SPECIALREPORT: Why is Jonathan Pollard still in prison Legal bumbling, bravado provoked life term

On March 4, 1987, Pollard was sentenced to life imprisonment overturning a supposedly binding plea bargain that would have guaranteed his eventual freedom. And many wonder: Why is he still incarcerated?

Despite charges of anti-Semitism and conspiracy, the reasons point to something quite different: Rather than political intrigue, Pollard's life sentence may be the penalty for major mistakes on the part of his original defense attorney coupled with Pollard's own foolhardy bravado.

Attempts by Pollard and his supporters to transform his plea for freedom into an international cause célèbre apparently backfired. Interviews on "60 Minutes" and with former Jerusalem Post correspondent Wolf Blitzer, as well as petitions from Israeli prime ministers, antagonized U.S. officials as well as the sentencing judge.

Numerous requests for clemency have been denied, despite pleas from Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli prime ministers; Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, who has visited Pollard twice in prison; members of Congress; and an armada of America's most celebrated defense attorneys, including Harvard's flamboyant Alan Dershowitz and Theodore Olsen, now the U.S. solicitor general.

Netanyahu, who visited Pollard in prison this past January, said, "A great injustice has been perpetrated by keeping Pollard endlessly in jail," summarizing a key point among those advocating that Pollard be freed.

Nonetheless, virtually the entire U.S. intelligence and defense establishment, with CIA Director George Tenet acting as point man, want Pollard to remain in jail forever. Few are as adamant about that as senior intelligence officers who happen to be Jewish. Numerous ranking members of Congress, including Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and a large number of American Jewry's top communal leaders do not object to Pollard remaining behind bars. What's more, some top Jewish professional leaders privately express revulsion at efforts to win Pollard's freedom.

Pollard was convicted of a single count of disclosing documents to an ally foreign government, in violation of Title 18, section 794c. The far more serious crime of selling classified information to an enemy nation, such as Iraq or the Soviet Union, violates section 794b and generally fetches a life sentence. But in contrast, those who divulge the nation's secrets to allies, as Pollard did, always receive lesser sentences.

Pro-Pollard groups suggest that he remains in prison because of anti-Semitism in high places, but numerous Jewish organizations insist that is not the case. Some pundits maintain the spy's knowledge of America's secrets are so sensitive, his enemies so powerful, the politics so volatile, his crime so severe, that he can never be released.

After an intense review of thousands of pages of Pollard-related documents, and dozens of interviews with prosecutors, senior intelligence officers, current and former Israeli and American government officials, the defense attorneys and an exclusive prison interview with Pollard himself, it seems clear the reason Pollard remains in prison has more to do with legal technicalities and Pollard's own grandstanding.

The focus comes down to just two men. The first is Pollard's original defense attorney, Richard A. Hibey, who is accused in court papers of having irrevocably mishandled the case 15 years ago by not filing the required Notice of Appeal form within 10 days of sentencing. The other is Pollard himself, whose provocative conduct while in federal custody sealed his own fate. Pollard's only hope for freedom is now a habeas corpus action launched by his new pro bono attorneys.

No one has ever been able to identify reliably exactly what secrets Pollard sold to Israel. Jewish leaders who have been briefed by trustworthy sources have constantly been told the same refrain: "If you only knew how severe the damage was." Despite reams of guesswork and Washington's porous nature, the details are still undisclosed.

But those details are clearly enumerated in a 46-page sworn declaration to the sentencing judge by then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. Most of the affidavit has been classified top secret. It includes a classified analysis of 20 illegally disclosed documents.

"The judge requested — the court asked — for a confidential, highly classified summary to report the damage done," Weinberger said in an interview. Although the declaration was signed by Weinberger and submitted as his personal affidavit, the damning document was in fact assembled piecemeal by an interagency group of intelligence officials independently assessing Pollard's damage to their own operations.

A redacted copy of that sworn 46-page declaration obtained, together with information and analysis reported by several of the actual contributors, indicates that Pollard indeed compromised the most sensitive aspect of American intelligence, providing Israel with the highest level of secret information.

"More than 1,000 unredacted messages and cables," of which a significant number were not just top-secret but "code-word sensitive," were delivered to Pollard's Israeli handlers, according to the Weinberger declaration.

Washington feared that Israel could have traded the secret materials with other intelligence services. The information could have even ended up in Moscow, perhaps as a bargaining chip at a time when Israel was trying to free Soviet Jews. Numerous intelligence reports about Soviet missile systems, delivered by Pollard, exposed the way America analyzed Soviet weapons.

