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By: Daniel Landman

As the years passed, he became more than a man in a prison cell. His name became a buzzword and a rallying cry, a blip in international headlines and a prayer in synagogues. For almost 30 years, he was simultaneously larger and smaller than life. And now, on November 20, Jonathan Pollard will finally be released from prison on parole.  

If this news, which the U.S. Parole Commission announced this past July, took some of you by surprise, this may be due to the feeling of hopelessness that set in among those clamoring for Pollard’s release, after decades of futile efforts and missed and unrealized opportunities. Now the moment has arrived and the struggle seems to be nearing its end.  

But how did we get to this point?  

We cannot possibly appreciate the enormity of Pollard’s release without understanding the events of the last three decades leading up to this moment.  

Even for those of us who followed the news of Pollard’s arrest and sentencing as the events unfolded in the mid-1980s, the details remain hazy. Much of the story was first filtered through various media before reaching the people, yielding several different, often contradictory, narratives. It would do us well to recall what Pollard did 30 years ago that led to his unprecedented and largely unanticipated life sentence. Then, as we fast-forward to 2015, the inevitable question is: Why now? What caused the United States government – until now so intransigent where Jonathan Pollard was concerned – to change its mind so unexpectedly? 

Crime and Punishment

On November 21, 1985, Jonathan Pollard and his wife at the time, Anne, approached the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., in an attempt to gain asylum. It had been almost a year-and-a-half since Pollard began passing top-secret classified information from the Naval Intelligence Command office where he was employed to an Israeli agent, and he knew the jig was up. His last-ditch effort to escape punishment for his spying failed the moment the Israeli guards at the embassy turned him away; Pollard was immediately arrested by the FBI agents who had him under surveillance since they discovered his activities, and he has not stepped foot out of prison since then.  

Even Pollard’s staunchest supporters concede that his actions violated American law. So what is the source of the controversy at the center of the decades-long battle to convince the U.S. government to commute Pollard’s sentence or grant him early parole, and the equally impassioned counter-movement to keep him behind bars?  

The answer, in a nutshell, is the length – life in prison – of the sentence that Pollard was handed. 

During the period between Pollard’s arrest and his sentencing in March of 1987, Pollard cooperated with the government’s investigation into his crime and eventually accepted the terms of a plea agreement that was offered him. The agreement stated that Pollard would plead guilty to the charge of conspiracy to deliver national defense information to a foreign government, and continue to cooperate fully with the investigation. In exchange, the government prosecutor would refrain from charging Pollard with further crimes and would recommend a more limited sentence instead of the life sentence that an espionage crime such as Pollard’s could potentially garner. 

But despite the plea bargain, on March 4, 1987 Judge Aubrey Robinson, Jr. imposed a sentence of life in prison on Jonathan Pollard. To date, he is the only person in U.S. history to receive a life sentence for spying for an ally. 

What Went Wrong?

What happened? How did Pollard’s sentencing turn out this way?

According to a CIA damage assessment declassified in 2012, Robinson’s decision to ignore the prosecution’s recommendation that Pollard receive only a “substantial period of incarceration,” i.e., less than a life sentence, was influenced by two factors. The first was that he considered Pollard’s interactions with the media prior to his sentencing – specifically, a prison-cell interview with Wolf Blitzer, then a journalist for The Jerusalem Post – a violation of the terms of the plea agreement. In this interview, according to the assessment, “Pollard provided extensive information on his motives and objectives in conducting espionage for Israel” – disclosures that, in Robinson’s eyes, amounted to Pollard flouting his commitment not to disseminate key information concerning his crimes and the case. Pollard’s longtime lawyers, Eliot Lauer and Jacques Semmelman, responded to this claim by pointing out that both interviews that Pollard conducted in prison were preapproved by the Director of Naval Intelligence, and that claims that the interviews were unauthorized are baseless.  

The second factor, according to the CIA assessment, was Robinson’s “perception of the severity of the espionage offense.” Very shortly before Pollard’s sentencing, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger penned a memorandum to the judge in which he called for a harsh sentence for Pollard, declaring, “It is difficult for me … to conceive a greater harm to national security than that caused by Pollard.”  

