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.

Jonathan Pollard

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.

FILED UNDER: Crime, Intelligence, Law and the Courts, Middle East, National Security, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held 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 contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Ron Beasley says:

    Pollard was not spying for any ally but a dependent client state. Israel was never an ally but more often than not a thorn in the side.

  2. James Joyner says:

    My understanding is that, although federal parole was abolished a couple years after Pollard’s sentencing, the November 2015 parole was essentially automatic at the time of said sentencing. Barring major violation of prison rules or proof that he’s a continued danger to society going forward, this was an automatic action that has nothing to do with the Iran deal or the administration in the White House.

  3. michael reynolds says:

    @James Joyner:

    This is the best outcome, for us to be able to plausibly say it’s an automatic, apolitical thing, but for conspiracy-minded Israelis to believe Bibi somehow twisted the right arms and got him released. Bibi can claim credit and that, along with destroying a west bank village or two, may pacify Likudniks for a while. Bibi gets to play hero in a way that does not involve the US Air Force having to blow up Iran.

  4. @James Joyner:

    Yea, I’ve been confused about that November date mostly because it’s seemed as though every article I’ve read says something different. Ultimately, parole is almost always discretionary but, like you said, if he hasn’t violated any rules and would otherwise be eligible for release then I don’t see any reason why he shouldn’t be released. The reports about his health just add to that.

    I’d be be a bit concerned about the perception that it ended up being some kind of quid pro quo related to the Iran deal, but I suppose that’s unavoidable in any case.

  5. Jack says:

    Obama releasing Pollard = reach around for Isreal

  6. Robert C says:

    When will Isreal placate the U.S. …on anything?

  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    No matter what happens, those with an axe to grind will find a whet wheel to do it with.

  8. gVOR08 says:

    a close U.S. partner

    I give up, what have they done for us?

    If this isn’t completely automatic, I hope we’re getting something more specific than good will, like promises their ambassador and AIPAC related organizations will STFU about Iran.

  9. JohnMcC says:

    I agree with the Original Post that Mr Pollard should absolutely not be paroled as part of an agreement involving the Iran Nuclear Agreement. If he is in other respects eligible it should be granted.

    But if I had anything to do with it, it would be a very closely supervised parole and the Israeli gov’t should be made aware that if they allowed him to move to Israel or make contact with their gov’t there would be very very serious consequences.

    I’d personally find it damn near intolerable if he ever got a ticker tape parade through TelAviv.

  10. Jeremy R says:

    U.S. officials

    I really hate the background attribution “U.S. officials”. IMO most readers take it as members of the administration when it’s been used to refer to anyone from legislators to military higher-ups. I’d almost rather they go with the awful “Washington insider.”

  11. de stijl says:


    I give up, what have they done for us?

    Likud is not a good political or strategic partner, but everything I’ve heard says that in intelligence sharing and coordination, the IDF and Israel’s intelligence services are reliable partners.

    Although, what intelligence gets shared may have become more politicized since the rise of Bibi.

  12. Argon says:

    Pollard wasn’t put before a firing squad. That’s the closest to a parole he should expect.

  13. dazedandconfused says:

    @Jeremy R:

    Yes. “US officials” could be anything or nothing. When they name names it becomes credible.

    Assuming for the moment this isn’t just the WSJ neocons trolling the White House and was indeed a deliberate “leak” by un-named officials it’s more likely bait than a sop to Bibi. It’s unlikely Obama’s administration believes there can be anything but all-out war for the hearts and minds of the US public between them and Bibi on this issue.

    The bait is for anyone who loves them their ODS, not specifically Bibi. Be outraged at Obama’s gawd-awful communistical Kenyan Mau Mau treasonous treason of spitting on our valiant intelligence services and/or military, and thereby open the door for a close examination of Israel’s actions towards their “greatest ally”.

    A minor gambit, unless somehow it morphs into a cry for someone to identify how many spies and agents Israel might have in our government now….which is highly unlikely.