TIME Foreign Policy

Jonathan Pollard’s Cellmates: 8 Other Americans Who Spied on the U.S.

In recent days hopes have been raised that Jonathan Pollard, an American who stole U.S. Secrets and gave them to Israel, could be pardoned to push along the Middle East peace process. He is not the only American currently serving time for spying on his own country

TIME Mideast Peace

Who is Jonathan Pollard? And Why is He in Jail?

Should the only American convicted of espionage and sentenced to life in prison be released?

He currently resides in a federal prison in Butner, N.C. Jonathan Pollard, 59, is a Jewish-American who passed American secrets to the Israelis while serving as a U.S. Navy intelligence analyst.

In 1985, he was sentenced to life in prison—a sentence that many Israelis and some American Jews consider excessive, cruel and potentially tainted by anti-Semitism. Now the Obama administration is reportedly considering releasing Pollard from prison as an incentive to keep the Israelis in peace talks with the Palestinians.

And so a convicted spy who many Americans have never heard of is back in the headlines because the Mideast peace process is, again, on a precipice.

TIME Foreign Policy

Middle East Talks on Life Support as Kerry Cancels Visit With Abbas

John Kerry
Jacquelyn Martin—AFP/Getty Images

The Secretary of State will not meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a sign U.S.-backed peace talks in the region could be collapsing. Kerry said he is "speaking to engage with both parties"

Secretary of State John Kerry Tuesday canceled a visit with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas planned for Wednesday, a sign the Administration’s effort to salvage peace talks in the region may be faltering.

Before the meeting cancelation was announced, Abbas signed papers to formerly induct the Palestinian Authority into 15 international U.N. agencies, a move that has been strongly opposed by both the U.S. and Israel. The timing of Kerry’s cancelation suggests he may have called off the meeting in response, but the Secretary of State declined to confirm that connection, calling drawing such a conclusion “completely premature.”

“We continue now as I’m speaking to engage with both parties,” he said, according to al-Jazeera. “Will continue tonight.”

Earlier in the week, Kerry interrupted a planned Europe visit in order to travel to Israel to rescue peace talks that threaten to collapse. The parties are divided on a number of hot-button issues, including the release of Arab-Israeli prisoners in Israeli jails. Israel’s postponement of their release, the New York Times reports, prompted Abbas to sign the U.N.-organization-joining papers. “Because we did not find ways for solution, this becomes our right,” he said.

Abbas said the Palestinian Authority opted to join 15 U.N. bodies against American and Israeli objections.

The breakdown in negotiations also raises further questions about the fate of Jonathan Pollard, a former naval intelligence analyst convicted in 1985 of espionage for spying for Israel. Israel, which granted Pollard Israeli citizenship while he was in prison, has long called for the spy’s release. When pressed by reporters on Tuesday, White House spokesperson Jay Carney confirmed that Israelis had raised the question of Pollard’s release in negotiations, and that the President had not ruled it out.

“I’m just saying that the President has not made a decision to release Jonathan Pollard,” Carney said.


TIME foreign affairs

Pollard Release Seems Justified

It surely makes little sense to say that someone who has spent nearly 30 years in jail has not paid a severe price.

It is no surprise that Jonathan Pollard has become part of the discussions in the current Israeli-Palestinian peace discussions. In every administration I was a part of — and every negotiation in which I participated — he was raised by Israeli prime ministers. From Rabin through Netanyahu, one thing could be counted on: Pollard would be raised. We may view him as a spy; Israelis view him differently. He has taken on the aura of being a soldier who was left in the field, and the ethos in Israel is that soldiers are never left behind.

As someone who is Jewish and who also worked in the Pentagon in the 1980’s, I had no sympathy for Pollard. He stole top-secret documents; he betrayed his country and the trust put in him; he was caught and it was appropriate that he pay a price for what he had done. I felt strongly about that.

To be sure, I had more personal reasons for feeling an additional sense of betrayal. At the time, I was contending with a prejudice that lingered in the national security bureaucracy that in not so subtle ways suggested that anyone who was Jewish could not work on Middle Eastern issues because they would serve Israeli as opposed to American interests — a view typically held by those who also defined U.S. and Israeli interests as being at odds.

So I had good reasons for believing that Pollard should be punished. And, I still believe that. But what constitutes sufficient punishment?

As Israeli prime ministers would raise his case and explain how if they were going to take difficult steps toward peace, his release could make those steps more politically sustainable — and Presidents starting with Clinton would consider these requests — I heard the intelligence community make arguments for holding him that made little sense: If we released him to Israel, he would still be able to compromise our security. If he was released, it would signal we were soft on spies. If we released him, there would be no deterrent for spying. If we released him, it would damage the morale of the intelligence services.

Perhaps, five or even 10 years after his imprisonment he might still know things about our intelligence that could have some value, but nearly 30 years afterwards, what could still be of relevance? During one discussion I had in the Clinton administration when this came up, I said even then — at a point when Pollard had been in prison for 13 years — that if he could still compromise our intelligence, those responsible on our side should be fired. They had a responsibility to change the way we did business. Clearly, we altered our techniques and means when our security was compromised and we had suffered other security breaches and had to imprison other spies.

