WASHINGTON — Every president since Ronald Reagan has refused to release Jonathan Pollard from prison. A CIA director once threatened to resign when Bill Clinton briefly considered freeing the convicted spy as part of Mideast peace talks. But now, in a gamble to extend negotiations that appear on the brink of collapse, the Obama administration is bringing the U.S. closer than it has been in years to granting Pollard an early release.
If Pollard’s freedom leads eventually to a final peace settlement, it could mark a major victory for U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who has toiled to achieve an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians after decades of distrust and violence. But if Pollard is freed and the talks fail, it could be a costly embarrassment.
Releasing Pollard now, just to keep Israeli-Palestinian negotiations going, “portrays a weakness on our part and a certain amount of desperation,” says Aaron Miller, who was part of the U.S. negotiating team at two rounds of peace talks during the Clinton administration. “It guarantees almost nothing.”
The White House insisted Tuesday that President Obama has not decided on whether to release Pollard, a former U.S. Navy analyst who was sentenced to life in prison nearly 30 years ago for selling classified military documents to the Israeli government. Kerry, asked about prospects for Pollard’s release, told reporters at a NATO meeting in Brussels, “There is no agreement, at this point in time, regarding anyone or any specific steps.”
“There are a lot of different possibilities in play,” Kerry said. He added: “All I can tell you is that we are continuing, even now as I am standing up here speaking, to be engaged with both parties to find the best way forward.”
But Kerry abruptly canceled plans to meet Wednesday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, an indication that the talks are flailing as they approach an end-of-April deadline for a decision on whether to continue.
Israel has for years pushed for Pollard to be freed, and gave him citizenship in the late 1990s. His release now could be used to give Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu political cover from fallout at home in exchange for concessions that could be made to the Palestinians to keep the talks going.
People briefed on the matter said those concessions could include Israel freeing Palestinian prisoners who are considered terrorists by many Israelis. The conditions also might require Israel to freeze construction in settlements in disputed territory and to continue in the negotiations, according to two people, both of whom spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the sensitive diplomacy by name. Palestinians leaders have balked at proposals that would have them relinquish much of Jerusalem and recognize Israel as a Jewish state
Though Pollard is serving a life sentence, he becomes eligible for parole in November 2015. But the U.S. government could object to letting him go.
Pollard has been serving his sentence at a medium-security prison in Butner, N.C., where inmates are awakened at 6 a.m. and spend their days performing various jobs. They have limited telephone access and are granted supervised recreation time. He is believed to be in poor health.
For the most part, U.S. military and intelligence officials have strongly opposed Pollard’s release, although the Pentagon, four former secretaries of defense and the CIA either didn’t respond to messages seeking comment or declined to comment for this story.
Abbe Lowell, a Washington lawyer who has represented clients charged under the Espionage Act, said the facts of Pollard’s case could have supported a shorter sentence, and he said that Pollard “has now served longer than anyone in similar circumstances.”
“If the president wants to address this issue — whether because the time has come anyway or as part of a larger Middle East peace initiative — he has the absolute power to do so as the head of the government by commuting Mr. Pollard’s sentence to time served,” Lowell said in an email.
The documents Pollard smuggled out of a Navy facility included classified information about U.S. weapons and military capabilities. They also detailed radar-jamming techniques and electronic capabilities of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and other moderate Arab governments, and included information about intelligence gathering in the United States by China. The Israeli government paid Pollard $45,000 for the documents, reimbursed him for three trips to Europe and Israel, and lavished expensive jewelry on his wife.
In a 1986 court statement that was made public in December 2012, then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger said Pollard had done “irrevocable” damage to the U.S. He said Pollard had provided the Israelis with more than 800 U.S. classified publications and more than 1,000 classified messages and cables.
“The defendant has substantially harmed the United States, and in my view, his crimes demand severe punishment,” Weinberger wrote. The court statement was part of a declassified CIA assessment of national security damage caused by Pollard’s disclosures.
During 1998 negotiations for a land-for-peace deal brokered at Wye River, Md., CIA Director George Tenet told Clinton he would resign if Pollard were freed as part of the talks. That apparently is the closest the U.S. had come to considering his release.
“I was shocked to hear Pollard’s name arise in the middle of these negotiations,” Tenet wrote in a memoir. “We were there to broker peace, not to pardon people who had sold out their country.”
But over the years, some former U.S. officials have softened. Former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Schultz and former CIA Director R. James Woolsey have called for Pollard’s release, as has Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Even so, McCain said Tuesday that linking Pollard’s release to the Mideast peace negotiations “smacks of desperate diplomacy.” He joined a chorus of Obama administration critics who said Pollard should be freed either on the merits of his parole application or on humanitarian grounds — not as a carrot to keep talks afloat.
Even Democrats were skeptical. “It’s hard for me to see how that would jump-start the Mideast peace talks,” said Senate intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein. “It’s one thing after an agreement. It’s a totally other thing before an agreement.”
Elliott Abrams, a senior Mideast adviser to President George W. Bush, said it was logical that Pollard’s freedom would be given more consideration now, when he is close to parole eligibility. But Abrams said “it’s a very bad idea” and warned that it would amount to injecting politics into a foreign policy process.
The U.S. initially hoped to secure a peace agreement by the end of April. When it became clear several months ago that neither side was anywhere close to an agreement Kerry said he aimed to reach a framework by then to serve as the basis for continuing negotiations. But even that benchmark appeared elusive as Israeli and Palestinian leaders failed to agree on what the framework would include. Abrams said he believes Pollard should be released, but he said it appears it is being considered now only to keep Abbas from walking away in anger as a result of Israel failing to release more prisoners.
“It’s diplomatic malpractice in my view,” Abrams said. “You’re going to keep Abbas at the table for a few more months. What are we going to give him next year to keep him at the table?”