Negotiations over the fate of Jonathan Pollard, a former naval
intelligence analyst serving a life sentence for espionage, have
stoked deep concern in the ranks of U.S. spy services already
reeling from leaks orchestrated by former National Security Agency
contractor Edward Snowden.
Senior lawmakers, including Senator Dianne Feinstein, head of the
Senate Intelligence Committee, staked out positions on Tuesday
equally hostile to the idea, which started taking shape this week in
talks between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
"He shouldn't be released. He should serve out," Republican Senator
Mark Kirk, a former Navy intelligence reservist, said when asked
about Pollard's fate. "I would hope that he would sort of rot in
hell in jail for a long time."
The intelligence community has deterred successive administrations
from giving in to Israeli appeals for Pollard's freedom, but the
latest push appears to be gaining momentum.
Some intelligence veterans privately acknowledge that with Pollard
having served nearly three decades and being eligible for parole in
November 2015, this time it may be harder to convince the Obama
administration to drop the idea.
But a half dozen current and former intelligence officials told
Reuters they strongly oppose Pollard's early release, arguing such a
move would be a betrayal of the intelligence community, especially
when many feel that the United States is not getting enough from
Israel in return.
The officials said Pollard provided Israeli contacts with what one
former official described as "suitcases" full of highly classified
documents, including operational intelligence reporting.
The Pollard proposal has been floated as part of a formula to keep
faltering Israeli-Palestinian peace talks alive. Pollard's release,
which would be hugely popular in Israel, would serve as a political
incentive for Netanyahu to go ahead with the release of a fourth
group of Palestinian prisoners.
Under the proposed deal, Israel may impose a partial settlement
freeze, and in return for these steps, the Palestinians would agree
to extend peace talks beyond an April 29 deadline and into 2015.
While President Barack Obama has yet to sign off on any deal, Aaron
David Miller, a former U.S. peace negotiator, said even considering
such a move smacked of desperation over the crumbling peace process.
"Releasing a guy who's responsible for one of the biggest U.S.
national security breaches ever makes it look like they're panicking
over the state of negotiations," said Miller, a Middle East analyst
at the Wilson Center in Washington.
Miller has personal experience with the Pollard case. He was
involved in the 1998 Wye River negotiations when Netanyahu, serving
an earlier term as prime minister, pressed then President Bill
Clinton, to release Pollard as a condition for Israel's acceptance
of an interim peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Clinton initially agreed to review the case, but he dropped the idea
after then-CIA chief George Tenet threatened to resign.
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Even 16 years later, Miller said an early release for Pollard in the
"age of Snowden" would send the wrong signal about the consequences
of spying on American soil.
The assessment of many lawmakers was equally blunt.
"It's hard for
me to see how that would jump-start the Mideast peace process," said
Feinstein, a California Democrat. "It's one thing after an
agreement. It's totally another thing before an agreement."
Senator Saxby Chambliss, the top Republican on the Senate
Intelligence Committee, said Pollard should remain behind bars.
But Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat and one of the Senate's
leading advocates for Israel, said Pollard's sentence was
disproportionate to others convicted of spying on allies and that he
would "welcome" the convicted spy's release.
Republican Senator John McCain, who in 2011 came out in favor of
Pollard's release, said he still believed he should go free, but
"not as an enticement" in the peace process. "It's disgusting," he
said. "It's basically a coercive measure."
Retired Gen. Michael Hayden, a former director of both the CIA and
National Security Agency, said the 105,000-strong U.S. intelligence
community would see Pollard's early release as "a betrayal."
Hayden also suggested Pollard's release could foreshadow an effort
by the administration to reach a deal with Snowden, who sought
asylum in Moscow after leaking tens of thousands of highly
classified documents on U.S. electronic eavesdropping.
"It is likely that someone would draw the connection from Pollard to
Snowden and then point out that we therefore must expect that this
administration might indeed be open to some kind of 'deal' there
too," he said.
Pollard, who pleaded guilty in 1987 to spying for Israel, has long
been a potential bargaining chip in Middle East negotiations. The
Obama administration faces a difficult decision: use him now or wait
for a more critical juncture.
A complicating factor, however, may be Pollard himself, who is said
to have suffered from health problems in prison.
Uri Ariel, Israel's hard-line housing minister, told Army Radio he
understood Pollard opposed being freed in an exchange for
(Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer in Jerusalem, writing by
Matt Spetalnick; editing by Jason Szep, Ross Colvin and G Crosse)
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