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Jonathan Pollard, the Israeli spy Obama might let out of prison, explained

Placards of Jonathan Pollard
Placards of Jonathan Pollard
David Silverman/Getty
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.
  1. Jonathan Pollard is an American intelligence official who pleaded guilty in 1987 to committing espionage on Israel's behalf. On Friday, US officials told both ABC and the Wall Street Journal that Pollard would be released.
  2. Pollard's incarceration has been a thorn in the famously close US-Israel relationship; Israel has repeatedly requested that Pollard be freed, and the US has always said no. Pollard has also been accused of spying for Pakistan and apartheid-era South Arica.
  3. It's not clear when Pollard will be freed — or whether he will be freed at all. Pollard was going to come up for parole in November regardless of any US government intervention in his case.
  4. If the administration actually does release him, there's a decent chance it's about the Iran deal. The administration could be trying to mend frayed ties with Israel in the deal's wake. It also could be trying to woo pro-Israel lawmakers not to kill the Iran deal.

Who is Jonathan Pollard, and what did he do?

It's important to be clear here: There is zero doubt that Pollard stole secret US intelligence and passed it on to Israeli officials. His motivation, however, is a little less clear — which is part of why Pollard has become something of a cause célèbre among Israelis.

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.

Why is Pollard such an issue for Israel?

Americans and Israelis see Pollard's case really differently — and that's why it's so fraught. Most Americans see Pollard as a traitor who sold out his home country; Israelis tend to see him as a hero who didn't do any real damage to America. Hence the decades-long, simmering tension between two allies over his incarceration.

Pollard is actually something of a big deal in Israel. Israeli prime ministers have been asking American presidents for Pollard's release for decades. The campaign to release him took on new force in the past several years, after Pollard (now age 60) fell seriously ill. More than 2 percent of the Israeli population signed a 2013 petition asking for his release, including major Israeli politicians.

Behind this popular campaign is a belief that Pollard really helped out Israel. His military intelligence — which, according to his wife, included information on Iran's nuclear program — is believed to be quite valuable. Israelis also argue that the US should have been providing most of this information to them anyway, under intelligence sharing agreements, so no harm, no foul.

Though Pollard isn't nearly as well-known in the United States, the general view of him is pretty negative. Most Americans aware of the case, including pro-Israel conservatives, view Pollard as a traitor who deserves to be in jail. "Much of what he took, contrary to what he'd have you believe, had nothing to do with Arab countries or the security of Israel, but had everything to do with US collection methods, to include most specifically against the Soviet Union," retired Adm. Thomas Brooks, the former director of naval intelligence, told Foreign Policy.

Opposition to Pollard's release is particularly staunch in the US intelligence community, for pretty obvious reasons. That means any president who freed him would face a serious backlash from his or her own spies. Indeed, former CIA Director George Tenet reportedly threatened to resign when Bill Clinton was considering releasing Pollard as part of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal in 1998.

It's little surprise, then, that American presidents have long resisted Israeli demands to free Pollard.

So why would Obama release Pollard?

The million-dollar question today, assuming these leaks are correct, is what changed?

There are at least three broadly possible theories — and it's impossible to figure out which is true.

1) US-Israel relations: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is really angry about the Iran deal. According to the Wall Street Journal, some US officials "hope the move will smooth relations with Israel in the wake of the Iran nuclear deal."

That would be a very straightforward explanation of the timing, and the Iran deal really has angered Israelis across the political spectrum. But it's kind of a weird justification, if you think about it. Is Netanyahu really going to change his mind on an issue he sees as a world historical mistake because Obama let a spy from decades ago out of prison? Unlikely.

2) Congress and the Iran deal: The more Machiavellian explanation has to do with Congress. Right now, Congress is debating whether to pass a bill that would limit Obama's ability to remove sanctions on Iran — thus likely killing the nuclear deal. Releasing Pollard could be a way of wooing some pro-Israel Congress members sympathetic to his cause.

One possibly key here is Sen. Chuck Schumer, the likely next Senate minority leader. Schumer is a critical player in the Iran vote — but hasn't yet weighed in on whether he'll support or oppose the Iran deal. Schumer, however, has called for Pollard's release. Maybe this is about making Schumer more comfortable with the Iran deal.

But this explanation suffers from the same problem as the purely Israel-focused one. Iran is orders of magnitude more important to Israel than Pollard; are Schumer and other pro-Israel legislators really going to let their assessment of the deal be set by something essentially unrelated to it?

3) Pollard actually won't be released early at all: There's reason for skepticism about this reporting: Last year, there was a barrage of rumors that Pollard was going to be released as part of a deal to extend Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, and that didn't pan out. And Pollard is up for parole anyway; these officials may just be hoping to get some political capital out of something that was going to happen regardless.

Pollard's 30-year parole hearing had been scheduled for November well in advance of the current leaks. The Journal reports that "the most likely scenario would be to free him when he first becomes eligible for parole in November, according to some US officials." And Alistair Baskey, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, is denying that there could be any link between a Pollard release and any foreign policy issues:

If that's the case, then this story might be a nothing burger: A November release could just be the system working normally. The current leaks about an early release could be the administration's way of taking credit for something that was likely to happen anyway: to score points with both Israel and pro-Israel lawmakers without having to make any drastic moves that would be sure to piss off the intelligence community.

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