Jonathan Pollard, the U.S. intelligence analyst who spied for Israel and was sentenced to life in prison, could be released as early as November when he becomes eligible for mandatory parole, according to the Justice Department. His release would eliminate a long-standing wedge in U.S.-Israel relations at a time of increased tensions between the countries over a nuclear deal with Iran.
The Justice Department said Friday that although Pollard was ordered to serve life in prison after being convicted of selling U.S. secrets to the Israeli government, the terms of his sentence require that he be released after 30 years — a date that will arrive this fall — unless the government can prove that he violated rules in prison or is likely to commit additional crimes.
In a statement, the Justice Department signaled that the government was not planning to oppose the release, noting that Pollard is “presumptively eligible for mandatory parole.”
“The Department of Justice has always and continues to maintain that Jonathan Pollard should serve his full sentence for the serious crimes he committed, which in this case is a 30-year sentence as mandated by statute,” said Marc Raimondi, a Justice Department spokesman.
The prospect of Pollard’s release is likely to be seen as a major concession by the Obama administration to Israel at a time when the White House is lobbying intensely to prevent pro-Israel groups from derailing a recently negotiated agreement with Iran over its nuclear program.
The White House rejected the suggestion that it would use Pollard’s release for political gain. National Security Council spokeswoman Alistair Baskey said Pollard’s status would be determined “according to standard procedures” of the U.S. Parole Commission and that “there is absolutely zero linkage between Mr. Pollard’s status and foreign policy considerations.”
Even so, a decision to free Pollard would resolve one of the most politically charged espionage cases of recent decades. Doing so could bolster the administration’s standing with Israel and its backers in the United States, but it also risks angering officials at the CIA, FBI and other agencies that have fought repeatedly to keep Pollard in prison.
A Jewish American who was given Israeli citizenship while in custody, Pollard was arrested in 1985 while working as a civilian analyst for the U.S. Navy and convicted of passing secret documents to the Israeli intelligence service.
Although allies, the United States and Israel have long engaged in aggressive espionage operations against one another as each tries to anticipate the other’s moves on an array of sensitive issues in the Middle East.
Pollard has said he was motivated by loyalty to the Israeli state, although he was also paid about $50,000 for the documents he provided and was in line to potentially earn far more.
He was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted on a single count of espionage in 1987. But U.S. officials said Friday that the terms of that sentence include a “mandatory parole” provision that essentially requires the United States to release him after 30 years unless the government can make the case that Pollard should remain in prison because of misconduct or a “reasonable probability” that he would offend again.
That 30-year period would be calculated from his Nov. 21, 1985, arrest date, an official said. Inmates typically request a hearing within 120 days of their potential release date, and Pollard has done so, a U.S. official said.
In fact, Pollard would have been eligible for parole after 10 years under the federal system that was in effect at the time but was abolished for later offenders. However, Pollard apparently never applied, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the case.
Despite the seemingly rigid terms of his incarceration, Pollard’s potential release has been the subject of frequent speculation because of the political dimensions of his case. Israeli groups have argued that he should be freed because the information he leaked pertained to Arab states, Pakistan and the Soviet Union, rather than to the United States. Some supporters have also claimed that he was puncturing harmful barriers on intelligence-sharing between the two allies.
But U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies have been vehemently opposed to freeing a convicted spy. The prospect of his release was first reported Friday by the Wall Street Journal.
Spokesmen for the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment on Pollard’s possible release.
Yet current and former U.S. officials said Friday that a renewed effort to release Pollard would meet resistance from spy agencies.
“Every time this has come up, people have taken strong views that if he were released it would be a hugely bad signal and undercut our counterintelligence and counterespionage efforts,” a U.S. official said. “I don’t know why that would have changed. This guy was not the good citizen that Israel makes him out to be.”
Still, the official said, the prospect of releasing Pollard is “more plausible than in years past because of the situation with the Iran deal.”
Former CIA deputy director Michael Morell said that “there would be deep concern within the national security community about an early release of Jonathan Pollard” for political purposes.
Exchanges of accused spies were carried out frequently during the Cold War, becoming an unwritten but widely accepted aspect of espionage. But “it’s not like the Israelis have an American in jail or an Israeli who spied for the United States,” Morell said. “There’s no swap here. It wouldn’t be accepted.”
In 1998, then-CIA Director George J. Tenet threatened to resign when it surfaced that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had sought to make Pollard’s release a provision of Middle East peace talks. President Bill Clinton rejected Netanyahu’s request, in part because of the threat of revolt from spy officials who already had a strained relationship with the White House.
But several former officials said the intensity of that impulse against release has dimmed somewhat.
“I’m not enthusiastic about it, but I would not raise my voice in objection,” former CIA director Michael V. Hayden said Friday. CIA officials “pushed back really hard on this in the Clinton years,” he continued, “but we’re 15 years beyond that now or more, and he has served 30.”
Hayden noted that the lighter sentences applied in more recent cases also provoked anger in the intelligence community, including a 35-year sentence for former U.S. Army Pvt. Bradley Manning, now Chelsea Manning, who leaked hundreds of thousands of classified or sensitive files to the WikiLeaks anti-secrecy organization. Manning is eligible for parole after eight years in prison, and her defenders argue that she was acting as a whistleblower.
More recently, former U.S. attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. signaled that it might make sense for the government to reach a plea agreement with former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, who leaked thousands of classified documents and has received asylum in Russia.
Clarification: This story has been updated to note that when Michael Morell said there would be “deep concern” about an early release, he was speaking of a release for political purposes, not the prospect that Pollard could be freed under a mandatory parole provision after serving a 30-year term.
Sari Horwitz, Spencer S. Hsu, Ellen Nakashima and Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.