This claim – that Pollard’s actions greatly compromised national security – has been repeated over the years by several insiders in the intelligence community, but counterclaims have been made, as well. Most of the previously censored sections of Weinberger’s memorandum to Robinson were declassified in late 2014, and the newly accessible portions indicate that the information Pollard relayed to Israel did not relate to U.S. security concerns directly, and dealt mainly with Soviet weaponry and radar systems, as well as American relationships with other Middle East nations.  

Pollard’s Release: Why Now?

There have been countless efforts to secure Pollard’s release, none successful. His legal team sought early parole, and multiple Israeli prime ministers – not to mention numerous American politicians on both sides of the aisle – pleaded with every American president since Ronald Reagan to commute Pollard’s sentence. For various reasons, these efforts were repeatedly and consistently rebuffed – until now.  

For any person who has followed even a modest amount of international news over the past several months, the timing of Jonathan Pollard’s release may seem a little too convenient. It is widely perceived that the relationship between the respective governments of the United States and Israel is at a historic low point, due to their vocal conflict over the agreement that the world powers recently reached with Iran to curb its nuclear program. According to some unnamed U.S. officials (per a report in The Wall Street Journal) and many speculators, the Obama administration is releasing Pollard in order to defuse some of this tension, and hopefully recoup some of the good will that previously existed between the two nations. The administration has denied this – Secretary of State John Kerry telling reporters, “I haven’t even had a conversation about it” – and Pollard’s lawyers and Israeli government officials have said the same.  

Instead, they explain that Pollard’s release is due simply to the natural process of the American legal system. One of the original stipulations of Pollard’s life sentence was that he would be automatically eligible for mandatory parole after 30 years in prison, which comes out to November 20, 2015. In other words, Pollard would have been headed for parole regardless of international politics.  

So why was the announcement of Pollard’s release so unexpected for so many of us, including for those privy to the inner workings of the case?  

The answer is that it would have been well within the Obama administration’s prerogative to push the Justice Department to block Pollard’s parole, despite its “mandatory” nature. In light of the federal parole board’s repeated rejections of Pollard’s requests for early parole over the years, such an outcome would have been immensely disappointing but ultimately unsurprising. In effect, by neglecting to interfere with the routine parole process, the U.S. government may have made a conscious choice to allow Pollard to go free.  

A New Life

Once he is finally set free, what is the next step for Jonathan Pollard? He would certainly be welcome in Israel, which granted Pollard citizenship in 1995. No less than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his approval of the decision to grant parole to Pollard clear in a recent statement, saying, “We are looking forward to his release.” However, traveling to Israel – let alone moving there – may not be so simple for Pollard for the time being.  According to the terms of Pollard’s parole, he may be required to remain in the U.S. for five years after being released from prison. However, Pollard’s attorney, Lauer, noted that the exact conditions of his client’s parole are not clear to him, implying that the clause that would temporarily confine him to the U.S. will not necessarily apply.  

Dreams of Israel notwithstanding, Lauer clarified that his team has “secured employment and housing for Mr. Pollard in the New York area,” and that “Mr. Pollard is looking forward to being reunited with his beloved wife Esther,” whom he married in 1993 while incarcerated. 

The Legacy of Jonathan Pollard

Beyond the specific details of the case, much of the rhetoric surrounding Pollard has centered – then as now – on the question of how he should be characterized in the context of his actions. Now that Pollard is set to be released, the time could not be riper to approach this question anew. Was he an Israeli patriot or an American traitor? Was he an ideologue or a mercenary? Could it be that he was all of the above? Or something else entirely? At the risk of venturing too far into the realm of philosophy, should our characterization and assessment of Pollard focus more on the nature of his deeds and their impact – for good and for bad – or on Pollard’s own personal motivation for spying?  

Irrespective of how we choose to answer these questions, the legacy of Jonathan Pollard will surely continue to inform and influence our perspective on the complicated relationship between the United States and Israel, as well as on what it means to be a Jewish citizen of America, for the foreseeable future.