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Jonathan Pollard Released From Federal Prison After Thirty Years

Jonathan Pollard

After spending some three decades in prison on espionage charges that have been the focus of tension between the United States and Israel, and among many Jewish Americans here in the United States, Jonathan Pollard has been freed on parole:

WASHINGTON — Jonathan J. Pollard, the American convicted of spying on behalf of Israel, walked out of prison early on Friday after 30 years, the Israeli prime minister said but the Obama administration had no plans to let him leave the country and move to Israel as he requested.

Mr. Pollard, who as a Navy intelligence analyst passed classified documents to Israeli handlers, was released from a federal prison in Butner, N.C., after receiving parole on a life sentence, ending a long imprisonment that has been a constant irritant in relations between the United States and Israel.

The prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said in a statement that the people of his nation “welcome the release” and that he, personally, “had long hoped this day would come.”

“After three long and difficult decades, Jonathan has been reunited with his family,” Mr. Netanyahu said, noting that he himself had “raised Jonathan’s case for years” with several American presidents. “May this Sabbath bring him much joy and peace that will continue in the years and decades ahead.”

The one-paragraph missive did not mention Mr. Pollard’s desire to immediately move to Israel, which would require a waiver of federal parole rules. Israel Today, a newspaper that serves as somewhat of a mouthpiece for Mr. Netanyahu, had reported Thursday that the prime minister had personally appealed to President Obama during their meeting earlier this month to lift the standard prohibition on parolees leaving the United States, but received no response.

Two Democratic lawmakers wrote to the Justice Department last weekurging Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch to grant the request, saying that Mr. Pollard would be willing to renounce his American citizenship and never return to the United States. They noted that a spy for Cuba was allowed to renounce his American citizenship and live in Cuba in 2013 after serving his sentence.

But the White House has said it would not intervene in the matter. Senior administration officials said on Thursday that the Justice Department was not considering Mr. Pollard’s request and had no plans to consider it. Administration officials have been loath to appear to grant Mr. Pollard special consideration in the face of strong opposition by intelligence agencies that call his actions a grievous betrayal of national security.

“They don’t want to make it look like they were being too lenient,” saidJoseph E. diGenova, the former United States attorney who prosecuted Mr. Pollard. If Mr. Pollard were allowed to go to Israel, where his case has been a cause célèbre for years, Mr. diGenova said there would be a “parade” and “events just rubbing it in the United States’ face.”

The Israeli news media reported that Mr. Netanyahu and supporters of Mr. Pollard were discouraging public signs of celebration at his release to avoid antagonizing Washington. Israel radio reported that he was released before dawn on Friday to keep his release as low-profile as possible, given the international attention to his case.

Supporters said it was churlish to deny Mr. Pollard the chance to leave the country now that he has completed his sentence.

“I don’t know why we wouldn’t approve that,” said Representative Eliot L. Engel of New York, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who wrote last week’s letter along with Representative Jerrold Nadler, another New York Democrat. “He served his full term. I don’t know what good it does except to keep the whole show going.”

The show has been going for three decades, as multiple governments in Jerusalem pressed for Mr. Pollard’s release only to be rebuffed by successive American presidents. The only American ever given a life sentence for spying for an ally, Mr. Pollard was granted Israeli citizenship during his imprisonment.

At one point, the Obama administration considered freeing him as part of a broader effort to induce Israel to make concessions in a peace deal with the Palestinians, but ultimately opted not to. In the end, officials said Mr. Pollard served the full amount stipulated by federal law, which requires a parole hearing after 30 years of a life sentence.

While the Obama administration did not facilitate his early release, it also chose not to object to granting him parole, but it denied that it was trying to assuage Israel after a rupture over the president’s nuclear deal with Iran. The United States Parole Commission announced in July that Mr. Pollard had met the legal standards for release.

Assuming he cannot move to Israel, Mr. Pollard plans to live in New York. His lawyer, Eliot Lauer, declined to discuss Mr. Pollard’s plans beyond Friday. “We are not making any further comment at this time until after his release,” he said.