Whether one accepts the argument that Pollard’s sentence seems more severe than that handed out to other spies, it surely makes little sense to say that someone who has spent nearly 30 years in jail has not paid a severe price. Thirty years in jail does not signal being soft on spies; it constitutes a potent deterrent against spying. And, at this point, when looking at the demographic make-up of those in the intelligence community, a significant percentage either were not born or were very young when Pollard was incarcerated. It seems unlikely that morale is going to be affected by his release.

If traditional arguments in the intelligence community bear little weight at this point, there is still the question of whether we should link the peace issue to Pollard. Some may say that if he is so politically important, we should get something of value for his release. Perhaps, but at a time when the Middle East is characterized by upheaval and U.S. foreign policy needs to demonstrate effectiveness, we can ill afford a collapse of the current efforts to negotiate between Israelis and Palestinians.

If the release is part of a package of steps that not only manages this process but can give it a necessary boost — and also affect the climate between Israelis and Palestinians — then President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry certainly seem justified in acting on it.

Dennis Ross is the William Davidson Distinguished Fellow and counselor at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He served as the Director of Policy Planning in the State Department under President George H. W. Bush, the special Middle East coordinator under President Bill Clinton, and was a special assistant to President Obama from 2009-2011.

TIME Middle East

Israelis See Pollard as Hero and Hostage

Sentenced to life in 1987 for spying against the U.S., Jonathan Pollard may become a bargaining chip for U.S. in mediating continued peace talks now even more complicated after a meeting between top diplomats and leaders was called off

The “Free Pollard” signs go up whenever an American official visits Israel, lining the sidewalks on the motorcade route. When President Obama stepped onto the tarmac at Ben Gurion International a year ago, one of the first things he heard was “Please free Pollard.” Two Cabinet ministers in the reception line buttonholed the guest of honor on behalf of the American imprisoned for spying for Israel, giving voice to a popular cause that until this week appeared hopeless.

Jonathan Pollard was a U.S. citizen when he was sentenced to life in 1987 for espionage, but he petitioned for Israeli citizenship while in prison, was granted it, and as the decades passed his incarceration gradually took on the qualities of a vigil. Held by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons in the Butner, N.C., Federal Correctional Complex, Pollard was invoked among Israelis in the terms of a captured pilot held by Hizballah in an unknown location — that is, as a hostage. Now it appears that the Obama Administration may be bargaining the terms of his release in exchange for Israel agreeing to extend peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. Millions of Israelis would celebrate his release and inevitable arrival in Israel.

Pollard was not working for Mossad when he handed secret U.S. Navy documents to his Israeli handler. He was an agent in a brand new branch of Israeli intelligence, dubbed the Bureau of Scientific Relations and run by a former Mossad agent named Rafi Eitan. But Pollard’s capture was a traumatic event in relations between Israel and the U.S., offending Washington so deeply and obviously that Israeli officials solemnly foreswore any future intelligence operations inside U.S. borders.

By all accounts, the ban has held, even for a Mossad that regards as one of its most potent assets its reputation as omniscient puppet master — the hidden hand behind every unexplained event. Even amid reports that the U.S. National Security Agency had spied on Israeli officials, “we are still extremely cautious on this issue,” Dov Weisglass, who was Chief of Staff to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, told me after the Edward Snowden leaks last fall. “We’re still licking our Pollard wounds very strongly.”

Within Israel, meanwhile, Pollard became a household name. His status moved from prisoner to captive to, as reports that his health was failing, potential martyr. In the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, on the slope below the holy high ground Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims know as the Haram al-Sharif, Jewish settlers dubbed their home Beit Yonatan, or House of Jonathan, in honor of Pollard.

The righteousness of his release became a matter of national consensus, endorsed by politicians ranging from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the right to President Shimon Peres, who was Prime Minister when Pollard was recruited. On Monday, a leading Hebrew daily reported that Gilad Shalit, the former soldier held for five years by Hamas, had written Netanyahu urging Pollard’s release — noting his 29 years in prison is “five times longer than my period of captivity, and this is the United States, our great friend.”

And so the bargaining proceeds. Netanyahu freed 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit. He agreed to release another 104 as part of the deal struck with Secretary of State John Kerry to commence the current peace negotiations with the Palestinians. The 104 would be released in four batches. In the three batches completed to date, 78 have walked free. But the talks are due to end on April 29, and absent an extension, Netanyahu has been reluctant to absorb the domestic criticism that will accompany release of the final group.

Winning freedom for Pollard, however, would be at least as popular a move domestically for Netanyahu as the 104 were for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, or the 1,027 were for Hamas. And domestic politics appears to be what the peace talks are actually about — precious little negotiating actually having gone on. The fly in the ointment, at least by some reports, is that the U.S. may make Netanyahu pay a premium for Pollard’s release, obtaining a freeze in the expansion of the Jewish settlements that Palestinians complain are gobbling up much of the West Bank that they hope will become home for their state.

