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Some Lessons From the News

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This past week, the news of Jacob Ostreicher’s still unexplained surprise exit from Bolivia and the extraordinary extent of the National Security Administration’s program of spying as revealed by Edward Snowden took center stage. And there are important lessons to be learned from both developments in terms of how we should view criminal justice issues.

Mr. Ostreicher, a Jewish-American businessman, came to Bolivia to salvage his business interests there, which were substantial. He was held in a Bolivian jail for 18 months, purportedly on suspicion of having engaged in money laundering, though he was never formally charged with a crime. As it happens, several governmental and police officials, including a judge and several prosecutors, were charged with involvement in a scheme to extort wealthy foreigners and Bolivian citizens on fabricated suggestions of criminal wrongdoing.

Rather than being released after these developments, however, Mr. Ostreicher was placed under house arrest, again without any formal charges being filed against him. This went on for approximately a year until his apparently clandestine exodus last week.

Despite the apparent frame-up and the fact that Mr. Ostreicher was never criminally charged, the Bolivian government reacted angrily to the news that he had slipped out of the country. The statement of Bolivian Justice Minister Cecilia Ayllon was particularly telling. She said she didn’t know whether the U.S. government played a role in Mr. Ostreicher’s leaving Bolivia but that “His escape demonstrates that he was involved in the crimes he’s accused of.”

She added that Bolivia had alerted Interpol to the matter and was considering requesting Ostreicher’s extradition from the U.S., with which Bolivia has an extradition treaty. Left unsaid, however, was that relations between Bolivia and the U.S. have been strained since the American ambassador to Bolivia was expelled in 2008. Or that this past July, the Bolivian president, Evo Morales, threatened to break relations after he accused the U.S. of trying to persuade European governments to block his return from Russia based on the suspicion that the aforementioned fugitive National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden was on board his presidential plane.

Plainly there is a subtext to the Ostreicher matter. How high up the corruption went is still unknown, but the fact that Mr. Ostreicher was not released after those Bolivian officials were charged in that extortion scheme strongly suggests that the corruption went higher up than the officials already implicated.

In addition, the fact that the justice minister of a country of 10 million people could criticize the desperate acts of someone imprisoned for no apparent reason should tell us that we should always be wary about accepting official actions on their face. Rather, we should be sensitive to possible political dimensions or even outright venality.

The case of Jonathan Pollard comes to mind. Not in terms of his guilt or innocence but with regard to the harshness of the fate meted out to him. By any objective standard, his sentence was unique. And is anyone prepared to dismiss the notion that politics impacted the disposition of his case?

An important gloss is also provided by the latest Snowden revelations, which confirm something any student of history worth his or her salt already knew: countries spy on one another, and they do it all the time.

Notwithstanding Jonathan Pollard’s claim that he spied on the U.S. for Israel solely for altruistic reasons, it always rankled even many in the pro-Israel community that he did, after all, spy against the U.S., Israel’s only ally and greatest benefactor. Yet the rage that his case engenders in the military and intelligence communities has always seemed beyond reason, even more so now that the Snowden revelations remove even the slightest doubt that the U.S. and other countries routinely spy on each other, and in more sophisticated and effective ways than Mr. Pollard could have ever dreamed of.

Moreover, any damage Mr. Pollard was alleged to have caused was never proven in a court of law. The only thing he was convicted of was what he pleaded guilty to – the illegal transfer of governmental documents. And yet to hear some of his more ardent critics, one would think he nearly caused the downfall of the republic.

That’s why it’s so important to avoid getting carried away by the emotions of the moment and to never forget that rationality in government and individual freedom are the cornerstones of democracy.

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