U.S. Considering Releasing Jonathan Pollard?
Reports are circulating that the Obama Administration is considering releasing Jonathan Pollard, and many are seeing it as an effort to placate Israel in the wake of the Iran deal.
The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the United States is considering releasing Jonathan Pollard, who was convicted of spying for Israel in the 1980s and sentenced to life in prison and whose fate has long been a point of contention between the United States and Israel:
The Obama administration is preparing to release convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollardfrom prison, according to U.S. officials, some of whom hope the move will smooth relations with Israel in the wake of the Iran nuclear deal.
Such a decision would end a decadeslong fight over Mr. Pollard, who was arrested on charges of spying for Israel in 1985 and later sentenced to life in prison. The case has long been a source of tension between the U.S. and Israel, which has argued that a life sentence for spying on behalf of a close U.S. partner is too harsh. Israel has for years sought Mr. Pollard’s early release, only to be rejected by the U.S.
Now, some U.S. officials are pushing for Mr. Pollard’s release in a matter of weeks. Others expect it could take months, possibly until his parole consideration date in November.
A parole hearing for Mr. Pollard was held in early July. Mr. Pollard’s lawyer, Eliot Lauer, said he hasn’t heard from the parole commission “and I would expect that either I or my client would be the ones who would be notified.” That hearing would have been the moment for the U.S. to object to Mr. Pollard’s pending release. Mr. Lauer wouldn’t say if the government raised objections.
Some U.S. officials strongly denied Friday there was any link between the Iran deal and Mr. Pollard’s prospective release, saying that any decision would be made by the U.S. Parole Commission.
A White House spokesman referred questions to the Justice Department, where a spokesman declined to comment on a matter which may be before the Parole Commission.
Mark Regev, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, declined to comment.
Mr. Pollard, 60 years old, was a civilian analyst with the U.S. Navy when he was arrested for passing secret documents to Israel. He eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life.
Under sentencing laws at the time he was convicted, Mr. Pollard has to be considered for parole after 30 years, though that doesn’t mean he has to be granted parole. The Bureau of Prisons website currently lists his possible release date as Nov. 21, which is the date the federal parole commission is slated to consider whether to end his sentence.
Last year, President Barack Obama told an Israeli interviewer: “I have no plans for releasing Jonathan Pollard immediately, but what I am going to be doing is to make sure that he, like every other American who’s been sentenced, is accorded the same kinds of review and the same examination of the equities that any other individual would provide.”
To get out before November would require unusual intervention. In the federal prison system, often the easiest way to free an inmate early is to cite deteriorating health. Mr. Pollard’s supporters say he is suffering from a host of medical ailments that should qualify him for mercy.
The U.S. has considered releasing him before but always backed away from such a move, largely because of opposition from senior leaders at the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Justice Department. When he was sentenced, then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger said it was hard to imagine “a greater harm to national security than that caused by” Mr. Pollard.
It is possible that such opposition could again scuttle any release, but it appears his chances of winning freedom are better now than they have ever been, U.S. officials said. Some U.S. officials said they expect he will be a free man before the year is over.
Mr. Netanyahu has personally pressed for years to get the U.S. to release Mr. Pollard, who is currently serving time in a federal prison in Butner, N.C.
Discord between Israel and the U.S., over the recent failed Middle East peace initiative and how to handle Iran, has taken the relationship between the two allies to new lows. Mr. Netanyahu has been a leading opponent of the deal struck between Tehran and six world powers to curb Iran’s nuclear program.
When U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter visited Israel earlier this week, after the nuclear deal was concluded, the two governments disagreed over how the two should deliver public remarks. Secretary of State John Kerry has announced a trip early next month to the region, but so far hasn’t included Israel as one of his stops.
The fate of Mr. Pollard is close to a national obsession in Israel, where he has become a cause célèbre.
“I can only say that like all of Israel I will be very happy if he is released,” said Noam Shalit, father of former Hamas hostage Gilad Shalit, and a public supporter of Mr. Pollard. “I can’t speak to international relations…But on the human level, I’d say it’s about time.”
When this story first broke yesterday afternoon, the natural conclusion that many observers jumped to is that Pollard’s release was being floated as part of an initiative to curry favor with Israelis upset over the nuclear deal with Iran and, possibly, convince the Netanyahu government to not be as aggressive as it otherwise might be in lobbying against the deal in Congress. If that’s why Pollard’s release is being floated then it strikes me that it’s probably something that’s likely to backfire unless its accompanied by other moves to placate the Israelis. The fact that pretty much everyone assumed that releasing Pollard would be tied to the Iran deal somehow makes it rather obvious that the Israelis would reach this conclusion too, so it’s unclear exactly what the Federal Government thinks it might be accomplishing here at least in its relationship with the Israeli Government.
As for Pollard himself, I’m rather ambivalent on his fate. From the beginning, I have had no problem at all with the fact that he was sentenced to life in prison for the crimes he committed. The fact that he was “spying for an ally,” which is the excuse that many of his supporters here the in the United States have used over the years, is rather irrelevant. He broke the law, and according to the evidence that was presented by intelligence officials and the Defense Department, the information he provided compromised American operations and agents in several parts of the Middle East. The fact that he likely could have avoided this sentence if he had accepted the government’s plea offer those many years ago, makes me even less inclined to feel sympathy for him. At the same time, if he truly is in failing health and has not caused problems in prison, then perhaps it would be appropriate to consider parole at this point. The problem comes if his release is seen as some kind political payoff to Israel because of the Iran deal. If that’s what’s going on, and if he would not be released if it weren’t for the current political circumstances, then he should stay in prison.