More important, the mainstream groups are downplaying what Pollard did. Pollard is not just some confused, well-meaning, basically harmless spy who was railroaded by an overzealous judge. In the Jan. 18 New Yorker, Seymour Hersh assessed the damage caused by Pollard to America's national security. It is vast, arguably as much as all-star snoop Aldrich Ames did in his spying for the Soviet Union. According to Hersh, who was leaked information that had been kept secret since Pollard's arrest, Pollard not only compromised America's Middle East operations, he also gave away tons of American classified data about the Soviet Union. Pollard handed over information about how the United States tracked Soviet subs. He gave the Israelis the bible of American signals intelligence, a manual that shows exactly what foreign (that is, Soviet) signals the United States has intercepted. He gave away documents that could have helped the Soviets identify American moles. He may have even given away the United States' attack plan for a war with the U.S.S.R. This information was probably traded to the U.S.S.R. by Israel in exchange for Soviet Jewish émigrés. Pollard may have spied for a "friendly" country, but he did a traitor's work.
Pollard's supporters have reacted to these revelations with skepticism. None of the Jewish groups has reversed its support for Pollard's release. His absolutist followers smear Hersh as a fabricator. Mainstream groups, not unreasonably, question the timing of Hersh's story. For 14 years, the intelligence community has refused to release this damage assessment on the grounds that it would harm national security. The only reason to release it now is political, and national security officials shouldn't play politics. Hersh's information may be damning, they say, but it is unverifiable and irrefutable.
Pollard's supporters can cling to that excuse. Clinton has no such out. He knows whether the charges in the Hersh story are true, and that's why he's in such a quandary. Usually, Clinton finds a way to reconcile the presidential and the political. Here he cannot. If Pollard is guilty of all that Hersh charges him with, Clinton the president knows that freeing him is a terrible wrong, a slap at America's national security guardians and an invitation to our allies to spy on us. But even if Pollard is guilty of all that Hersh charges him with, Clinton the politician knows that freeing him is a political win, a present to some of his dearest supporters. There is only one way for Clinton to extricate himself from this dilemma: He can commute Pollard's sentence so that the spy can't go free until 2001. That would be the perfect Clintonian solution: Leave the mess for someone else to clean up.