He transmitted regional surveillance data from the VQ-2 reconnaissance squadron in Spain, thereby enabling Israel to virtually track America's own intelligence capability in the Mediterranean and even over Israel itself. This was crucial in Israel's 1985 bombing of the Palestine Liberation Organization headquarters in Tunis, which depended upon Israeli F-15s evading both American and Arab listening posts over North Africa.

But all of this was dwarfed, according to a principal author of the Weinberger declaration, by photocopying for Israel the massive 10-volume RASIN manual. An acronym for Radio and Signal Intelligence, the precious RASIN manual is known as "the Bible," according to the intelligence officer. The RASIN manual details America's global listening profile, frequency-by-frequency, source-by-source, geographic slice by geographic slice. RASIN was, in effect, a complete roadmap to American signal intelligence

Some estimate the loss of the RASIN manual cost America billions of dollars and many years in completely restructuring America's worldwide eavesdropping operation. Though Pollard has sought to downplay the consequences to the United States of his actions, his crime was lasting and devastating to the U.S. intelligence community.

To avoid a public trial, the government negotiated a binding, written plea agreement with both Pollard and his wife at the time, Anne. That agreement required Pollard to cooperate fully with numerous polygraph examiners and intelligence investigators. This he did. In return, prosecutors promised that while they would indeed request substantial jail time, they would not ask for the maximum: life. Toward that end, prosecutors promised to stress to the judge the spy's post-arrest cooperation with investigators and polygraphers, and limit their allocution of facts to the circumstances of his espionage.

Prosecutors agreed to omit aggravating details of Pollard's high Israeli-paid lifestyle, suggestions of cooperation with South Africa and other aggravating factors that could easily inflame the sentencing judge to mete out a longer term. As part of the overall deal, Anne, who assisted Pollard's espionage, would be shown leniency with a minimal term, and her bail while awaiting sentence would not be opposed. The two agreements were "wired," that is, both Pollards had to comply with all provisions.

Both agreements also routinely required the Pollards to obtain specific approval from the director of naval intelligence for any media interviews or publication. Keeping one's mouth shut and displaying remorse is the first priority when seeking the mercy of the court.

But the Pollards tried to outsmart mercy. They decided to rally the American Jewish community and massage public opinion, hoping to create outside pressure on the judge and prosecutors to dispense a reduced sentence. Without the knowledge of his attorney, Pollard granted two exclusive prison interviews to Blitzer, the CNN journalist who was then Washington correspondent for the Jerusalem Post. In these interviews, Pollard presented himself as a highly motivated Jew determined to help Israel in the face of an intransigent American intelligence community that was endangering the Jewish state.

"No Bumbler But Israel's Master Spy," the headline declared. Moreover, a letter from Pollard ran on the front page of the Jerusalem Post decrying his "judicial crucifixion," and assuring "the gains to Israel's long-term security were worth the risks" he took. The letter even lamented the fact that "no one has summoned the [Jewish] community to put a stop to this ordeal."

The result of the interview was a disaster for Pollard, who infuriated the government with his defiant stance.

After learning of one of the interviews, Pollard's defense attorney, Hibey, is said to have shrieked so loudly into the phone, a partner rushed in to see if he was hurt.

As damaging as the Jerusalem Post interview was, Anne Pollard's interview with "60 Minutes" a few days before the scheduled sentencing did far more damage. In that interview, she told the nation, "I feel my husband and I did what we were expected to do, and what our moral obligation was as Jews, what our moral obligation was as human beings, and I have no regrets about that."

Remorse now seemed a moot point.

Prosecutors Joseph diGenova and Charles Leeper were outraged, as was Judge Aubrey Robinson, who delivered the 1987 life sentence that stunned the courtroom. So was Pollard's now humiliated defense attorney Hibey, who was expected to keep his client in line.

"I assure you, Judge Robinson got a videotape of the '60 Minutes' interview the very next day," recalls Hamilton "Phil" Fox III, one of Pollard's subsequent defense attorneys. "It was a classic case of how not to behave," a senior member of the prosecution team said.

Pollard's antagonistic media gamble sealed his fate. He was now doomed. Angry prosecutors would now manifest their rage and exact revenge.

The government could have thrown out the binding plea agreement, claiming the Pollards breached the spirit of the media strictures. But with no plea agreement, the government would have to start from scratch and prosecute the case in a public trial, a source of great embarrassment. So instead, prosecutors simply breached the plea agreement themselves to make sure Pollard was thrown in jail for life.