The Pollard case has been a point of controversy and tension virtually from the time that he was arrested on espionage charges in 1985. Many of Pollard’s supporters have argued that he received far harsher treatment than some who were arrested in the same era of charges of spying for the Soviet Union and other adversaries of the United States, for example. Over the years, many have cited the fact that, at the time of Pollard’s sentencing, then Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger, argued heavily in support of a harsh sentence for Pollard even though he had ultimately plead guilty to the charges against him and arguing that the fact that Pollard was, in effect ‘spying for an ally’ should somehow justify his crimes. Indeed, as Adam Taylor noted several years ago, some Pollard supporters argue that he really didn’t break the law at all:

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 that saw the prosecution 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 that Pollard was an Israeli source in 1998 (though it has also been denied) and visiting him in prison in 2002 while he was not in office.

Even after his sentencing, though, the American defense and law enforcement communities continued to argue that the seriousness of Pollard’s offenses demanded that he stay in prison:

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.

(…)

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 a ideologue, other critics in the United States point to reports of his drug abuse and history of grandiose lies.

Additionally, many of the arguments in favor of leinancy for Pollard that have been made over the years seem to fall apart once one looks at the details of his case, and what happened to at least some of the information that he turned over to Israel.  For example, while it wasn’t widely reported at the time, it became known to the United States that the Israelis had used some of the information Pollard had provided to them to trade with the Soviet Union for the safe release of Jews living in the USSR, thus handing vital American intelligence to our principal adversary at the time. Additionally, over the years other leaders in the U.S. intelligence community made it known that Pollard had also offered to sell classified information to three other nations other than Israel, an accusation which certainly makes him a far less sympathetic figure than many of his supporters have tried to pain over the years.

Despite the seriousness of the charges against him over the years, the idea of releasing Pollard is one that has been floated several times over the years. More than a year ago, for example, there were reports that the Administration was considering granting Pollard early release as part of a broader Middle East peace deal, essentially as a way to placate Israel that would be accompanied by other measures such as increased arms sales and a broadening of the military relationship with Jerusalem. That deal never materialized, and the idea of releasing Pollard disappeared with it, but seemingly not entirely. Earlier this year, as the final details of the Iran Nuclear Deal were being negotiated in Switzerland, there were again reports that Pollard might be released early as part of a broader move to placate Israel in the wake of the announcement of a deal. It was just a few days after that report that the news came out that Pollard would be paroled as permitted under the terms of his sentence and applicable law. Apparently, the Administration could have objected to the parole, a move that could have prevented release from happening, but chose not to. Whether that decision was based on the earlier reports and the desire to placate Israel is unknown, though. In any case, in the months since his impending release was announced, and as noted above, there has been something of a movement for Pollard to be allowed to move to Israel, which would not be permitted under the terms of his parole for at least the next several years. This would apparently require the appropriate parole authorities to agree to a change in the terms of his parole, which could theoretically be administered by Israeli authorities if he moved there, but granting such requests is far from routine, and the Obama Administration has refused to intervene in the process on Pollard’s behalf, not with standing apparent requests to do just that from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyhu.

With Pollard’s crimes thirty years in the past, it is perhaps hard to understand how serious the charges against him were, how much of a threat he posed to American national security, or the damage that he did notwithstanding that he was, as his supporters often pointed out ‘spying for an ally.’ As noted above, the fact that Pollard was shopping his information around to several other countries before Israel bit makes it clear that his motives were far from the noble effort that they have been made out to be. Moreover, the fact that the at least some information he stole was given to the Soviet Union during some of the tensest moments of the Cold War seems to justify all of the concerns that Weinberger and others had about his case, and to justify the sentence that was imposed on him. Additionally, the fact that Pollard himself has never really acknowledged that what he did was wrong has always made it hard to feel sympathy for him. Taking all of that into account, though, as I said at the time Pollard’s release was announced back in July, combined with the passage of time and the fact that Pollard himself is now sixty-one years old lessens the load of seeing him go free to a large degree. Pollard isn’t going to commit espionage again, and the fact that he is apparently not in the best of health argues in favor of giving him the parole he’s entitled to. At this point, I would oppose the idea of him being allowed to move to Israel, though, both because I don’t believe he’s entitled to any extraordinary favoritism at this time and because of the fear that letting him go there would end up resulting in him being treated as some kind of hero.

