Jonathan Pollard, the former U.S. Navy analyst who was convicted of selling secrets to Israel in the 1980s, will be released from prison in November, his lawyers said.
The three-member U.S. Parole Commission voted unanimously this month to approve Pollard’s release, as had been expected under U.S. sentencing rules, the lawyers said Tuesday in a statement.
Pollard was sentenced in March 1987 to life in prison for selling Israel thousands of pages of classified intelligence. Under the law in place at the time, a life sentence meant that federal prisoners like Pollard who display good behavior and aren’t a risk to commit future crimes, are presumed to be eligible for mandatory parole after 30 years.
The U.S. Justice Department didn’t contest parole at a July 7 hearing in Butner, North Carolina, where Pollard is being held, according to the former spy’s lawyers.
“We are grateful and delighted that our client will be released soon,” Pollard’s attorneys, Eliot Lauer and Jacques Semmelman, said in the statement. “Mr. Pollard is looking forward to being reunited with his beloved wife, Esther.”
The administration, along with Pollard’s lawyers, denied that the parole decision had any linkage to current efforts to smooth relations with Israel after the U.S. and other world powers reached an accord with Iran to curb its nuclear program.
“The Parole Commission’s decision was in no way linked to foreign policy considerations,” said Alistair Baskey, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, in an e-mail. “The president has no intention of altering the terms of Mr. Pollard’s parole.”
Justice Department spokesman Marc Raimondi said in a statement that the department “has always maintained that Jonathan Pollard should serve his full sentence for the serious crimes he committed, which in this case is a 30-year sentence, as mandated by statute, ending Nov. 21, 2015.”
According to his lawyers, Pollard will have to remain in the U.S. for five years after he is released.
The spy’s release has long been floated as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Israel, which has lobbied successive U.S. administrations to show clemency and release him.
“Throughout his confinement, I made sure to raise the issue of his release in my meetings with U.S. government leaders,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a text message, “and we’re waiting to see Jonathan Pollard leave prison.”
Word of the parole board’s decision came first from the office of Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, which said Pollard would be freed on Nov. 20, according to Israel’s Channel 2 television. In a telephone interview, Pollard’s ex-wife Anne, who served three years in prison for her own role in the spy case, said his release should pave the way for settling in Israel.
“I hope to god they put him on a plane and send him to his homeland,” she told Channel 2.
Israel offered Pollard citizenship in 1995, sending several government ministers to visit him in jail over the years. Pollard, who is reported to be in ill health, could move to Israel within five years only if President Barack Obama commuted his sentence.
Israel officials apologized for Pollard’s espionage when he was caught, but didn’t admit they were paying the Navy intelligence analyst until 1998. His work for Israel “put at risk important U.S. intelligence and foreign-policy interests,” according to a 1987 CIA damage assessment declassified in 2007.
Over a year of spying, Pollard handed Israel about 800 documents, some deemed top secret, and stole an estimated 1,500 summary messages.
The CIA damage assessment details Pollard’s sale of information to Israel about military developments in Arab countries. It also describes a man with a history “replete with incidents of irresponsible behavior that point to significant emotional instability,” who told fellow college students that he worked for the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence services.
Pollard’s case has prompted emotional debates. U.S. groups and lawmakers who see his sentence as overly harsh have lobbied for his release. Pentagon and intelligence officials balk, seeing Pollard as an unrepentant traitor.
In April 2014, the Obama administration considered releasing him as a gesture to Israel as Secretary of State John Kerry pushed Israelis and Palestinians to make concessions to reach a peace agreement.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch, asked about the case at the Aspen Security Forum on July 25, said “in accordance with the law his sentence has been carried out. He is essentially one of the few people who is still a prisoner under the older set of sentencing laws.”
In 1998, Netanyahu reportedly asked then-President Bill Clinton to release Pollard at the end of negotiations on the Wye River Accords. Clinton backed down after his CIA director, George Tenet, told him he would resign if Pollard was released, according to reports at the time.
In a 1996 Washington Post column, three former directors of the Office of Naval Intelligence wrote that Pollard offered classified information to three other countries before working for Israel and offered his services to a fourth country while he was an Israeli spy.
They added that Pollard was “very highly paid for his services -- including an impressive nest egg currently in foreign banks -- and was negotiating with his Israeli handlers for a raise as he was caught.”