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An Israeli Spy Who Spent Nearly Half His Life in US Jail Has Just Been Released

Here's what we know about Jonathan Pollard, the US intelligence analyst who spent nearly 30 years in jail for handing over top-secret information to Israel. Today he walked free.

by Harriet Salem
Nov 20 2015, 11:59am

Photo by Jim Hollander/EPA

After 29 years and 364 days in jail, Jonathan Jay Pollard, a US intelligence analyst turned Israeli spy, has today walked out of a North Carolina federal prison having spent nearly half of his life behind bars — the longest sentence ever handed down by an American court for passing classified information to an ally nation.

Pollard's rise, from a spy-obsessed oddball to a Mossad mole with access to tens of thousands of classified documents, and eventual fall to a turncoat facing life in jail is the stuff of Hollywood movies are made of. In fact, a production company associated with Fox is reportedly developing a feature film about his life. Here's what we know about the man who spent nearly three decades in jail for espionage.

Born in Texas in 1954 to Jewish parents, Pollard is said to have developed a strong sense of loyalty to Israel and become infatuated with the idea of spying for the country a young age. At university he reportedly boasted about serving as a colonel in the Israeli army and said he had been recruited to Mossad, neither of which at the time were true.

Fantasy, however, became reality soon after Pollard graduated from Stanford University with a degree in political science in 1976. While his application to join the CIA was rebuffed after he admitted to prolific drug use during a polygraph test, just a few months later he was accepted for a job in Washington at the Naval Field Operational Intelligence Office. Here, despite complaints about his conduct, Pollard managed to gain clearance to access Sensitive Compartmented Information, and worked on top-secret issues relating to the Soviet Union and the Caribbean.

In 1982, shortly after joining the Naval Intelligence Command Task Force 168 in a department reshuffle, Pollard met Aviem Sella, a veteran in the Israeli Air Force who was among first Israeli pilots to fly a F-4 Phantom Jet. Despite Sella's initial suspicion that Pollard was part of an FBI sting he soon struck a deal to start taking top-secret information from the US military analyst who lived in Israel.

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At the peak of the 17-month operation, Pollard was handing over two to three loads of documents per week to officials at the Israeli embassy, who hired an apartment equipped with a copy machine to process the load. In exchange for the work, Pollard was paid a salary of some $1,500 per month, as well as "bonuses" including a one-off payment of $10,000 for his first delivery of five suitcases of documents, luxury holidays in Paris and Israel, and a sapphire ring with a value estimated at between $7,000 and $20,000 for his fiancée. 

In spring 1985 the Israelis offered Pollard a pay rise to $2,500 per month and told him a passport was being prepared for him under the name of Danny Cohen should he need to escape. His Israeli handler was the infamous Mossad Nazi-hunter, Rafael Eitan. The man who had long dreamed of spying for Israel, was living his dream.

By fall of the same year, however, the situation was quickly descending into a nightmare. Following a tip-off from one of Pollard's co-workers, the FBI began investigating his activities. After being questioned by US agents in parking lot near his workplace Pollard managed to call his wife, Anne, and used their code word "cactus," giving her time to remove documents from the house before the feds showed up. Pollard was not taken into custody, but the heat was not off. Still suspicious, the FBI put the husband and wife under surveillance and waited for a moment to strike.

What happened next is the subject of some debate. Following a meeting between Anne Pollard and her husband's embassy handlers, all the Israeli agents involved in the affair fled. Leaving the US via Mexico, Canada, and Miami all were in Israel within 24 hours. The Pollards, however, attempted to flee to the Israeli embassy along with their dog but were rebuffed by security staff and then captured by FBI agents who swarmed the area. Anne was arrested a day later.

Pollard's handler Eitan later maintained that the couple had failed to follow an pre-agreed emergency plan to take a public bus to Canada, eventually forcing Israel to give the couple up before the situation "worsened." Anne maintained, however, that no such escape plan had ever existed.

Nearly a year and a half later, in March 1987, Pollard was sentenced to life imprisonment for spying for Israel. The judge ignored recommendations from a plea bargain he had struck with investigators, arguing that Pollard's jail-cell interviews with media prior to the trial meant he had already violated the deal's terms. Anne received two concurrent five-year sentences for her role and was released on parole after three and half years, while Sella was convicted to life and a $500,000 fine in absentia.

Israel initially claimed no official knowledge of the affair, and only officially admitted paying money to Pollard for top-secret documents 10 years after he was convicted. According to the US, attempts to investigate the affair on Israeli soil were blocked by the country's security personnel who claimed to have only a few dozen stolen documents, all of which were low-classified.

The full extent of the information passed on by Pollard is still unknown. Ron Olive, who led the Naval Criminal Investigation Service inquiry into Pollard, alleged in a book that the spy had not only passed on information to Israel but also given intelligence to South Africa and attempted to broker arms deals with Taiwan, Pakistan, and Iran. These claims were supported in a public response to the Pollard case by four former Naval Intelligence Directors who accused Pollard of offering his services to "three other countries" as well as Israel and avoiding public trial by pleading guilty.

Pollard himself admitted in an interview with the Washington Post to handing over intelligence to Israel including, reconnaissance information on the Palestinian Liberation Organization headquarters in Tunisia, details of Iraqi and Syrian chemical-warfare production capabilities, and data about Soviet arms shipments to Syria and other Arab states.

The severity of his sentence has prompted speculation that some of the intelligence sold by Pollard to Israel eventually ended up in the hands of the Soviet Union.

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Since his incarceration there have been numerous campaigns for Pollard to be released. His defenders, including his family, ex-wife Anne, and second wife Esther Zeitz — who he married while in jail — have claimed that the length of the sentence far outweighed his crimes. Hollywood producer, Arnon Milchan, for example, has never been charged with any crimes despite publicly admitting that he worked for Mossad and helped Israel secure material for its secret nuclear program while other Israel-US spying cases have purportedly been resolved via diplomatic channels. 

In 1995, Yitzhak Rabin was the first Israeli prime minister to lobby for Pollard's pardon. Subsequent efforts were also made by Israeli leaders Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu, the latter of whom tried to secure the spy's release as part of a peace-deal with the Palestinians being negotiated with the US.

The endeavors, however, were to little avail. One day shy of having served three decades years in jail Pollard, now aged 61, was eventually released today having effectively served his full custodial sentence — life sentencers who committed their crime prior to November 1987 are eligible for parole after 30 years in the US if they are not considered a re-offending risk.

At the request of his family and supporters, Pollard's release, unlike his story, was a quiet affair. At around 4am local time, with the sky still pitch-black, Pollard walked out of jail without celebration. In Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the release in a short statement: "As someone who has raised the issue for many years with American presidents, I have dreamt of this day."

For Pollard, however, who was given Israel citizenship in 1995 his parole conditions, which ban him from using the internet, speaking with the media, or traveling outside the US for five years, mean that his dream of returning to his beloved Israel will for now have wait. 

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem