In a press-conference call on Tuesday, former U.N. ambassador and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, a leading figure in the release of prisoners around the world over the last 25 years, spoke about his December 10 letter to President Obama requesting Jonathan Pollard’s immediate release, and touched upon many other pidyon shevuyim cases.
In his letter, the governor wrote: “In my view, there is no longer a need for a discussion today. Virtually everyone who was in a high position of government — and dealt with the ramifications of what Pollard did at the time — now supports his release. They include Secretary of State George Schultz, FBI Director and subsequent CIA Director William Webster ….”
The letter further stated that “two people in high positions at the time have directly blamed the life sentence of Pollard on the affidavit filed in the case of Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger … One of those individuals was National Security Advisor Bud McFarlane, who said the affidavit by Weinberger manifested his ‘unbalanced views’ on Israel and caused a ‘great injustice’ to Jonathan Pollard. Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb wrote that Weinberger had a ‘visceral dislike’ of Israel, which was displayed in his affidavit in the Pollard case.”
The governor, who served in the Clinton administration and is a confidant of President Obama, said that he planned on following up on the letter by meeting with the president to discuss, among other important issues, Pollard’s release.
The session opened with a question about how the governor’s experiences in negotiating prisoner releases with dictatorships such as Iraq, North Korea and Cuba might help him in the Pollard case. The governor emphasized that his experiences have taught him that while free, Western democracies operate very differently than do repressive, autocratic governments, “what needs to happen [to secure the successful release of prisoners] is a combination of public pressure and private diplomacy. Those combinations in many cases are the roots of success.”
Commenting on Jacob Ostreicher’s return to the U.S., made public on Monday, Richardson said that “there was intensive public pressure by Jewish organizations that, I think, was very effective. There was also the State Department intervening in some of the courts in Bolivia. And then there was quiet diplomacy, [that I] and others undertook with key officials, including the Bolivian president. I remember meeting with him a year ago in New York. … but at one point Jacob said that he had a plan and he wanted us to lay off of it.” He concluded that although unfamiliar with the details, it seemed as though Mr. Ostreicher’s plan had worked.
“I remember discussions [about a pardon for Pollard] in the Clinton cabinet some 12 years ago, and that the CIA director at the time threatened to resign.” Now, said Richardson, opposition from the intelligence community is waning, and so he sees glimmers of hope in the Pollard case.
He was not so sanguine about the Alan Gross case, inasmuch as the Cuban government had been making unreasonable demands for prisoner exchanges. The Cubans want the release of a number of convicted criminals in exchange for Mr. Gross, who is not, in Mr. Richardson’s opinion, guilty of any crimes.
Rabbi Pesach Lerner, who had visited Jonathan Pollard on Sunday, expressed Mr. Pollard’s appreciation to Governor Richardson for the latter’s efforts and letter on his behalf.
When asked what his main argument to the president would be, Mr. Richardson said that he would convey to President Obama that he should pardon Pollard on humanitarian grounds: that Pollard is not in good health, that he has been punished enough, and that the release would be extremely well-received in Israel. He’d also emphasize how, as mentioned earlier, the strong opposition emanating from the intelligence community to Pollard’s release has been waning with the passage of so much time since his conviction. Mr. Richardson was hopeful that Pollard would be released before the end of 2013. If not, then “2014 will be a good year for Jonathan Pollard.”
Many U.S. administrations have come and gone since Pollard’s incarceration began. In light of the failure of efforts to secure Pollard’s release until now, the governor was pressed during the call about the reasons for his current confidence that a release is imminent. He responded that “his health [is one major factor; another is that] Obama is a very humane person.” Richardson added that he believed that increasing editorial pressure and online “chatter” on social media had now brought public opinion to a point of “critical mass” that would speed Pollard’s pardon and release.
When this correspondent asked the governor if he felt that intense public pressure sometimes backfired, that government officials responded to such pressure by intransigently digging in their heels so as not to appear weak and susceptible to outside coercion, Richardson said that although such a school of thought existed, he was firmly in the other camp. “[Some people advise journalists and captives’ families] don’t go public, don’t push the envelope. But I believe that pressure from the public most often exposes the injustices and unbalanced approaches of many of these incarcerations. It makes it an embarrassment to the governments involved to continue holding the prisoners. This cautious behind-the-scenes-only approach may be well advised when dealing with North Korea, but not with other governments.”
The conference closed with a correspondent asking Mr. Richardson if he thought that foreign governments and individuals see particular benefit in kidnapping or incarcerating Jews. The governor conceded that, unfortunately, this was probably so. “I was involved in the Ron Arad case and others. In the Middle East, Israelis and Jews are definitely seen as ‘prizes.’ Holding such prisoners brings tremendous pressure to bear not only on Israel, but on its closest ally, the United States. Sadly, there’s a disproportionate frequency of these cases involving Israelis and Jews.”