If the United States agrees to release convicted spy Jonathan Pollard in an effort to keep Middle East peace talks going, he'd get out of prison about a year and a half before he was eligible to be released anyway.
Pollard is in a class by himself — the only American ever sentenced to life in prison for spying for a U.S. ally. While working as a military intelligence analyst for the Navy in the mid-1980's, he became convinced that the U.S. was not doing enough for Israel.
So on his own, he began smuggling top-secret papers out of the Naval Intelligence Center, handing them to Israeli contacts who set up a high-speed copier at a Washington apartment house. By the time the FBI caught up with him in 1985, trying to seek asylum at Israel's embassy, he'd been spying for 18 months.
The Defense Department said the documents Pollard gave up would fill 30 file cabinets, including closely guarded secrets about U.S. weapons and, even more damaging, detailing intelligence sources in the Middle East that were cut off after Pollard's spying. The secretary of defense declared at the time that he could "not conceive of a greater harm to national security" than Pollard's betrayal.
When Pollard was sentenced in 1986, the federal system still made prison inmates eligible for parole after they had served part of their sentences, a system that was later abandoned but remains in effect for those covered at the time. The law made a person like Pollard eligible for parole "after serving 10 years of a life sentence."
But he never applied for parole, according to officials at the Bureau of Prisons and the US Parole Commission.
A separate federal law provides that a person sentenced to life "shall be released on parole" after serving 30 years of a life sentence. Because Pollard's time behind bars began when he was arrested in 1985, the Bureau of Prisons considers his release date to be Nov. 21, 2015 — 30 years to the day after he was arrested outside the Israeli embassy in Washington.
That law says that parole must be granted, unless the parole commission determines that Pollard has seriously or frequently violated prison rules or concludes there's a "reasonable probability" that he will commit a crime upon his release.
However, federal officials say, Pollard must seek parole in order for that 30-year law to take effect. Most recently, he waived a parole hearing that was to have been held today. Instead, Pollard and his defenders have repeatedly sought presidential clemency.
A parole commission official says Pollard can still be eligible for the 30-year parole, assuming he requests it in time. Typically, the official says, an inmate makes the request with 120 days of a scheduled parole hearing.
Many who were involved in the Pollard case remain adamantly opposed to any release. "Under no circumstances do I support release or clemency," said Joe di Genova, the Washington, DC lawyer who prosecuted Pollard. "It was one of the greatest acts of damage ever done to American intelligence."
But a former senior U.S. intelligence official said Pollard's value as a bargaining chip is fading as the potential parole date approaches.
"For the U.S., it's use it or lose it," the official said.