Jonathan Pollard speaks during an interview at the Federal Correctional Institution in Butner, N.C., in 1998.  (Karl DeBlaker / Associated Press)
Jonathan Pollard speaks during an interview at the Federal Correctional Institution in Butner, N.C., in 1998. (Karl DeBlaker / Associated Press)

By Timothy M. Phelps / LATimes.com

Jonathan Pollard, the American citizen whose spying for Israel led to a serious rift between the Israeli and U.S. governments and between U.S. and Israeli Jews, was released from prison Friday, Nov. 20, 2015 after serving 30 years of a life sentence.

But even freedom for the former civilian naval intelligence analyst did not put the continuing controversy over Pollard to rest, as his Israeli wife criticized the U.S. government for refusing to allow him to move to Israel — where Pollard is seen as a hero — for at least five years during his parole.

A Justice Department official said parolees require special permission for foreign travel and must demonstrate “a substantial need for such travel.”

According to Representatives Jerrold Nadler and Eliot L. Engel, Pollard is willing to renounce his U.S. citizenship to facilitate his being sent to Israel. The two New York Democrats wrote a letter to Atty. Gen. Loretta Lynch asking her to grant permission.

The White House has previously said President Obama has no plans to alter the terms of Pollard’s parole.

Pollard, 61, was incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution in Butner, N.C. His lawyers have said that they have arranged unspecified work for him in the New York area.

Pollard’s release was not opposed by the Justice Department last summer, much to the disappointment of a bipartisan coalition of the country’s national security elite, who have long argued that he had severely damaged U.S. interests.

Pollard’s dramatic arrest by FBI agents in 1985 — after his plea for asylum was rebuffed at the gates of the Israeli Embassy in Washington — triggered a crisis between the two allies. Initially, Israel denied any official connection to Pollard, but it was quickly revealed that the operatives for whom he was working reported to an intelligence advisor to then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

The arrest also revealed an uncomfortable divide in the American and Israeli Jewish communities, which are usually closely bound by religion and shared history. American Jews complained bitterly that the Pollard operation had exposed them to questions about their loyalty to the U.S., while some Israelis responded that their nervousness was proof that life in the Diaspora was untenable.

Pollard said that he acted out of love for Israel, and that the U.S. was not sharing crucial intelligence about Arab countries with its ally.

But prosecutors and U.S. intelligence analysts said that he did it for cash, and that spies for the U.S. in the Soviet Union were discovered and probably killed because of Pollard’s actions.

“It is my belief, and the intelligence community was of the nearly certain belief, that assets [agents working for the U.S. overseas] were compromised,” said Joseph diGenova, who prosecuted Pollard.

DiGenova said Pollard passed the Israelis thousands of documents that had nothing to do with Israel’s enemies, including technical information about U.S. information systems and satellites, photographs, maps, and classified manuals.

“It was a gigantic amount of information and stuff of the highest top-secret code word classification,” DiGenova said. He said that Israel bartered the information to the Soviet Union in return for the release of Soviet Jews to Israel, compromising agents who quickly disappeared.

Pollard got $10,000 and an expensive diamond ring for his girlfriend from his Israeli handler when he started passing on documents, and was given a stipend of $2,500 a month. After his arrest, Pollard said he had intended to return the money to Israel. He allegedly also passed or offered documents to other countries, including South Africa, Pakistan, and Australia.

Israel did not officially acknowledge that Pollard was its spy until 1998, by which time the country’s failure to support him and fight for his release had became a political issue.

Pollard first wife, Anne, was convicted of helping him try to cover up his crime, and spent three years in prison. He divorced her after she was released from prison and, in a secret prison ceremony in 1996, married his second wife, Esther, who moved to Israel and helped orchestrate the campaign for her husband’s release.

Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attempted to make Pollard’s release a condition of agreeing to a peace deal with Palestinians. But President Clinton said his security advisors were hard against such an arrangement.

By then, many leaders of the American Jewish community were also arguing that Pollard had been incarcerated too long. But successive presidents, including Obama, refused to grant him clemency.

When Pollard came up for parole this summer, the Justice Department did not oppose his release, saying he was automatically eligible for “mandatory parole” after serving three decades.

But his former prosecutor argued that Pollard should have remained behind bars. “The Department of Justice decided not to oppose his release,” DiGenova said. “They own it. President Obama owns his release.”

Jonathan Pollard in his first photograph following his release from prison Friday, with wife Esther | Photo credit: Courtesy, Justice for Jonathan Pollard
Jonathan Pollard in his first photograph following his release from prison Friday, with wife Esther | Photo credit: Courtesy, Justice for Jonathan Pollard

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