Prosecutors were obligated by the plea agreement to confine their arguments to the details of the crime and make no effort to provoke a life sentence. Instead, in a memorandum to the judge originally classified "secret," prosecutor diGenova castigated Pollard for "attempts to glorify his actions" and declared: "This pattern of public relations gambits undertaken by defendant…has demonstrated that he is…contemptuous of this court's authority."

Such complaints were outside the four walls of the binding plea agreement. But prosecutors wanted the judge to grasp that Pollard was trying to go over the court's head to publicly or politically pressure a reduced sentence. Any judge would be incensed.

For reinforcement, diGenova presented an unprecedented last minute four-page affidavit from Weinberger, who essentially asked for "life imprisonment," even though the plea agreement expressly prohibited such a request.

At the sentencing, prosecutors again emphasized that Pollard was a deceitful and outrageous media manipulator, hammering at the Blitzer interviews.

Robinson was "steamed, really steamed," recalled a senior member of the prosecution team. Pollard's attorneys thought he would receive 15 to 17 years in jail, perhaps as many as 25. But Robinson ignored the prosecution's clear violation of the binding plea agreement and agreed that Pollard deserved the worst punishment possible.

When he announced "life" for Pollard, Anne collapsed in hysteria, only to be lifted by guards to hear her own five-year sentence. Pollard was taken away to begin his life sentence.

Actually, what might have saved Pollard from a life term would have been several seemingly obvious moves by his attorney, Hibey. He should have objected to the government's breach of its plea agreement and excessive sentencing by Robinson, insist many legal authorities. Most damaging, in the wake of all the errors and breaches, Hibey never filed the simple one-page Notice of Appeal form within the requisite 10 days. The damage was as good as permanent. By not filing the appeal form, Hibey assured there would never be legal recourse to undo the grievances.

"After a defendant has been sentenced in a federal case," explained Abraham Abramovsky, a Fordham University professor of criminal law who has studied the Pollard case, "he has only 10 days to file a notice of appeal from the sentence. If he fails to do so, he can never again file for direct appellate review, no matter how outrageous the error."

At least three members of Congress are among the long list of eminent reviewers who agree. Reps. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Janice Schakowsky (D-Ill.), signed a November 2000 letter to former President Clinton. In it, they complained of a "very disturbing picture of serious misconduct that appears to have gone unchecked by Mr. Pollard's then-counsel…Perhaps most troubling, after Mr. Pollard had been sentenced to life in prison, his attorney failed to file a Notice of Appeal, a simple and straightforward task that a competent attorney would routinely have done. By that failure, Mr. Pollard's then-counsel appears to have…doomed Mr. Pollard to an unreviewed sentence of life in prison."

In addition, Hibey did not call for an evidentiary hearing on the last-minute affidavit by Weinberger, who used language essentially signaling a life sentence and justifying it with the assertion, "It is difficult for me, in the so-called 'year of the spy' to conceive of a greater harm to national security."

During an interview last month with Weinberger regarding his recent published memoir, "In the Arena," the former secretary of defense was asked why the Pollard incident was left out of the book. Weinberger casually replied, "Because it was, in a sense, a very minor matter, but made very important." Asked to elaborate, Weinberger repeated, "As I say, the Pollard matter was comparatively minor. It was made far bigger than its actual importance." Pressed on why the case was made far bigger than its actual importance Weinberger replied, "I don't know why, it just was." Had Hibey called for an evidentiary hearing on Weinberger's damning affidavit, its veracity could have been assessed.

In response to Weinberger's startling admission some 15 years later, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, declared, "This raises serious questions about Weinberger's sworn comments at the time, which now seem contradictory. I wish he had made this clear years ago."

Moreover, Hibey failed to object to the repeated prosecution assertions that Blitzer's interviews with Pollard were unauthorized, a notion that seems impossible since they were conducted with the permission of the Department of Justice and Bureau of Prisons inside the prison itself. All journalists are subjected to rigorous bureaucratic and security screening before being granted access to prisoners.

In addition, a legal adviser to the director of naval intelligence confirmed, "If the DNI approves the request, the Bureau of Prisons [BOP] sends you written permission…that written authorization is all that you need — the DNI's permission is implicit in the BOP authorization."

More than failing to object to the characterization of Blitzer's interviews as unauthorized, a demure Hibey conceded to the judge in open court, just moments before the final sentence: "The action was ill-advised, unauthorized, there is no question about that in my mind…Yes, your honor, you are correct, that it was done without the pre-clearance procedure."

Pollard's new pro bono attorneys, Eliot Lauer and Jacques Semmelman, filed a recent motion complaining that "Hibey did not protest, either in writing or orally at the sentencing, that by asking for life in prison in this manner, the government had violated the plea agreement."

