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Is there a connection between Pollard release timing and Iran deal?

Lawyers for convicted spy Jonathan Pollard announced today that he would be granted parole after nearly 30 years. Pollard, a former Naval intelligence analyst, was convicted of selling classified information to Israel. Judy Woodruff discusses the case with Devlin Barrett from The Wall Street Journal.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Lawyers for convicted spy Jonathan Pollard announced today that the U.S. government will be granting the 60-year-old parole. The former Naval intelligence analyst was convicted of selling classified information to Israel, and has been in prison for nearly 30 years. Israeli leaders have been asking for Pollard's release for decades.

    Reporter Devlin Barrett has been covering the story for The Wall Street Journal and he joins me now.

    And welcome back to the program.

  • DEVLIN BARRETT, The Wall Street Journal:

    Hi. Thanks.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, Devlin, remind us who Jonathan Pollard is and why he was sent to prison for life?

  • DEVLIN BARRETT:

    He was sentenced to life after — in 1985, he was arrested and charged with passing suitcases full of classified documents from his work at the Navy to the Israelis. And it was an amazing case in a lot of ways, because, you know, the U.S. is very close to Israel.

    And, traditionally speaking, the U.S. view is that nations that are this close don't spy on each other this aggressively. So, when he was sentenced in '87, he received a life sentence. And, basically, that set off a decade of disagreement and pressure from Israel to release him before he died.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now, he pleaded guilty.

  • DEVLIN BARRETT:

    Right.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, what was the argument by Israel that he should be released?

  • DEVLIN BARRETT:

    Well, the argument has always been, you know, he was spying for an ally. He didn't actually harm U.S. national security, the same way a spy for the Soviet Union would, because those secrets were taken by a friendly nation.

    I think one of the quirks of the Pollard case is that, in a lot of spy cases, we will swap them for our own agents that we want back. For Pollard, unluckily, I guess, there was really no one ever to swap for him, and so that's part of the reason why he's remained in prison all this time.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    How much is known, Devlin, about what was in the material that he took and gave to Israel?

  • DEVLIN BARRETT:

    The defense secretary at the time, Caspar Weinberger, said he could not imagine a case that did more harm to national security.

    I think there is some debate within the intelligence community about that, because certainly spies like Aldrich Ames are credited with giving up information that directly led to deaths of agents, that got people killed. That has been an issue of a debate around Pollard, but no one has — the government has never come forward and really explicitly made that accusation against him.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now, today, the U.S. Parole Board is saying that there is no connection between this decision to let him out in November and what's going on with Iran, the Israelis, obviously, very upset with the U.S. deal on nuclear weapons with Iran.

    You talked to U.S. officials, though, who give you a somewhat different spin.

  • DEVLIN BARRETT:

    Right. I spoke to multiple U.S. officials who said they believe there is some connection, that that's not the sole reason, but that's part of the thinking behind releasing him now.

    I will say that Obama administration officials adamantly deny that as being in any way related to a foreign policy consideration. What's sort of funny about that is that, if that were true, this would be probably the first time in this man's life in maybe 30 years that he wasn't part of a foreign policy discussion.

    He's basically been a human bargaining chip for the last 20 years.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, what — is this supposed to have an effect on, a salutary effect on U.S.-Israeli relations?

  • DEVLIN BARRETT:

    I think it could, but I think anyone who thinks that this will significantly affect the way Israel views the Iran deal is mistaken, that it may create some goodwill just in the general Israeli population, maybe even among Israeli leaders.

    But, in the end, the Iran deal is bigger than Pollard. As important as Pollard may be to Israel, the Iran deal is simply bigger than Pollard.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And what happens to Jonathan Pollard once he gets out of prison?

  • DEVLIN BARRETT:

    Well, he very much wants to go to Israel. Israel granted him citizenship in 1995. The U.S. government has to decide whether to let him do that.

    His lawyers have said, if he can't leave the country, which is sometimes a condition of parole, he will move to the New York area.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And — but that has to be worked out?

  • DEVLIN BARRETT:

    That's still to be worked out. And his official release date is November, so there's a little time to work that out still.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    All right, Devlin Barrett with The Wall Street Journal, we thank you.

  • DEVLIN BARRETT:

    Thank you.

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