Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Jonathan Jay Pollard Spy Case

Why So Harsh?

Many, perhaps most, observers were shocked that Jonathan Jay Pollard received a life sentence. After all, the government had not even asked for one. Following the plea agreement, they only requested a "substantial" term. No one else convicted of spying for an ally has gotten more than 14 years in prison. Of course, it is also true that Pollard stole an extraordinary amount of classified material but the sentence still appeared wildly disproportionate to the offense in the minds of many people.

Several reasons have been suggested for Judge Aubrey Robinson's unexpectedly severe judgement. Among them are writings by Casper Weinberger that the jurist read prior to passing sentence and an inadequate defense by Richard Hibey.

Caspar Weinberger (AP)
Caspar Weinberger (AP)

Weinberger was secretary of defense at the time of the Pollard sentencing. He wrote a 46-page memorandum about the harm caused by the defendant. He also wrote a letter delivered by courier to the judge just the day before sentencing. The memorandum was later released to the public with many sections blacked out for reasons of national security. The letter has never been made public.

Exactly why the memorandum was submitted is in dispute. Observers first assumed that it was written and given to the judge at the request of the prosecutor, Joseph DiGenova. Later, DiGenova claimed it had been written at the invitation of the judge himself.

Weinberger's memorandum wrote of Pollard's actions in the most damning terms. Among many other things, it said, "It is difficult for me . . . to conceive of a greater harm to national security than that caused by the defendant in view of the breadth, the critical importance to the United States and the high sensitivity of the information he sold to Israel . . . I respectfully submit that any U.S. citizen, and in particular a trusted government official, who sells U.S. secrets to any foreign nation should not be punished merely as a common criminal. Rather the punishment imposed should reflect the perfidy of the individual actions, the magnitude of the treason committed, and the needs of national security." The word "any" is underlined in the original, reflecting Weinberger's belief that Pollard should not be given leniency because he spied for a friend.

Of course, there are also people who believe that Jonathan Jay Pollard received a harsh sentence because his crimes merited it. Among those is journalist Seymour Hersh who published a 1999 essay in The New Yorker called "The Traitor, The Case Against Jonathan Pollard." He wrote that U.S. "officials told me [Pollard] had done far more damage to American national security than was ever made known to the public."

However, there is an important point overlooked by Weinberger, Hersh, and the many others who call Pollard a "traitor." In the United States constitution, treason is defined as "levying war against them (the United States), or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort." Pollard never acted on behalf of an enemy of the United States.

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