Jonathan Pollard: Why Israel wants him free, why the U.S. doesn’t, and what might happen next

FILE - This May 15, 1998 file photo shows Jonathan Pollard speaking during an interview in a conference room at the Federal Correction Institution in Butner, N.C. An AP source says: the US is talking with Israel about early release of Pollard for concessions. (AP Photo/Karl DeBlaker, File)
This May 15, 1998, file photo shows Jonathan Pollard speaking during an interview in a conference room at the Federal Correction Institution in Butner, N.C.  (AP Photo/Karl DeBlaker, File)

The Obama administration is reportedly considering freeing spy Jonathan Pollard in return for concessions from the Israeli government.

If it happens, it certainly would be a bold move. The release of Pollard, who was arrested in November 1985 after passing secret documents to Israel while working as a civilian analyst for the U.S. Navy, would mark a reversal of decades of official U.S. policy.

It could also, however, be a key step forward for Middle East peace negotiations.

Why is Israel so keen to have Pollard released? And why would the United States change its mind now?

Pollard's case is a remarkable one for many reasons. A Jewish American, Pollard is reported to have felt an extreme loyalty to the Israeli state. He was working as a research analyst at the Navy’s Field Operations Intelligence Office, specifically the Threat Analysis Division in the office’s Anti-Terrorist Alert Center, when he was recruited by Israel in the summer of 1984.

According to an Associated Press report from the time, Pollard was paid around $50,000 for his leaks, and he expected to eventually earn more than 10 times that amount. His leaks eventually caught the attention of colleagues, who notified the FBI, and he was arrested while trying to request asylum at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. (His attempts were rebuffed.)

Pollard was sentenced to life for one count of espionage in 1987.

Why Israel wants him free

To his supporters in Israel and those elsewhere, there are a number of key factors in the case that support releasing Pollard. For one thing, while Pollard has admitted he handed over a huge amount of documents to Israel, he has argued that he did it out of an idealistic loyalty to Israel (an American ally, of course), not malice, and that the information was about Arab states, Pakistan and the Soviet Union, not the United States.

A Web site dedicated to documenting his case for supporters argues that Pollard was simply breaking past an informal embargo that some U.S. officials had put on sharing intelligence with Israel. Another argument was made in a recent legal analysis published in the Jerusalem Post that found Pollard's sentencing was too harsh, pointing out that Pollard had cooperated with the investigation and accepted a plea deal in which the prosecution did not ask for a life sentence. (The judge in the case ordered it anyway.) Mordechai Kremnitzer, a vice president of research at the Israel Democracy Institute, also pointed out that other Americans convicted of spying had received far more lenient sentences.

For some Israelis, the idea that a Jewish American could be sentenced so harshly for service to Israel is horrifying, and there have been a number of campaigns to free Pollard. Pollard was granted Israeli citizenship in 1995 after a request from his lawyer, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has played a specific role in support for Pollard, admitting in 1998 that Pollard was an Israeli source (though it has also been denied) and visiting him in prison in 2002 while Netanyahu was not in office.

Why the U.S. doesn't want him free

Many in the U.S. intelligence community feel strongly that Pollard should not be released: In 1998, George J. Tenet, then director of the CIA, apparently scuppered a deal with Israel on Pollard by threatening to resign if the spy went free.

There have been a number of arguments that Pollard's spying was actually far more damaging than others care to admit. For example, in 1999 Seymour Hersh wrote an article for the New Yorker that argued Pollard's information may have ended up with the Soviet Union. Hersh spoke to experts who said the information was used:

... in exchange for continued Soviet permission for Jews to emigrate to Israel. Other officials go further, and say that there was reason to believe that secret information was exchanged for Jews working in highly sensitive positions in the Soviet Union. A significant percentage of Pollard’s documents, including some that described the techniques the American Navy used to track Soviet submarines around the world, was of practical importance to the Soviet Union.

In an op-ed for The Washington Post written in 1998, former past directors of naval intelligence, William Studeman, Sumner Shapiro, John L. Butts and Thomas Brooks, argued that as Pollard's case never went to trial (due to his plea deal), it never became public that Pollard "offered classified information to three other countries before working for the Israelis and that he offered his services to a fourth country while he was spying for Israel." The op-ed also argued that the "sheer volume" of documents passed on by Pollard was almost unrivaled, and his support was only due to a "clever public relations campaign."

Even now, while his supporters portray Pollard as an ideologue, other critics in the United States point to reports of his drug abuse and history of grandiose lies. A year ago, Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal minced no words when he argued that Pollard's release is, in fact, not in Israel's interests:

It does not help Israel to make a hero of a compulsive liar and braggart, fond of cocaine, who violated his oaths, spied on his country, inflicted damage that took billions of dollars to repair, accepted payment for his spying, jeopardized Israel's relationship with its closest ally, failed to show remorse at the time of his sentencing, made himself into Exhibit A of every anti-Semitic conspiracy nut, and then had the chutzpah to call himself a martyr to the Jewish people.

What's happening now (and what might happen next)

Over the past few years, the Israeli campaign to release Pollard has gained momentum, with Netanyahu expressing official support, a number of petitions, and protests outside the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv. President Obama has so far refused to contemplate releasing Pollard and has refused to grant him leave for family emergencies. "As the president," Obama told Israeli television before visiting the country last year, "my first obligation is to observe the law here in the United States and to make sure that it's applied consistently."

However, there have been some signs of a shifting position on Pollard, who is now 59 and said to be in poor health. Some people you might not expect, such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz), have publicly called for his release. His situation has been complicated by the leaks of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, the latter of whom provided a document that reportedly revealed the NSA may have targeted Netanyahu himself.

The biggest factor now, however, is the Middle East peace process that Secretary of State John F. Kerry launched eight months ago. The hope appears to be that if the United States agreed to released Pollard, Israel might agree to release some of a large number of Palestinian prisoners or impose a moratorium on new building in disputed territories, key sticking points for the Palestinian negotiators.

Such a move -- the release of a criminal charged in American courts in exchange for concessions from another country -- would be exceptional for the United States, and it likely reflects a moment of crisis in the talks. There is another factor to keep in mind, however: currently Pollard will be eligible for release in November 2015, as he will have served 30 years of his sentence.

See also: A small selection of the very negative things U.S. officials have said about Jonathan Pollard

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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