WASHINGTON—Jonathan Pollard, the former Navy intelligence analyst whose conviction of spying for Israel stoked fierce international passions, has been granted parole and will be released from prison in November after nearly 30 years.
The decision to free Pollard from his life sentence, announced Tuesday by his lawyers and then confirmed by the Justice Department, caps an extraordinary espionage case that spurred decades of legal and diplomatic wrangling. Critics have condemned the American as a traitor who betrayed his country for money and disclosed damaging secrets, while supporters have argued that he was punished excessively given that he spied for a U.S. ally.
Pollard is due to be released on Nov. 21, three decades after he was arrested while trying to gain asylum at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. Though American Jews have wrestled with how much leniency he should get, Israelis have long campaigned for his freedom. The government there has recognized him as an Israeli agent and granted him citizenship, even as recent American presidents have resisted efforts to free him early.
“We are looking forward to his release,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement Tuesday.
White House officials strongly denied that the release was in any way tied to the nuclear deal recently reached with Iran, or that it was intended as a concession to Israel. Secretary of State John Kerry, who testified before Congress on the nuclear deal on Tuesday, told reporters Pollard’s parole was “not at all” connected. And Israeli officials have said that while they would welcome the release, it would not ease their opposition to the Iran agreement.
The U.S. had previously dangled the prospect of his release, including during Israel-Palestinian talks last year, when the Obama administration considered the possibility of freeing Pollard early as part of a package of incentives to keep Israel at the negotiating table. As it turned out, the peace effort collapsed and nothing came of the proposal.
The Justice Department, for its part, noted that federal sentencing rules in place at the time of Pollard’s prosecution entitled him to parole after serving 30 years of his life sentence. Department lawyers did not contest his parole bid, which was granted following a hearing this month before the U.S. Parole Commission that took into account Pollard’s behavior in prison and whether he was likely to commit new crimes if released.
Though parolees are required for five years after their release to get government permission for foreign travel, Pollard’s lawyers say they intend to ask President Barack Obama to grant him clemency as well as authority to leave the United States and move to Israel immediately.
Said Netanyahu, in Israel, “Throughout his time in prison, I consistently raised the issue of his release in my meetings and conversations with the leadership of successive U.S. administrations.”
“Immense joy,” Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked wrote on her Facebook page in Hebrew, adding that “thirty years of suffering will come to an end this November.”
She echoed statements of American officials in saying that he was being released because of the justice system and not because of the Iran deal.
Pollard, 60, has faced health problems in recent years. He is being held in the federal prison in Butner, North Carolina, and his lawyers said they have secured housing and a job for him in New York once he is released. They said he was “looking forward to being reunited with his beloved wife, Esther.”
The Pollard prosecution represented one of the most sensational and divisive spy cases in recent American history. His supporters maintain that he provided information critical to Israel’s security interests at a time when the country was under threat from its Middle East neighbors, but prosecutors and many in the U.S. intelligence community have long maintained that his disclosure of voluminous classified documents constituted a criminal breach on par with that of America’s most infamous spies.
The U.S. has said Pollard provided reams of sensitive and classified information to Israel, including about radar-jamming techniques and the electronic capabilities of nations hostile to Israel, including Saudi Arabia.
A court statement from then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger said Pollard did “irrevocable” damage to the U.S. and had provided the Israelis with many U.S. classified publications and classified messages and cables. Portions of the Weinberger document that have been declassified state that Pollard admitted passing to his Israeli contacts “an incredibly large quantity of classified documents” and that U.S. troops could be endangered because of the theft.
“He took an oath to support the Constitution of the United States, and he failed it,” said M.E. “Spike” Bowman, the director of Naval Intelligence at the time of Pollard’s arrest. “The fact that he gave it to an ally, that makes absolutely no difference to me. I’m glad that it was an ally rather than the Russians, but what he did makes absolutely no difference.”
Eliot Lauer, one of Pollard’s lawyers, rejected that assessment, saying his client “loves this country” and “never intended to do anything to harm the United States.”
“We are grateful and delighted that our client will be released soon,” said a statement from Pollard’s lawyers, Lauer and Jacques Semmelman.