Will Mitt Romney Pardon Jonathan Pollard?

Jonathan Pollard spied on America for Israel. Mitt Romney needs to answer whether he'll let Pollard go free and what the U.S. would get out of the deal.

Jonathan Pollard was a spy, and is a traitor to this country. The government proved it. He admits it. In another era, perhaps, such a designation might’ve led to his execution. Instead, he’s spent most of the last three decades deep behind bars, with the prospect of never again leaving prison except in a coffin. Under most circumstances, that’s where Americans would be content to leave things.

But Jonathan Pollard isn’t any old traitor. He spied for Israel. An ally. And Israel wants Pollard out of prison.

So Pollard—uniquely among all the spies in American history—has a long list of VIPs who have urged his release, among them a former CIA director, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, and a former assistant defense secretary. If all this seems a little weird, well, it is. Somewhere, Benedict Arnold is wishing he’d survived to see the U.S. and Great Britain develop their “special relationship.”

And it raises a question that Mitt Romney should answer during this campaign season: If elected president, would he pardon Jonathan Pollard?

That’s not an outlandish or unfair question: Back in December Romney reportedly said he was “open to examining” whether Pollard should be freed. Since Romney has based his campaign for president, in part, on the idea that President Obama is insufficiently proud and protective of America—and that Romney would be a much better friend to Israel, in particular—it shouldn’t be hard for him to answer yes or no: Would he let an admitted spy walk?

A quick recap of Pollard’s case: He was a naval intelligence analyst in 1985 when authorities discovered he’d been removing massive amounts of classified material from his work premises—they eventually discovered 70-pound suitcase full of documents hidden away. He pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to deliver national defense information to a foreign government and was sentenced to life in prison. During his time behind bars, Pollard even became an Israeli citizen.

That’s usually where the story ends. Nobody expects notorious spies like CIA mole Aldrich Ames or the FBI’s Robert Hanssen, for example, to ever leave federal custody; Bradley Manning hasn’t even been convicted of leaking America’s secrets to WikiLeaks, and he’s already been punished considerably. Certainly, none of those men have an army of high-ranking former U.S. officials pleading for their release, and Romney would be crazy to suggest that he’s “open to examining” clemency for any one of them.

It’s hard to think of a good reason why Pollard should go free.

All of this is complicated, of course, by the fact that it’s Israel we’re talking about here. It’s pretty easy for Pollard’s critics to veer dangerously close to old anti-Semitic tropes involving “dual loyalty”—and, indeed, the case appears to be a popular topic on a certain neo-Nazi website; it’s also really easy for Pollard’s defenders to suggest that anti-Semitism is behind his continued incarceration. It’s an ugly fight that often does precious little to illuminate the issues at stake.

Just so there’s no misunderstanding: There are good reasons that the U.S. and Israel are so closely allied. Israel has long been the most democratic nation the region—and yes, that democracy is often imperfect, often painfully so. If the United States should be using more “tough love” in that friendship than it does, well, that doesn’t mean the friendship itself is wrong.

But Israel doesn’t always make that friendship easy. Pollard, it seems, wasn’t the last Israeli to spy on America. An Associated Press story over the weekend revealed that the CIA “believes that U.S. national secrets are safer from other Middle Eastern governments than from Israel” and views Israel as the No. 1 counterintelligence threat in the region.

If that’s still the case, more than a quarter-century after Pollard was caught, then what’s the point of rewarding Israel with his release? And why would other spies be deterred from betraying the United States if they know that, in the end, they’ll probably be released from prison anyway?

In other words: What would the U.S. gain from releasing Pollard?

These are questions that Mitt Romney should, sooner or later, answer publicly on the campaign trail. If he’s “open” to Pollard’s release, then he owes the American public an explanation of his thinking and criteria for decision-making, a description of what America would gain, or why Pollard’s case is different from other high-profile spy cases.

Maybe there’s a good case. But we won’t really know unless Romney makes it. Until then, Jonathan Pollard should stay in prison.