Jonathan Pollard, a former U.S. Navy analyst who spied for Israel, walked out of a North Carolina prison before dawn Friday, ending one of the thorniest points of friction between the United States and its close ally.
Pollard, 61, was freed on parole almost 30 years to the day after he was arrested when he was turned out of the Israeli Embassy, where he and his wife, Anne, had sought asylum after coming under suspicion for passing classified information.
Pollard’s attorney said he has a job in the finance department of an investment firm and a residence waiting in New York. Israeli media reported that Pollard and his second wife, Esther, whom he married 20 years ago while in prison, were on their way there.
Esther Pollard released a photo of the two of them, with him sitting and her standing behind him leaning on his shoulders. He is bald with a white beard and fluffy tufts of white hair around his ears.
The Pollard saga has at least one more chapter to play out. He was granted Israeli citizenship while he was in prison. Two U.S. lawmakers have said he is ready to renounce his U.S. citizenship so he can move to Israel, where his wife lives.
But one condition of his parole is that he cannot leave the United States for five years. His many supporters in Israel and the United States have vowed to continue fighting for U.S. permission for him to leave.
His attorneys filed suit Friday in federal court challenging the terms of his parole, particularly the requirement that he wear a GPS-equipped ankle bracelet and restrictions on his Internet use. Their filing included declarations from Robert “Bud” McFarlane, a national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, and former senator Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), who was on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Both said the information Pollard obtained three decades ago has no value today.
Although Pollard was branded a traitor in the United States, many in Israel considered him a Jewish American hero who acted out of conviction to protect the Jewish state.
The reaction in Israel, where leaders have lobbied a succession of U.S. administrations for his release, was welcoming to the man who passed to his Israeli handler classified information that included satellite photos of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s headquarters in Tunis, which Israel later used to guide airstrikes on the Tunisian capital.
Pollard peaded guilty in 1987 to one count of providing defense information to a foreign government and was sentenced to life in prison.
“After three long and difficult decades, Jonathan has been reunited with his family,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday in a statement. He has reportedly ordered his cabinet ministers to tamp down their enthusiasm and not talk publicly about Pollard to avoided irritating President Obama while seeking permission for Pollard to come to Israel.
“May this Sabbath bring him much joy and peace that will continue in the years and decades ahead. As someone who raised Jonathan’s case for years with successive American presidents, I had long hoped this day would come,” said Netanyahu, who brought up the issue of Pollard’s release most recently with Obama last week in Washington.
Efi Lahav, head of the Free Jonathan Pollard Campaign, said that “it was a special and dramatic day, bringing to an end 30 years of pain and hurt while he sat in jail.”
Pollard’s release was pushed up a few hours, apparently to avoid a media onslaught. Israeli media reported that Pollard was to be freed at 6 a.m., but the release came two hours earlier.
Lahav said Esther Pollard messaged her husband’s supporters to let them know that he was free.
“He is now in a better place, free and safe, with his wife. He is happy,” Lahav said.
Pollard is required to get permission from his probation officer before he leaves the district where he resides, and his access to the Internet — which was not around when he was arrested — is limited.
“He is a free man, but there are so many conditions that have been placed on his release that it hurts his freedom,” said Israeli parliamentarian Nachman Shai, head of a Knesset caucus that pushed for Pollard’s release.
Pollard’s ex-wife, Anne, told Army Radio in Israel that she has “been waiting for this day for 30 long years. It’s unbelievable. It’s an amazing moment.”
Anne Pollard was sentenced to five years for her role in the espionage but was granted early release in 1989.
According to unconfirmed accounts over the years, Jonathan Pollard was never recruited as a spy; he volunteered. The Jerusalem Post recently reported that when Pollard was 16, he attended a summer camp in Israel and asked to become a spy. Even as a high school student in Indiana and while in college, he boasted of being a colonel in the Israeli army. He later told colleagues he had been “cultivated” by the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, to spy on the United States.
In 1984, he was introduced to an Israeli military officer on sabbatical in New York and stated his desire to serve Israel. Soon he was assigned a case officer and began providing documents stolen from the Naval Intelligence Center for Counter Terrorism in Maryland, where he worked. Among them were documents related to Arab troops, the PLO and chemical and biological warfare programs conducted by Iraq, Libya and Syria.
Although Pollard said he acted out of loyalty to Israel, it was disclosed during his trial that Israel paid him about $50,000 — and even bought a diamond ring that he gave to the woman who became his first wife.
The full scope of his activities has never been disclosed, but then-Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger wrote a letter to the presiding judge describing Pollard as one of the most damaging spies who ever operated in the United States.
Israel initially denied that Pollard was working for it, saying he had been involved with “rogue” officials. But it granted him citizenship in 1995 and acknowledged two years later that he had been its agent.
Supporters, arguing that his sentence was unduly harsh, campaigned heavily for his release. But officials at the CIA, the FBI and other agencies objected vociferously.
Eglash reported from Jerusalem.