances.

BLITZER: And so you think that even though the -- he pleaded guilty -- he pled guilty, there was no trial, the U.S. attorney at the time, Joe diGenova, promised him a substantial sentence but not the maximum sentence, life, that shouldn't have any role in this?

BAER: It doesn't matter. The government's got some real problems in leaks, leaks to the press, espionage, and the only way we're going to stop this is crack down, and we just can't start lightening up right now. It's just -- it will get worse.

BLITZER: What about -- what do you say to that point, because the Israeli government, as you well know, treats spies pretty harshly as well.

Mordechai Vanunu, as you well, know, who leaked documents involving Israel's nuclear program to the London "Sunday Times," he's still serving a long prison sentence in Israel, and the damage arguably that he did to Israel was less than Pollard did to the U.S.

PINCUS: Well, I think it -- I think it's more, I mean, but that's -- that's -- like you said, it's arguable. I think that the damages that Vanunu did potentially to the national security of the State of Israel far outweighed what Pollard did to the U.S. But I have no -- I have no argument with what Bob Baer said.

What we're saying is something very simple. On a humanitarian basis, this man is entering his 18th year in prison. I am not justifying what he did. I don't think he's a hero. I think he's a spy. I think he put Israel, the U.S., American troops, everyone in a terrible predicament that should not be repeated ever.

Having said all that, he did it because he thought he was doing the right thing. That does not justify not putting him in jail, but that does, coupled with his bad health, justify perhaps reducing his sentence right now.

BLITZER: We'll see what happens tomorrow, 2:00 p.m. in Washington when that hearing begins.

Ambassador Alon Pincus, thanks for your candor. Thanks very much for joining us.

PINCUS: Thank you.

BLITZER: Bob Baer, as usual, thanks to you as well.


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