Ideally, Pollard will live out the rest of his life in quiet in New York and that’s just fine with me. Whatever happens, though, let there be no mistake. Jonathan Pollard is not a hero. He is a criminal who caused real damage to his country. He does not deserved to be praised or feted by anyone regardless of his religious beliefs. He deserves to be remembered as the criminal that he is.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Mark Ivey says:

    “Ideally, Pollard will live out the rest of his life in quiet in New York”

    He needs to go to Israel and live on a kibbutz that’s within artillery range of Hezbollah for the rest of his life.

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  2. Mikey says:

    The only American ever given a life sentence for spying for an ally

    The whole “spying for an ally” thing is a red herring. It doesn’t matter because once that information gets to the ally, it is entirely out of our control and could very easily make it to an adversary. Some of our allies have much closer relationships with Russia and China than we do.

    Anyone who says “but he was spying for an ally” has no idea how international espionage actually happens.

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  3. Mu says:

    leaders in the U.S. intelligence community made it known that Pollard had also offered to sell classified information to three other nations other than Israel, an accusation which certainly makes him a far less sympathetic figure
    Of course leaders of the US intelligence community have been known for their utter adherence to the truth, to the detriment of their own goals.

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  4. Robert C says:

    Israel isn’t an ally, it is a client state.

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  5. Ron Beasley says:

    @Robert C: Agreed and a lousy client state at that. They frequently do things that are not in the best interests of the US. I still think we should cut the financial support as long as Netenyahu is in power.

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  6. al-Ameda says:

    Ideally, Pollard will live out the rest of his life in quiet in New York and that’s just fine with me. Whatever happens, though, let there be no mistake. Jonathan Pollard is not a hero. He is a criminal who caused real damage to his country. He does not deserved to be praised or feted by anyone regardless of his religious beliefs. He deserves to be remembered as the criminal that he is.

    Very good post-mortem on Pollard, Doug.
    I think Pollard would be better served by relocating to Israel. He might actually be thought of positively by many Israelis. I

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  7. Slugger says:

    There was a time when Israel enjoyed international support; outside of the Soviet bloc the Seven Days War was widely applauded. Events have eroded this support. The US has remained a bastion of support, but for some reason Netanyahu seems bent on erasing this. Bibi has meddled in American partisan politics, and it is never wise for an outsider to take sides in a family squabble. The support for this convicted spy is puzzling. I can understand quietly cheering for an operative for your side, but overt public cheering for him is clearly giving a finger to the US. This strikes me as a bad idea; Israel is not going to find many friends in the rest of the world. Bibi, your job requires that you send IDF guys to die for your country. Having this spy die in prison for his crimes would be a great service to Israel.

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  8. Ron Beasley says:

    When the Pollard thing came up I had only been out of the intelligence community for a couple of years. At the time I was all in favor of his dying in prison. Nothing has changed my attitude in the last 30 years. Now that he has been released I would not be in favor of letting him go to Israel where he will be treated like the hero he’s not.

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  9. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Supporters said it was churlish to deny Mr. Pollard the chance to leave the country now that he has completed his sentence.

    Ahem… No, he has NOT completed his sentence. By definition, a person who is on parole has gotten an early release. I heard on NPR that his lawyers are appealing the conditions of his parole, namely an ankle bracelet and conditions on his use of the internet. I have a proposal for him and his lawyers:

    If you don’t like the conditions of his parole, he can always go back to prison.

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  10. Barry says:

    @Mu: “Of course leaders of the US intelligence community have been known for their utter adherence to the truth, to the detriment of their own goals.”

    I’ve got to admit that Mu is correct. These people have a strong internal incentive to lie.

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