The prospect of releasing convicted spy Jonathan Pollard has outraged some in the U.S. defense and intelligence community despite a softening of that stance in recent years among prominent lawmakers, former diplomats and other respected leaders.
Reports that the Obama administration is weighing the early release of Pollard, an American citizen convicted of spying for Israel, as a way to jump-start stalled peace talks prompted a strong reaction from those long-opposed to the move.
“Jonathan Pollard has nothing to do with the peace process,” said Danielle Pletka, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute who spent years as a staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Pletka views the release of Pollard as a bribe that would prompt the Palestinians to demand the release of thousands of terrorists in return.
“And if that's what it takes, what will it take to keep a peace should there ever be one?” she told the Washington Examiner. “The whole display is farcical, with [Secretary of State John] Kerry hopping about and begging the parties, the Arabs marveling that it's all Obama seems to care about in the region and now the Israelis adding their own ridiculous demands to the mix. What next? A circus?”
Major players in the intelligence community for years remained united in arguing that Pollard's early release would send the wrong message to would-be spies.
Former CIA Director George Tenet famously told President Bill Clinton that he would resign if Pollard was granted any clemency, arguing in his memoir that “once word got out” he would “be effectively through as CIA director.”
In recent years, however, some of that resolve has been crumbling with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., former CIA Director James Woolsey and former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Schultz all calling for Pollard's early release.
News of the Obama administration's willingness to consider early release for Pollard came Monday as Kerry made a beeline to Tel Aviv to try to re-start peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf didn't mention Pollard when discussing Kerry's decision to return to the region Monday.
“The Israelis and the Palestinians have both made tough choices,” she said. “And as we work with them to determine the next steps, it is important that they remember that only peace will bring the Israeli and Palestinian people both the security and economic prosperity they all deserve.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney sidestepped a question about whether the U.S. is weighing the possibility of an early release for Pollard in exchange for concessions in the Mideast peace talks.
“What I'll say is that 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 told reporters Monday.
“When it comes to the Middle East peace process and the work being done with both parties to try to move the process forward, there's a lot of complicated moving parts,” he added.
Over his first year as secretary of state, Kerry has renewed the peace talks, but they have broken down in recent weeks over several issues, including whether Israel will agree to the release of two dozen suspected terrorists after previously releasing three other groups of prisoners as part of the negotiations.
Pollard, a Jewish American, is serving a life sentence for passing classified information to Israel while working as a civilian intelligence analyst for the U.S. Navy. He pleaded guilty in 1987.
He is eligible for parole and may be released on Nov. 21, 2015.