Who is Jonathan Pollard?

Convicted of espionage for Israel in the mid-1980s, the former US Navy intelligence analyst returns to the spotlight

Jonathan Pollard in a 1985 photo.

As part of a desperate effort to keep Israelis and Palestinians talking for at least another year, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is reportedly offering Israel the release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard — a long-standing demand of successive Israeli governments. 

Pollard, a 59-year-old Jewish American from Texas, had been a civilian intelligence analyst for the U.S. Naval Intelligence Command when he gave thousands of classified documents to his Israeli handlers. The Israelis had recruited him to pass along U.S. secrets, including satellite photos and data on Soviet weaponry in the 1980s and the biochemical capabilities of Arab states.

"For his efforts, the Israelis initially gave Pollard $11,000 in cash and $1,500 a month," USA Today wrote. "They also bought a diamond sapphire ring for his fiancee, who picked it out at a Paris jewelry store in one of the couple's meetings with their handlers." He was also secretly sworn in as an Israeli citizen, according to the paper.

Pollard had a “short but intensive espionage career on behalf of Israel,” according to declassified U.S. documents.

He was arrested by FBI agents in Washington on Nov. 21, 1985, after his unsuccessful attempt to seek refuge at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. Pollard later pleaded guilty to leaking classified documents to Israel, and was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1987.

His wife at the time, Anne, was also arrested, and sentenced to five years in prison for her role in assisting her husband to hide classified documents. 

Pollard's defense was that his espionage work had not imperiled U.S. security, and that he had acted out of a desire to ensure Israel's safety. But critics from the U.S. intelligence establishment have long disputed that explanation. 

“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," former Director of Naval Intelligence Thomas Brooks said in a Foreign Policy interview. It “had everything to do with U.S. collection methods, to include most specifically against the Soviet Union.”

During his trial, it was revealed that Pollard had also shared classified documents with a Royal Australian Navy officer.

Though he was convicted of spying for Israel in the mid-1980s, former acquaintances from his years as a student at Stanford University in the 1970s told investigators that Pollard had “bragged about his role as a Mossad agent.”

According to a declassified U.S. document, "In [Pollard's] first Memorandum in Aid of Sentencing following his arrest and guilty plea, Pollard claimed that he had begun dreaming about future emigration to Israel at age 12 when that country won a dramatic victory in the six-day war of June 1967."

In the book  “Capturing Jonathan Pollard,” Ronald J. Olive alleges that two months after Pollard was hired for the Naval Intelligence Support Center’s Surface Ships Division, his technical director had sought his termination for telling a new hire he wanted to start a back-channel operation with South Africa's intelligence service.

Pollard's case has become a rallying cry in Israel, where leaders say his lengthy prison sentence amounts to excessive punishment when compared with other U.S. espionage cases. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who visited Pollard in prison in 2002 when he was out of politics, and other Israeli leaders have routinely pressed Obama and his predecessors for Pollard's pardon or release.

Activist groups in the U.S. and Israel have carried out campaigns demanding Pollard's release. After divorcing Anne, he married Esther Zeitz, an activist who has worked for his release. In a show of support for the convicted spy, a Jewish settlement building in Silwan, a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem was named after Pollard.

U.S. officials and security advisers have vehemently opposed releasing him before he becomes eligible for parole. 

With wire services

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