Judge George N. Leighton, who reviewed Pollard's case on the Hibey issue, was among those who filed a declaration with the court asserting Pollard was denied due process during his sentencing.

"The evidence shows," wrote Judge Leighton, "that the government engaged in serious misconduct that went unchecked by an ineffective defense counsel, Richard Hibey, and that these constitutional violations severely prejudiced Mr. Pollard, and resulted in his sentence of life in prison."

Far from ameliorating the problem, Pollard's conduct while seeking clemency added to his woes. Every attempt to gain presidential clemency, spearheaded by Israeli prime ministers and American Jewish leadership has been thwarted. Why? The same inexplicable behavior streak that caused him to alienate his prosecutors, judge and defense counsel has been visible during Pollard's 17 years of incarceration.

Although most convicts seeking early release learn to conduct themselves passively and speak in a fashion that will play to parole boards, Pollard has gone on the offensive. His voluminous handwritten letters to supporters insult the integrity of prosecutor diGenova, and bitterly challenge the commitment of American Jewish and Israeli leaders petitioning for his release. For example, on May 24, 2001, Pollard wrote an open letter to Israeli President Moshe Katsav about a meeting with President Bush.

"Even if you were to bring up the issue of my release with Bush yourself as you claim, your past record on my case leaves no room for doubt that you would not do so in a serious or effective manner. Rather just so that you can return to Israel and claim that you brought it up but were unsuccessful."

In late 1999, when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak asked his minister of diaspora affairs to meet with Pollard's second wife, Esther, Pollard issued a statement: "I was shocked at the government's sleazy attempt at deflecting public attention away from the fact that Prime Minister Ehud Barak will absolutely not take any responsibility for bringing this agent home…

"They are sending the lightest of the lightweights, which will be…treated as a joke in Washington…The point is this: I am an Israeli agent who worked for the Ministry of Defense. As such, it is up to General Barak, who is now Prime Minister Barak, to get me home and nobody else."

Pollard's Israeli attorneys ultimately filed a lawsuit against Barak for nonresponsiveness, seeking, among other things, to compel him to meet with Pollard's wife and issue weekly reports on efforts to obtain his early release.

In the Jewish community, several have been harassed by Pollard supporters for straying from the Pollard camp's line. In 1993, David Luchins, a senior adviser to then-Sen. Daniel Moynihan (D-N.Y.), became embroiled in a tactical dispute over Pollard's seeking a parole, and also a letter of remorse obtained by Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik of Chicago.

The late Soloveichik was considered one of American Judaism's most revered rabbinic authorities. The letter was a congressional initiative to secure presidential commutation. But after Pollard signed, he reportedly expressed regret over a portion of the letter that apologized for violating Jewish law — to the utter dismay of those who had organized the letter. Luchins' life was threatened by Pollard supporters, who circulated a flier that a press report dubbed a Salman Rushdie-style religious decree calling for Luchins' murder. A source close to Moynihan says federal marshals were summoned to protect Luchins.

Observers say it is understandable for an embittered Pollard to lash out, since he is facing a harsh life term. But legal experts consider it inadvisable for a man seeking clemency to offend those needed to champion his cause.

Despite the noisome and self-defeating tactics by Pollard and some supporters, it is entirely believable that the legal establishment ran roughshod over his constitutional rights — and in broad daylight, with the world watching.

In one of Pollard's early unsuccessful efforts, federal Judge Stephen F. Williams dissented, writing: "The government's breach of the plea agreement was a fundamental miscarriage of justice…Pollard's sentence should be vacated and the case remanded for re-sentencing…the fault here rests upon the prosecutor, not on the sentencing judge."

Yet attempts to obtain juridical justice for Pollard have faltered over the years, such as when one of Pollard's early attorneys moved to withdraw Pollard's guilty plea in 1990. Fox, a former assistant U.S. attorney himself, charged that the government breached its plea agreement. But the court refused his effort, citing the absence of any original objection by Hibey in 1987. The only way for Fox to get around that stumbling block was to assert that Pollard had been denied "effective assistance of counsel," in other words, to claim Hibey deprived the spy of his constitutional rights.

"Indeed, that was the first thing under consideration, ineffective assistance of counsel," Fox recalled. "When I interviewed Hibey, he did ask me if I would raise the question of ineffective assistance of counsel. I said if I did, I would let him know. Actually, at about that time, my assistant was working on a memo on that very topic. But we thought there was no chance under Supreme Court guidelines…which sets an extremely high standard. So we never did it."

