Everything You Need to Know About Jonathan Pollard’s Release

November 20, 2015

5 min read

On Friday, American-Israeli citizen Jonathan Pollard is set to be released on parole from a US prison 30 years after his arrest. Many around the world thought this day would never come. Here is everything you need to know about his release.

1. Jonathan Pollard was sentenced to life in prison in 1987 for spying on America for Israel.

A civilian analyst for the Naval Intelligence Command (NIC), Pollard had access to sensitive state material he believed the US was withholding from Israel. In 1984, he made contact with Aviem Sella, a combat veteran of the Israeli Air Force, and offered to pass this classified information to the Israeli government. The relationship continued for an 18-month period before Pollard was caught by a coworker who had observed him removing the classified materials from the NIC. Pollard accepted a plea deal and pleaded guilty in 1986. He was charged with one count of conspiracy to deliver national defense information to a foreign government.

2. Pollard sold closely guarded state secrets and intelligence information to Israel, and was also accused of attempting to sell information to South Africa, Argentina, and Taiwan.

Pollard defended his actions by claiming that his motives were altruistic, and that the US intelligence establishment was endangering Israel’s security by withholding crucial information. The material he sold to Israel included photography of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) headquarters, information on the capabilities of Libya’s air defenses, and US intelligence about Arab and Islamic military activity. The US government challenged Pollard’s claim by making allegations that Pollard had tried to peddle his information to other sources as well. Their indictment included accusations that Pollard had attempted to broker arms deals with the governments of South Africa, Argentina and Taiwan in addition to passing information to Israel.

After 30 years in prison,  Jonathan Pollard will be paroled by the US on November 20, 2015. (Photo: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
After 30 years in prison, Jonathan Pollard will be paroled by the US on November 20, 2015. (Photo: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

3. Pollard is the only American ever to receive a life sentence for passing classified information to an ally of the US.

The average sentence for this type of offense is two to four years; Pollard has served 30. While the prosecutor on Pollard’s case recommended that he receive “only a substantial number of years in prison” in compliance with the plea agreement, the judge on the case, Judge Aubrey Robinson, Jr., did not agree. Noting that Pollard had violated conditions of his plea agreement by speaking to the press, Judge Robinson gave Pollard a life sentence on the basis of a damage assessment memorandum provided by the Secretary of Defense. Many have spoken out against Pollard’s unusually harsh sentence. In 2011, a bipartisan group of 18 retired US senators called the sentence “a gross miscarriage of justice.”

4. When Israel refused to extradite Pollard’s Israeli contact, Aviem Sella, to America, Congress threatened to cut aid to Israel.

Aviem Sella, who left the US for Israel within 24 hours of Pollard’s arrest, was indicted on three counts of espionage. Israel refused to let him be interviewed unless the US granted him immunity, which they would not. Israel also refused to extradite Sella, instead giving him command of one of the IAF’s main airbases, Tel Nof Airbase. Congress responded by threatening to cut off US aid to Israel. Sella voluntarily stepped down from his appointment in an attempt to defuse tensions between the two governments.

5. Pollard was granted Israeli citizenship in 1995.

He applied for and received Israeli citizenship while in prison, although he retains US citizenship. However, on Tuesday, just a few days prior to his scheduled release, Pollard announced that he was willing to renounce his US citizenship if he would be allowed to immigrate to Israel upon release, something which, until now, President Obama has not been inclined to permit.

6. Hundreds of American politicians and legislators have called for Pollard’s release, including former Secretaries of State and a former Vice President.

Among those who have called for Pollard’s early release from his life sentence are former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Vice President Dan Quayle, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and former director of the CIA James Woolsey. Hundreds of congressmen, senators, House representatives and legislators have also publicly requested Pollard’s release. In 2011, former White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum wrote a letter to Obama stating that he had extensively reviewed the case and believed “that a failure at this time to commute his sentence would not serve the course of justice; indeed, I respectfully believe, it would be a miscarriage of justice.”

(Photo: Breaking Israel News)

7. Three Israeli prime ministers have also intervened on Pollard’s behalf, making unsuccessful appeals to three different US presidents.

In 1995, Yitzhak Rabin became the first Israeli prime minister to request Pollard’s release, petitioning then-president Bill Clinton to pardon him. In 1998, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Clinton to make Pollard’s release a condition for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, but forceful opposition from the American intelligence community killed the request. In 2008, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert asked President George W. Bush to pardon Pollard, and Netanyahu made the first formal public request for clemency to President Obama in 2011. None of the requests were granted.

8. In July, the US Parole Commission announced that Pollard would be released on November 20, 2015.

The release is not, however, the result of political or diplomatic dealings. Pollard becomes eligible for parole on November 21, 2015, according to laws which were in effect at the time of Pollard’s sentencing in 1987. The laws mandated that federal inmates with life sentences be paroled after 30 years if there were no significant violations of prison regulations or a reasonable expectation of recidivism. Pollard, who has been in poor health for years and has undergone several surgeries while in prison, will be 61 when he is released.

Esther Pollard walks past a poster of her husband, Jonathan Pollard, before speaking to reporters outside of her Jerusalem home on July 29, the day after it was announced that Jonathan, jailed for nearly 30 years over giving Israel classified information on America, will be released in November. (Photo: Flash90)
Esther Pollard walks past a poster of her husband, Jonathan Pollard, before speaking to reporters outside of her Jerusalem home on July 29, the day after it was announced that Jonathan, jailed for nearly 30 years over giving Israel classified information on America, will be released in November. (Photo: Flash90)

9. Pollard has become Sabbath-observant while in prison.

Pollard’s original date of parole, November 21, 2015, is a Saturday, which falls on the Jewish Sabbath. Pollard’s lawyers have indicated that his date of release will therefore be moved up to Friday, before Shabbat begins. According to Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, Chief Rabbi of Beit El, who visited Pollard in prison in 2010, Pollard has become religious, keeping Shabbat and eating kosher food while incarcerated.

10. President Obama will not allow Pollard to move to Israel upon release.

The conditions of Pollard’s parole demand that he remain in the US for five years following his release. While President Obama has the power to grant him clemency, waiving the restriction and allowing Pollard to move to Israel right away, he has chosen not to do so. The Justice Department has not yet responded to Pollard’s offer to renounce his US citizenship if he is allowed to make aliyah.

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