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As Release of Israeli Spy Jonathan Pollard Appears Close, A Few Deeper Questions Worth Asking

With speculation swirling that seller of U.S. secrets may be released from prison after nearly 30 years, case raises interesting concerns about sentencing, international relations, and more

The Wall Street Journal reported that Pollard, who was given a thirty-year sentence after his espionage conviction in 1987, could be released within a matter of weeks or months and quoted anonymous officials who indicated the move might be an attempt to "smooth relations with Israel" after the deal with Iran was announced earlier this month. (Photo:  Karl DeBlaker/Associated Press)


As international speculation surfaced over the weekend over the possibility that Jonathan Pollard, convicted of espionage for giving U.S. military secrets to the Israeli government in exchange for money, could be paroled later this year, a rowdy argument has surfaced over what role, if any, a pending nuclear deal between the U.S., other world powers, and Iran may be playing in the case.

On Friday, the Wall Street Journal was the first to report that Pollard, who was given a thirty-year sentence after his conviction in 1987, could be released and quoted anonymous officials who indicated the move might be an attempt to "smooth relations with Israel" after the deal with Iran was announced earlier this month.  Israel has been outspoken in its opposition to the agreement and Pollard's release has long been a cause celebre for pro-Israeli activists and nationalists who consider Pollard a hero for his actions.

Offering background on the Pollard case, explains the story this way:

In May 1984, Pollard was a young analyst for the US Navy's now-defunct Anti-Terrorist Alert Center. Pollard approached an Israeli Air Force colonel, Aviem Sella, and offered to provide US intelligence documents on Israel's enemies. After consulting with Israeli higher-ups, Sella agreed. Though Pollard hadn't asked for money up front, he was paid $1,500 per month starting in November 1984, and also received thousands of dollars' worth of jewelry for his wife.

It's still not clear why Pollard approached Sella with this plan: He has said he was concerned for Israeli security, but Pollard had a long prior history of erratic behavior and has been accused of passing secrets to other countries, as well, including South Africa and Pakistan.

In November 1985, Pollard apparently learned that his arrest was imminent and attempted to flee with his wife to the Israeli Embassy to request asylum. But the embassy refused them entry, and the FBI arrested them outside the gates.

Pollard had, over a year and a half, leaked about 2,300 documents on topics ranging from Soviet air defenses to Egyptian missile systems. He pleaded guilty to espionage in 1987 and is now serving a life sentence at the Butner Federal Correction Complex in Butner, North Carolina.

Following the WSJ's reporting on Friday, U.S. Justice Department officials denied that the possible release of Pollard—who is up for parole in November—has anything to do with the Iran deal. According to the DOJ, there has been no special consideration for Pollard in light of the nuclear deal and stated their position that Pollard should serve every day of his sentence.

On Saturday, YNet News reported that Israeli officials have confirmed that Pollard is set to be released from US prison this year, but emphasized to the Israeli newspaper that this was unrelated to the recent deal signed between world powers and Iran.

Also on Saturday, however, Pollard's ex-wife, Anne Pollard told Israel's Channel 2 TV that "that there is no official word that Jonathan is being released on any date." According to the Associated Press, however, Anne Pollard was openly advocating for the Israeli government to intervene on her ex-husband's behalf so that he  could "hire a top, top-notch attorney" for his upcoming parole hearing.

Meanwhile, journalists like the Toronto Star columnist Heather Mallick and The Intercept's Glenn Greenwald raised important points about the difference between an "actual spy" like Pollard, who has nearly completed his full thirty-year sentence, and a new generation of whistleblowers in the U.S., among them Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, who both face the prospect of decades in jail for leaking government secrets to journalists in the name of democratic accountability and the public good.

As Mallick tweeted:

And Greenwald added:

Meanwhile, however—especially as it appeared increasingly likely that Pollard's release is nothing less than standard protocol—Murtaza Hussein, one of Greenwald's colleagues at The Intercept, made these points about the situation on his account:

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