The arrest of Jonathan Pollard nearly 30 years ago set off an emotional legal saga that has confronted American presidents and Israeli prime ministers, wound through the courts and divided those who say the convicted spy has paid his debt to society and those who contend the damage he caused was incalculable.
News that the Obama administration was considering releasing Pollard early from prison revived the familiar wedge between his supporters and detractors and focused new attention on the sensational espionage case of a U.S. Navy intelligence analyst who got caught spying for Israel, only to become a key figure in a high-stakes diplomatic bid to rescue sagging Middle East peace talks. By Friday, however, the Mideast peace talks were on the verge of collapse, along with Pollard's latest prospect for freedom.
"It's deja vu all over again," said Jeffrey Richelson, a senior fellow with the National Security Archive who has written about this case. "It is the same issues, and many of the same people who are talking about this and (were) concerned about this 20 years ago."
Pollard's case has inflamed passions since his November 1985 arrest, which came as he tried unsuccessfully to gain asylum in Israel's Washington embassy. His supporters, including many who see him as a martyr who was punished excessively, note that he spied for a U.S. ally and say the information he provided was critical to Israel's security interests. Yet prosecutors and many in the 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 Jewish American community, too, has wrestled with how much leniency he should get.
"As far as I'm concerned, he can rot there until he dies after what he did and who he did it for and why he did it," said Joseph diGenova, who was U.S. attorney in Washington at the time. He called it "mind-boggling" to consider releasing Pollard at the same time the U.S. is hoping to prosecute former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden, who is now in Russia.
The U.S. is now dangling the possibility of freeing Pollard, 59, as an incentive to Israel, though the White House has said President Barack Obama has not decided whether to do it and Israeli-Palestinian talks appeared near collapse. Separately, Pollard becomes presumptively eligible for release from his life sentence, which he is serving in North Carolina, in November 2015. But it's not clear that he'd be released then.
His imprisonment has been defined by years of legal wrangling — fights over document access, appeals of his sentence, court petitions — but also repeated diplomatic efforts to secure freedom.
Israelis, for instance, have campaigned for his release; in the 1980s, after years of claiming that Pollard was part of a rogue operation run without the government's knowledge, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government recognized Pollard as an Israeli agent and granted him citizenship. But each American president since Ronald Reagan has refused to free him, with President Bill Clinton writing in his memoir that Pollard's release "was a hard case to push in America."
But enough time has passed from the crime to make his release more feasible now than 20 years ago, said Mark Zaid, a Washington lawyer specializing in national security cases.
"I think there's more pros than cons in this stage of our lives in releasing him than maintaining him in prison," he said.
Pollard has argued that his guilty plea was coerced and that his sentence was excessive. Though other defendants in high-profile espionage cases — including notorious double agents Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames, both of whom spied for Russia — are serving sentences of life without parole, Pollard's backers say he's been punished more harshly than others caught spying for allied countries.
Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who has visited Pollard in prison, said "as things came out, a lot of the claims that were made about the damage turned out not to be what people claimed from the beginning."
But those assertions remain in dispute.
"No other American who spied for an ally did as much stuff as Pollard did," said M.E. "Spike" Bowman, who was legal adviser to the director of Naval intelligence at the time of Pollard's arrest. He contends that Pollard, who prosecutors say was paid more than $50,000 by the Israelis and expected to earn "10 times that amount" for continued spying, was motivated more by money than ideology.
"At that time, he had a number of schemes trying to figure out to get to rich," Bowman added.
After his arrest, U.S. officials said Pollard had provided classified information about radar-jamming techniques and electronic capabilities of nations hostile to Israel including Saudi Arabia.
A court statement from then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger says Pollard did "irrevocable" damage to the U.S. and had provided the Israelis with more than 800 U.S. classified publications and more than 1,000 classified messages and cables. Portions of the Weinberger document that have been declassified state in part 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.
His lawyers have pressed for access to the unredacted document, saying it's important to determine whether the damage assessments refer to predictions of potential damage that never occurred, or to damage that actually was suffered.
Seymour Reich, a former B'nai B'rith International president who has visited Pollard in prison and supports his release, said he thought it was ironic that Pollard was swept up in political negotiations when he had previously expressed a desire to be freed only on his merits or on humanitarian grounds.
"He just didn't want to be used. He felt if he was going to be released — and he wanted to be released — it should not be on political grounds," Reich said.
Associated Press writer Pete Yost contributed to this report.
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