WASHINGTON Jonathan Pollard, a former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst convicted of spying for Israel, will be released on parole on Nov. 21 after 30 years in prison, a federal parole board ruled on Tuesday.
Pollard's planned release, which was quickly welcomed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, would remove a longstanding irritant in U.S.-Israel relations at a time of increased friction between the two close allies over President Barack Obama's landmark nuclear deal with Iran.
Pollard, who has remained jailed for decades despite numerous efforts by Israel to secure his early release from a life sentence, will be required to remain in the United States for five years under the terms of his parole, his attorneys said.
The U.S. Justice Department helped smooth the way for the freeing of Pollard, who was already eligible for mandatory parole in November, by declining to raise objections that could have delayed his release, Pollard's attorneys said.
Secretary of State John Kerry denied that the unanimous decision by the U.S. Parole Commission was in any way linked to the Iran nuclear agreement, which Netanyahu fiercely opposes.
Israeli officials have already made clear that Pollard's impending release will not diminish their harsh criticism of the Iran pact, nor are Israel's U.S. supporters likely to quell their campaign against congressional approval of the deal.
"After decades of effort, Jonathan Pollard will finally be released," Netanyahu said after a phone call with Pollard's wife Esther. "I consistently raised the issue of his release in my meetings and conversations with the leadership of successive U.S. administrations. We are looking forward to his release."
Pollard, 60, an American-born intelligence expert was convicted in 1987 of spying for Israel and sentenced to a life term. He had been accused of provided Israeli contacts with suitcases full of highly classified documents. He is now being held in federal prison in Butner, North Carolina.
The scope of Pollard's crimes, which his detractors say made him a traitor but which his supporters insisted was exaggerated, compares with recent computer-era breaches in which vast amounts of data have been stolen.
Those breaches include publication of huge quantities of U.S. secrets by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, revelations of U.S. secret surveillance by Edward Snowden and twin hacks at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which has been linked to China and exposed potentially compromising information on more than 20 million Americans.
"GRUMBLING" IN INTELLIGENCE COMMUNITY?
The Obama administration considered early release in the spring of 2014 as a sweetener to encourage Israel in an Israeli-Palestinian peace effort, but the idea caused an uproar in the U.S. intelligence community and was quickly dropped.
Former CIA Director Michael Hayden, who had opposed early release, said "there may be a little grumbling here and there in the intelligence community" now that Pollard is set for release.
"I'm not enthused by it. But he served 30 years ... I certainly wouldn't raise my voice in objection,” said Hayden, adding that Pollard had served his full sentence and his release now "doesn’t suggest leniency."The Justice Department confirmed the parole ruling.
"The Department of Justice has always maintained that Jonathan Pollard should serve his full sentence for the serious crimes he committed, which in this case is a 30-year sentence, as mandated by statute, ending Nov. 21, 2015," Justice Department spokesman Marc Raimondi said.
"We look forward to seeing our client on the outside in less than four months," said Pollard's lawyers, Eliot Lauer and Jacques Semmelman, in a joint statement announcing the parole decision.
They made a final appeal to Obama to grant Pollard clemency and free him before his parole date, something the White House has insisted it will not do. Pollard's legal team also called on Obama to allow him to go to Israel immediately after release.
Israel, in a gesture of solidarity, granted Pollard citizenship in 1995.
Pollard's supporters have said he was being punished too harshly since he spied out of love for Israel, a U.S. ally, and the classified information he passed on caused no damage to the United States. His supporters have also said he should be released because of poor health, with his attorneys saying he suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure.
(Additional reporting by Warren Strobel, Patricia Zengerle and Julia Edwards in Washington, Ori Lewis in Jerusalem; editing by Bill Trott, Sandra Maler and G Crosse)