The Cable

Pollard to Be Released After 30 Years in Prison

Long a source of tension between Washington and Jerusalem, the convicted Israeli spy will be freed in November.

An Israeli youth demonstrator holds a picture and an effigy of Jonathan Pollard, a Jewish American who was jailed for life in 1987 on charges of spying on the United States, during a protest calling for his release in front of the American consulate in Jerusalem on July 11, 2011. Pollard is a convicted Israeli spy and a former United States Naval civilian intelligence analyst who received a life sentence in the mid 1980s. AFP PHOTO/MENAHEM KAHANA (Photo credit should read MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)
An Israeli youth demonstrator holds a picture and an effigy of Jonathan Pollard, a Jewish American who was jailed for life in 1987 on charges of spying on the United States, during a protest calling for his release in front of the American consulate in Jerusalem on July 11, 2011. Pollard is a convicted Israeli spy and a former United States Naval civilian intelligence analyst who received a life sentence in the mid 1980s. AFP PHOTO/MENAHEM KAHANA (Photo credit should read MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

Capping a decades-long dispute between two close allies, the United States is preparing to release convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard later this year.

Pollard, imprisoned since 1985 for passing classified information to Israel, had received a life sentence in 1987 that made him eligible for mandatory parole after 30 years. Counting time served, that allows for his release this winter. U.S. and Israeli officials said Pollard would be freed on Nov. 21.

In an interview with Foreign Policy, Eliot Lauer, one of Pollard’s attorneys, said he hoped the parole board’s decision would eventually clear the way for Pollard to move to Israel.

“We’re absolutely thrilled that Jonathan, after almost 30 years, will be reunited with his wife and able to resume his life,” Lauer said. “We are extremely, extremely grateful and gratified that his request for parole was granted.”

Lauer said he had asked President Barack Obama to use his clemency authority to release Pollard before Nov. 21 and to ensure that there were no travel restrictions barring him from leaving the country. Pollard’s wife, Esther, lives in Israel. But in a statement Tuesday night, White House spokesman Alistair Baskey seemed to close the door on that eventuality. “The president has no intention of altering the terms of Mr. Pollard’s parole,” Baskey said.

To prevent Pollard from being freed on parole, the government would have effectively had to make a case that his release would lead to him committing new crimes in the future. In a statement Tuesday, a senior intelligence official said “the relevant agencies were queried whether they could articulate how a release would lead to additional criminal acts and none were presented.”

The parole board decision brings an end to a long-running dispute that has pitted successive American administrations against successive Israeli governments — and at times pitted one faction of U.S. officials against another. In one particularly striking incident, former CIA chief George Tenet threatened to resign when then-President Bill Clinton considered freeing Pollard in October 1998.

At issue is the fate of a man that many Israelis see as a hero but that many in the U.S. intelligence community see as a traitor. Pollard was a civilian analyst for the U.S. Navy when he, in 1984 and 1985, removed many classified documents from his office and made copies of them, which he handed to Israeli intelligence operatives.

Pollard and his defenders have long maintained that he was acting out of a firm conviction that the documents should already have been shared with Israel, one of Washington’s closest allies. But federal prosecutors painted a far less idealistic portrait of Pollard’s actions: They say that he earned roughly $50,000 for the purloined documents and expected to eventually earn millions more from Israel. A judge agreed, handing Pollard a sentence that struck some observers as unusually harsh given that he was spying for Israel and not an enemy power.

Pollard’s case has been a source of tension between Washington and Jerusalem since the 1980s, with multiple Israeli leaders pressing for his release. A series of American administrations, meanwhile, have considered freeing Pollard to spur Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians or to restart the moribund peace process between the two sides.

In an op-ed last year, Dennis Ross, long a top U.S. Mideast negotiator, said that Pollard’s fate was raised by every Israeli prime minister he worked with. “We may view him as a spy; Israelis view him differently,” Ross wrote. “He has taken on the aura of being a soldier who was left in the field, and the ethos in Israel is that soldiers are never left behind.”

In Israel, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked — who broke the news of Pollard’s release on her official Twitter account — said that she hoped he would soon be allowed to move to the Jewish state. According to the Jerusalem Post, Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel said that he wanted to “bless Jonathan and his family on his upcoming release,” adding that “I am waiting with love for him to land here.”

To many in the U.S. intelligence community, by contrast, Pollard has long been seen as a traitor whose actions did grave damage to American national security. In an interview, former CIA and NSA chief Michael Hayden said he expected that “there will be little enthusiasm in the intelligence community for this.”

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who has fiercely opposed freeing Pollard, took to Twitter with a blunt response to news of the spy’s upcoming release: “Spying ought not to be rewarded.”

Other current and former U.S. spies took a more nuanced view of the case. A retired intelligence agency director, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said he was “less concerned about [Pollard’s release] now than I was say, five years or more ago.”

“30 years is an appropriately long time for a very serious offense,” the former official said. “He’s an old man now. The counter-intelligence effect, if you will, has been served.”

The timing of the announcement about Pollard’s pending release will likely raise eyebrows in both Washington and Jerusalem because it comes just as Israel is ramping up its efforts to persuade American lawmakers to block the Obama administration’s landmark nuclear deal with Iran.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that U.S. officials were trying to have him released earlier than November in the hope of placating the Israeli government, something denied by multiple administration spokespeople.

Baskey denied any link between Pollard’s coming release and the nuclear deal. “Pollard’s status was determined by the United States Parole Commission according to standard procedures, and the Parole Commission’s decision was in no way linked to foreign policy considerations,” he said.

Photo credit: MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images

Seán D. Naylor is the author of Relentless Strike – The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command. Twitter: @seandnaylor

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