By Christi Parsons and Timothy M. Phelps, Tribune Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration appears to have begun considering the early release of Jonathan Pollard, an American serving a life sentence for spying for Israel, as it tries to nudge the Middle East peace process forward.
On Monday, U.S. officials conspicuously declined to comment on reports that Pollard’s release might be under consideration. Just days earlier, the State Department had issued flat denials after Israeli press reports that the idea was under discussion.
The shift in the official response suggested that — once again — the government might be looking at the early release of Pollard as a way to advance Mideast negotiations.
Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have repeatedly sought Pollard’s early release. Some U.S. officials believe that releasing him could ease the way for Netanyahu to accept negotiating steps the administration wants him to take, particularly the release of Palestinians convicted of terrorist acts.
But U.S. defense and intelligence officials have fought the idea for years, with the CIA leading the way. In 1998, when President Bill Clinton agreed to review the case with an eye toward moving along a Mideast peace accord, CIA Director George Tenet threatened to resign if Pollard were released.
Pollard, 59, a former intelligence analyst for the Navy, pleaded guilty to selling U.S. secrets, including satellite photos and data on Soviet weapons and ship movements, to Israel in the early 1980s. He was sentenced to life in prison in 1987 and is being held at the federal prison in Butner, N.C.
Under federal sentencing rules, Pollard will be eligible for parole in November 2015. As that date draws near, the long-standing opposition to releasing him early might wane, some analysts suggest.
Like his predecessors, Obama has opposed Pollard’s release. Last week, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki made the possibility sound out of the question.
“Jonathan Pollard was convicted of espionage against the United States, a very serious crime, was sentenced to life in prison and is serving his sentence,” Psaki said in a statement. “There are currently no plans to release Jonathan Pollard.”
On Monday, White House press secretary Jay Carney emphasized only the first part of that statement.
“I have nothing new about Jonathan Pollard that I haven’t said in the past, which is that he was convicted of espionage and he is serving his sentence,” Carney said.
“I have nothing to add to that,” Carney said, before adding, “When it comes to the Middle East peace process and the work being done with both parties to try to move that process forward, there’s a lot of complicated moving parts.”
Seymour D. Reich, an influential New York lawyer who has been campaigning for Pollard’s release, said he thinks the situation is moving in Pollard’s favor.
“I think it’s going to happen, and it’s overdue,” said Reich, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP