In an effort to keep Israel-Palestinian peace negotiations alive for another year, Secretary of State John Kerry is reportedly advocating the early release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard. Here's what you need to know about the politics and history of the Pollard case.
Who is Pollard?
Jonathan Pollard is a Texas native who graduated from Stanford in 1976. He applied for a job with the CIA in 1979 but was rejected in part for his history of smoking marijuana. His track record was iffier than that: a subsequent CIA assessment of his spying efforts that has been partially declassified indicates that he lied about ties to the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad in college, and at one point "waved a pistol in the air and screamed that everyone was out to get him."
Despite the CIA rejection, he was hired by a naval intelligence agency in 1979, but his unusual requests to other employees and failure to pass a polygraph test resulted in a loss of his higher security clearance. In 1984, he applied to the Naval Intelligence Command and his Top Secret clearance was restored.
Pollard met an Israeli intelligence officer in New York shortly after his new job began, according to Nova. The agent, Avi Sella, requested information from Pollard and, shortly thereafter, the two met in Washington where Pollard turned over information on Iraqi chemical warfare facilities. "Pollard was given a $10,000 diamond and sapphire ring for his fiancée, Anne Henderson, and paid over $10,000 in cash," according to Nova — plus a $1,500-a-month salary. He continued to gather classified material for the next year, bringing them to various locations in Washington where there were copied and then returned to the NIC by Pollard. Eventually, his salary was bumped up to $2,500 a month; in total, he's estimated to have been paid more than $50,000, according to The New York Times.
His constant removal of documents attracted attention. In November 1985, he was arrested while on his way to the Israeli embassy in D.C.
What did he steal?
The entirety of what he stole isn't public. The declassified CIA document articulates what Israel wanted.
…but then notes that "he himself exerted the strongest influence on what was compromised," based on what he had access to and was interested in.
In an interview with Foreign Policy this week, the former head of naval intelligence, Admiral Thomas Brooks, described the theft more explicitly. "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 U.S. collection methods, to include most specifically against the Soviet Union." Included among that information were details of spy satellites, analysis of Soviet weapons systems and information about NSA surveillance techniques. Brooks thinks that the information was then traded by Israel to the Soviet Union, given the infiltration of Mossad by the KGB.
Brooks most potent charge is a very modern one. "I think what he did is exceeded only by Edward Snowden."
How is Pollard's release linked to peace talks?
At first, Israel denied sponsoring Pollard, as Haaretz points out. But soon it was acknowledged, and efforts to free Pollard began in the 1990s. Among the reasons offered is that his life sentence is longer than would be handed down at this point for the same crime.
The Israel-Palestinian peace talks currently underway have not made much progress. In an effort to keep both sides at the table, the United States is apparently hoping to broker a deal in which both parties get something. The agreement being proposed would involve the release of Pollard and "the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including citizens of Israel, and a partial freeze on construction in West Bank settlements," according to the Times. Pollard's release would see him out of prison before April 14, the beginning of Passover.
It isn't clear if the initiative is sanctioned by the Obama administration at large or, as The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg thinks, Kerry working on a deal toward which the administration will be lukewarm. Kerry's got a well-established track record of working solo by now, having notably stumbled into a way to avoid military strikes against Syria.
Is it going to happen?
Any deal needs the approval of President Obama and the Israeli cabinet, where no vote has yet been scheduled.
For Obama, it's a fairly easy political lift, as Politico notes. Pollard's life sentence makes him eligible for parole next year anyway. And broad support on Capitol Hill for Israel means that "unlike nearly everything else Obama’s done as president, he could very possibly make the decision without having to worry about many, if any, negative press releases or cable television attacks."
But Israeli politicians will be more skeptical of the proposal; the release of Palestinian prisoners will not be embraced. And, according to at least one news outlet, the Israeli housing minister was told by "people close to Pollard" that Pollard opposes the "shameful deal."