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Now's Really the Time for President Obama to Grant Clemency to Jonathan Pollard

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This week, a group of Americans and Israelis are visiting South Florida, quietly asking the assistance of public officials, influential citizens and religious leaders here to help gain the release of Jonathan Pollard, a civilian intelligence analyst and American Jew sentenced to life in 1986 for passing classified intelligence information to Israel.

Pollard is the only person in U.S. history to receive a life sentence for disclosing classified information to a U.S. ally. He has spent over 26 years in incarceration (seven of which were spent in solitary confinement) and has expressed remorse for his crimes.

The effort to get Pollard pardoned, or his sentence at least reduced, has been ongoing for many years by a diverse group of prominent political, religious, and civil Jewish-American leaders and the Israeli government itself. The movement to gain clemency for Pollard has recently gained more momentum as his physical condition deteriorates.

Many members of Congress of both parties and other former and current high-ranking government officials have recently called on President Obama to set him free. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also personally asked Obama to release Pollard.

Since his arrest, Pollard's case has always been a contentious and painful matter for the American Jewish community and a controversial topic that has continuously strained relations between the American and Israeli governments.

Revelation of Pollard's activities bared the darker side of illegal Israeli intelligence gathering in the United States, and significantly hurt relations between the countries. To the dismay of many American Jewish leaders, Pollard's claims that he spied as part of his loyalty as a Jew to Israel also presented a disturbing illicit aspect of a powerful duel loyalty of many American Jews in their support of the Israeli state. At the time of his arrest and conviction, the spying affair fueled anti-Semitism in the US and invited suspicion of an embarrassed American Jewish community.

Agreeing to cooperate with government investigators in return for a lighter sentence, Pollard pled guilty in June 1986 in federal court to one count of conspiracy to deliver national defense information to a foreign government. Awaiting sentencing, Pollard and his wife violated a non-disclosure provision of the plea agreement, giving several interviews to the press. As a result, it galvanized leaders of an already angry American intelligence community to seek the harshest sentence against Pollard.

If this matter were solely about the spying for an enemy, a valid national security argument in 2012 for his continued incarceration, and eventual death in prison, can somewhat be made in strictly in terms of damage to national security interests.

While Pollard sought to couch his actions in terms of his allegiance to Israel, there was plenty proof that he sold classified secrets to other friendly countries as well. Many in the intelligence community continue to passionately insist that his spying had significant consequences and costs. Their obsession that he die in prison could be summed up by Vice President Biden recently having said that it would be "over my dead body" that Pollard received clemency.

But it's much more than that.

There's now a very credible humanitarian argument in terms of Pollard's deteriorating health that supplements the strong legal case against the severity of his sentence, which, 30 years later, is still extreme in comparison to similar spy cases involving friendly countries. A dying Pollard has more than paid for his crime.

But also, there's that lingering taint left by the Pollard affair on both the American Jewish community and the ongoing relationship between Israel and the United States.

President Obama should commute Pollard's sentence to time served. Such action would not only be in the interests of justice, but also heal the upset caused by the affair and bring to a close a chapter that needs to be over and done with in American-Israeli relations -- particularly now when Israel could use a renewed sign of support of faith and friendship as it faces the greatest threat to the nation's existence ever in its short history.

This column appeared in the Sun Sentinel on February 16, 2012. Follow Steven Kurlander on Facebook and Twitter at @kurlykomments and via his blog Kurly's Kommentary. Email him at kurly@stevenkurlander.com.

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