But more than just not raising it, Fox went out of his way to praise Hibey.

"We do not challenge the government's claim that Pollard's prior counsel skillfully negotiated a plea agreement and effectively allocuted for his client," wrote Fox in his pleading. "Our criticism is not of prior counsel but of the government's failure to live up to its side of the bargain."

This conspicuous praise for Hibey has caught the attention of more than one legal expert, who question how Fox could make such a unilateral concession. Lauer's and Semmelman's pleadings assert that an old-boy network was at work. Leighton's declaration on Pollard agrees, stating, "Many such lawyers will not…risk ostracism within their professional community by accusing a fellow lawyer of ineffective representation in any case — much less a high-profile case, as this one was."

Asked about the judge's statement, Fox said, "I have never gotten a single referral from Hibey," adding, "Remember, we took a shot at a sitting judge." Asked why he wrote those words of unsolicited praise for Hibey, Fox replied, "I just don't know why I wrote those words." Asked to explain why Hibey did not file the all-important 10-day Notice of Appeal, Fox speculated, "It probably didn't occur to him."

A flabbergasted Semmelman commented, "How can a former assistant U.S. attorney fail to immediately file a Notice of Appeal from a life sentence?" Indeed, one current assistant U.S. attorney who years ago briefly worked on the Pollard case, said "Yikes" when informed that Hibey had not filed the form.

Hibey, called one of Washington's most effective lawyers, now practices with the mega-law firm Winston & Strawn. He has declined to reply to the legal and congressional challenges to his representation of Pollard. And Hibey did not reply to repeated requests for an interview. Sitting for five hours in the reception area outside his Washington office failed to result in a meeting. Lauer said he was "eager to have the court conduct a hearing and put Hibey on the stand to explain his conduct."

But juridical justice for Pollard has been frustrated over the years because so many in the Department of Justice and cooperating intelligence establishments have become so hardened against the spy. Pollard advocates say he has never sought parole because he believes the system is stacked against him, though critics believe it is because he would have to express unequivocal remorse for his actions.

Lauer and Semmelman, the latest and best hopes for Pollard, have filed mountains of motions. Direct appeals are not possible, so they are seeking habeas corpus on the basis of ineffective assistance of counsel. In other words, they are asking that Pollard be re-sentenced in accordance with his plea agreement, which could theoretically result in yet another life sentence — although most scholars think that is doubtful after 17 years.

Lauer and Semmelman have been frustrated at every step by protracted delays, refusals and volumes of hair-splitting government legal arguments. They can't even get an evidentiary hearing. "If we could only get the court to give us a hearing," said Lauer, "we could subpoena documents and take testimony, and once and for all establish the facts."

At the North Carolina correctional facility, Pollard is grasping what may be that last straw now. In a wide-ranging 90-minute exclusive interview — his first in years — he presented a jumble of emotions and mixed messages about his original motives. But he was clear about his predicament. Asked if he regretted his espionage, Pollard focused hard and replied, "I don't think regret is strong enough a word to use. No one who has seen what has happened to me over the past 17 years could possibly say I feel good, to any degree, over what I did."

Did he regret his transgression or just being caught?

"The transgression," he quickly answered. His explanations for his crime wandered, but he summed them up with the painful admission, "Whether this was done to Israel or that was done to Israel — you know what, that's not my responsibility anymore…I fought that battle with myself 17 years ago, and you know…I lost that battle and I'm not going back to it. I've been destroyed and I destroyed a lot of people around me."

Why has he alienated so many who have tried to help him?

"It's a sore subject," he replied, adding that some "ran away" from efforts to aid him, while others didn't live up to their promises or did actual harm. "I didn't really know how to react to these guys because I never had anything to do with these people before. I was naive."

Asked if he thought he should be freed as a "Jewish patriot," or because he was denied due process, Pollard decisively replied, "Denied due process."

He was pressed, "What about the 'Jewish patriot' part?" Without hesitation, he responded, "That's irrelevant…It has absolutely nothing to do with it."

Finally, Pollard was asked point blank, "Do you really want to get out of here — or would you rather stay in prison as an international Jewish celebrity?"

With a voice riveted to determination, he replied, "I would rather eat the dust of Israel as a beggar and be with my wife than to continue this horrific existence that I'm currently suffering…I'm a very small person in the course of Jewish history, in the course of our people's existence; I'm a blip on the radar screen. I'm a footnote, a small footnote at that.

"I really screwed up and I can't — if I get another chance, by the grace of God — I can't screw up again. You only get one reprieve, and I'm not going to muck it up."