Jonathan Pollard, an American citizen serving a life sentence for spying on the U.S. on behalf of Israel, has been in the spotlight on and off since his incarceration in 1985. Israel has asked for his release several times. Now, it may really happen, as part of a plan brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to salvage the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Pollard could go free before the Jewish holiday of Passover in exchange for Israel agreeing to partially freeze the construction of settlements in the West Bank, release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners and extend negotiations with the Palestinians.
But who is the man at the center of one of the biggest spy scandals in U.S. postwar history? And what did he do?
Born in 1954 to Jewish parents in Galveston, Texas, Pollard graduated from Stanford with a B.A. in political science and also studied at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Boston before going to work at the U.S. Navy intelligence offices in Maryland from 1979 until his arrest on Nov. 21, 1985.
Pollard was first contacted in 1984 by an Israeli Air Force veteran, Aviem Sella. Sella told him the U.S. was withholding information from its ally Israel, and in response Pollard volunteered to help. Up until his arrest, Pollard passed tens of thousands of classified documents to Israeli intelligence officials.
He provided his contacts with documents on a biweekly basis and received regular payments estimated to have totaled more than $45,000, according to a report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, which analyzes issues for lawmakers.
The former director of naval intelligence, Thomas Brooks, said that Pollard's spying was catastrophically bad for the U.S., and that only Edward Snowden's leaks did more damage to the nation in recent history.
Pollard was questioned in late 1985 on the removal of classified documents by both the FBI and the former Naval Investigative Service, now known as the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. Days later, Pollard and his then-wife, Anne, tried to seek asylum at the Israeli embassy in Washington but were rebuffed by Israeli guards. As soon as Pollard set foot off embassy property, he was arrested by FBI agents and charged with espionage. His wife, who initally managed to allude agents, was arrested the next day.
Pollard confessed, hoping to receive a reduced sentence. After pleading guilty to espionage, he received a life sentence (he could have been executed). His wife received a five-year sentence for her role in the esponiage. After her release from prison in 1989, she emigrated to Israel.
“I feel my husband and I did what we were expected to do and what our moral obligation was as Jews, what our moral obligation was as human beings, and I have no regrets about that,” Anne Henderson Pollard said in a 60 Minutes interview before both were sentenced.
Israel denied that Pollard was working on behalf of its government and blamed the affair on rogue intelligence officials; nevertheless, the arrest caused a serious rift with Israel’s most-trusted ally.
Yet, in 1996, Israel granted Pollard citizenship, and by 1998, finally acknowledged that he was working on behalf of the Jewish state.
During U.S.-brokered peace talks in 1998 with Palestinians at the Wye Plantation in Maryland, Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, requested clemency for Pollard. U.S. President Bill Clinton had said he would review the matter, but ultimately decided not to release Pollard, saying, the objections of U.S. intelligence officials were too strong.