WASHINGTON — Jonathan Pollard, a former Naval intelligence analyst convicted of spying for Israel and passing along a trove of classified documents, has been granted parole and will be released from prison in November after nearly 30 years, his lawyers said Tuesday.
The decision to free Pollard caps an extraordinary espionage case that stoked public passions. Critics condemned the American as a traitor who betrayed his country for money. Supporters argued that he was punished excessively given that he spied for a U.S. ally.
The politically charged matter also surfaced last year during Middle East negotiations and has spurred decades of legal wrangling and periodic efforts to win his release.
Pollard, 60, was sentenced to life in prison in 1987, two years after he was caught trying to gain asylum in the Israeli embassy in Washington.
Under federal sentencing rules in place at the time, he became eligible for parole in November, the 30th anniversary of his arrest. A three-member panel of the U.S. Parole Commission unanimously voted to grant him parole, effective Nov. 21, according to a statement from his attorneys, and the Justice Department did not raise objections to his release.
"We are grateful and delighted that our client will be released soon," said a statement from the lawyers, Eliot Lauer and Jacques Semmelman.
They said the decision to grant him parole, which followed a July 7 hearing, was "not connected to recent developments in the Middle East" — an apparent reference to a recent nuclear deal that the U.S. struck with Iran and that Israel had bitterly opposed.
White House and other officials have denied that Pollard's planned release is in any way tied to the Iran nuclear deal. And Israeli officials have said while they would welcome Pollard's release, it would not ease their opposition to the Iran agreement.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who testified before Congress on the deal on Tuesday, told reporters Pollard's parole was "not at all" related to the nuclear deal.
The U.S. had previously dangled his release, including during Israel-Palestinian talks last year, when the Obama administration considered the possibility of releasing Pollard early as part of a package of incentives to keep Israel at the negotiating table. As it turned out, the peace effort collapsed despite the Pollard release offer and nothing came of the proposal.
Pollard, 60, has battled health problems in recent years and is being held in the federal prison in Butner, North Carolina.
Had he been denied parole, his lawyers said, Pollard would have been required to serve an additional 15 years in prison. But the Justice Department earlier this month signaled that it would not oppose Pollard's parole bid.
The attorneys said Pollard was "looking forward to being reunited with his beloved wife Esther."
The U.S. says Pollard provided reams of sensitive and classified information to Israel, including about radar-jamming techniques and the electronic capabilities of nations hostile to Israel, including Saudi Arabia.
A court statement from then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger said Pollard did "irrevocable" damage to the U.S. and had provided the Israelis with more than 800 U.S. classified publications and more than 1,000 classified messages and cables. Portions of the Weinberger document that have been declassified state in part that Pollard admitted passing to his Israeli contacts "an incredibly large quantity of classified documents" and that U.S. troops could be endangered because of the theft.
"He took an oath to support the constitution of the United States, and he failed it," said M.E. "Spike" Bowman, the director of Naval Intelligence at the time of Pollard's arrest. "The fact that he gave it to an ally, that makes absolutely no difference to me. I'm glad that it was an ally rather than the Russians, but what he did makes absolutely no difference."
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee and Deb Riechmann in Washington contributed to this report.