That would explain why Uri Ariel, the minister who told Obama “Please free Pollard” was backtracking on Israel’s Army Radio on Tuesday. Ariel is in the staunchly pro-settler Jewish Home party; his portfolio is housing. He called it “abuse of a man who is ill” to make Pollard’s release a bargaining point in peace talks. “I was told by people close to him,” Ariel said, “that he is personally opposed to being part of such a shameful deal.”

TIME Foreign Policy

Risky Business: How Obama Might Release a Spy to Salvage Middle East Peace Talks

Jonathan Pollard
Karl DeBlaker—AP This May 15, 1998 file photo shows Jonathan Pollard speaking during an interview in a conference room at the Federal Correction Institution in Butner, N.C.

President Obama is mulling an early release for Jonathan Pollard, who was convicted of spying for Israel, in hopes of salvaging Israeli-Palestinian talks

Speaking at the United Nations in September, President Barack Obama emphasized his commitment to a peace deal to solve the knotty Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both the Israelis and the Palestinians had taken risks by restarting the process last July, Obama said, adding: “Now the rest of us must also be willing to take risks.”

So far, Obama hasn’t actually assumed much risk. He has mostly hung back while Secretary of State John Kerry conducted months of frenetic diplomacy. But in recent weeks it’s become clear that Kerry’s efforts are approaching a dead end. And it now appears that Obama may be willing to take his first real risk.

The risk is named Jonathan Pollard. He currently resides in a federal prison in Butner, N.C. Pollard is a Jewish-American who, while serving as a U.S. Navy intelligence analyst, passed American secrets to the Israelis. In 1985, he was sentenced to life in prison—a sentence that many Israelis and some American Jews consider excessive, cruel and potentially tainted by anti-Semitism. Now the Obama administration is considering releasing Pollard from prison as an incentive to keep the Israelis at the peace table, according to reports from multiple U.S. and Israeli news outlets

And so a convicted spy who many Americans have never heard of has entered the picture because the peace process is on the brink of collapse. The current negotiations began last year on the basis of an agreement between the parties: The Israelis would release 104 Palestinian prisoners, in four installments, and the Palestinians would hold off on plans to seek statehood recognition from international bodies. The arrangement was to last until April 29, by which time the goal was for at least a partial agreement that would keep the two sides talking.

But there’s been scant progress toward an agreement, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is refusing to release the fourth batch of Palestinian prisoners—which was supposed to happen by Monday. Netanyahu has no desire to set free people he sees as violent criminals only to see the talks peter out at the end of April, with nothing to show for the domestically unpopular action.

Enter Pollard. Leading Israelis and American Jews have long pressed for Pollard’s release. So have prominent non-Jewish national security figures, including George P. Shultz, who served as Secretary of State in the Reagan administration at the time Pollard was convicted, and Lawrence Korb, a former Regan assistant secretary of defense now at the liberal Center for American Progress, who argues that Pollard “has already served far too long for the crime for which he was convicted”—in part, Korb writes, because of a mistaken belief at the time of his sentencing that information he sold to Israeli had made its way to the Soviet Union.

Now it appears that Obama is dangling Pollard’s release as a means of persuading Netanyahu to make the final prisoner release, and perhaps to offer other concessions, including a potential settlement freeze, that would revitalize the talks.

To understand Obama’s calculation, it’s worth looking back at the last time a U.S. president seriously entertained Pollard’s release.

During the October 1998 Wye River Summit, Bill Clinton considered a request from Netanyahu—then serving his first of two stints at prime minister—to release Pollard in return for Israeli concessions to the Palestinians. Netanyahu told Clinton he needed Pollard’s release to appease the right wing of his political coalition, for whom Pollard’s release has long been a nationalistic cause (although Pollard has more recently won support across the Israeli political spectrum). Dennis Ross, who was then Clinton’s top Middle East negotiator later wrote in a memoir that he told the president Pollard was seen as a “soldier” for Israeli, adding that “there is an ethos in Israel that you never leave a soldier behind in the field.”

Ross, who went on to work for the Obama White House, also told Clinton that Pollard “had received a harsher sentence than others who had committed comparable crimes.” Still, Ross advised against tying Pollard’s release to an agreement, arguing that if Clinton were to do so, he should only use Pollard as a chit to seal a final peace agreement much later in the process.

Clinton pursued the idea anyway. What finally snuffed it was then-CIA Director George Tenet’s vow to resign. The New York Times reported that Tenet believed “he would lose his credibility with his rank-and-file in the intelligence community if he were to agree to Mr. Pollard’s release from his life sentence.” Clinton ultimately backed away from a Pollard deal.

In the end, Obama may do the same. After all, it can’t be any easier to grant clemency to a man convicted of espionage in the post-Edward Snowden world. And Dennis Ross might also apply his logic from 1998 to the present situation—arguing, perhaps, that the Pollard card is too important to play short of the very last push to a final agreement.

But there’s also evidence that, without some kind of dramatic U.S. intervention, the peace process will fail. That could dash any prospect for a foreign policy breakthrough in Obama’s presidency.

The question now is whether Obama decides the risk of releasing Jonathan Pollard outweighs the risk of watching the peace process die.

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