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The Spy Who Shared Secrets: Who Is Jonathan Pollard?

John Kerry is considering paroling Pollard. Here's what's in it for the U.S., for Israel, and the basics of what got Pollard behind bars in the first place.
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As a last-ditch effort to salvage peace talks in the Middle East, the U.S. is considering a move that has been flatly rejected by numerous administrations over the past 30 years: paroling convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard.

Pollard, 59, a Jewish American who worked as a civilian intelligence analyst for the U.S. Navy, was arrested by FBI agents in 1985 for giving reams and reams of secret documents to Israel. He was sentenced to life in prison, beginning a decades-long sticking point between the U.S. and its ally, Israel.

Now Secretary of State John Kerry is considering releasing Pollard. Here's what's in it for the U.S., what's in it for Israel, and the basics of what put Pollard behind bars in the first place.

What did Jonathan Pollard do?

Pollard had been working as a research analyst in the Threat Analysis Division of the Navy's Field Operations Intelligence Office, in the office's Anti-Terrorist Alert Center, when he was recruited by an Israeli intelligence officer in 1984.

Pollard had access to the most up-to-date intelligence in the U.S. government, and he leaked documents to Israel over the course of 18 months.

Image: Jonathan Pollard is pictured in this May 1991 file photo, six years after his 1985 arrest
Jonathan Pollard is pictured in this May 1991 file photo, six years after his 1985 arrest.HANDOUT / Reuters

"I know of no other spy in the history of the United States that stole so many secrets, so highly classified, and such a quantity, over a short period of 18 months," said former Naval investigator Ron Olive, who interrogated Pollard in the 1980s.

"He stole literally — not like it is today with Snowden where he can pull a chip off and have a million documents — Pollard literally stole a million paper documents. When you add that up, it would fill a room six foot wide, six foot high, and ten foot deep."

The top secret material that Pollard passed to his Israeli handlers ranged from information on Iraqi chemical warfare productions capabilities to Soviet arms shipments to Syria. He was paid about $50,000 for the leaks and reportedly expected to eventually earn half a million dollars for them.

"There have been deep concerns that perhaps that material didn't stay 100 percent with Israel. Intelligence agencies like to trade material," former ambassador to Israel and the U.N. Thomas Pickering said Tuesday on MSNBC's "Andrea Mitchell Reports."

Pollard pleaded guilty to passing classified information to Israel and was sentenced to life in prison for one count of espionage.

What would the U.S. gain by releasing him?

Pollard sought executive clemency from Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, but was repeatedly denied. Many people in the U.S. intelligence community strongly oppose his release: Former CIA Director George Tenet even threatened to resign in 1998 when a Pollard-freeing deal with Israel was being considered.

So why would the Obama administration consider freeing Pollard now, 29 years into the saga?

It's a last resort for the U.S.-brokered peace talks in the Middle East, said Robert Danin, senior fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"Secretary Kerry is extremely keen to bring about a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, and at this point just ensure that the negotiations continue," Danin said. "He's pulling out all the stops to try to find ways to keep the parties going. This being something that's of importance to Israel, it's something that's trying to be used as an incentive to try to get the Israelis to make other concessions."

Under terms of the proposed deal, if the U.S. did release Pollard, Israel would make a number of concessions to Palestinians, including releasing more than two dozen Palestinian prisoners.

Pollard first became eligible for parole in 1995, but he never applied for it, according to officials. (Even if no deal is brokered, a federal law that provides that a person sentenced to life "shall be released on parole" after serving 30 years of a life sentence means Pollard, if he chooses to seek parole, would be eligible on Nov. 21, 2015 — 30 years to the day after he was arrested outside the Israeli embassy in Washington.)

He has been serving his sentence at a federal facility in Butner, N.C.

Kerry and the Obama administration may also be swayed to parole Pollard because of reports in recent years that his health is ailing, and because several former senior officials have changed their tune on keeping Pollard imprisoned. Most recently, James Woolsey, head of the CIA during the Clinton administration, announced last May he now supports clemency after years of opposing Pollard's release.

"There's a sense that the price of him being released is going down, that he's probably served his time — at least this is the argument that some are putting forward," Danin said.

What would Israel gain if Pollard were released?

Both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, backed by Israeli citizens, have publicly voiced support for Pollard, putting pressure on Obama to release him.

"They believe he (Pollard) was unjustly convicted," said Olive, the former Naval investigator. "All other spies that I am aware of that stole got lighter sentences."

When the spying allegations first came to light in the 1980s, Israel denied playing any part in Pollard's actions — something they no longer do, said Danin.

Their mentality now is, "Israelis had a spy and we were responsible to him and for him. We owe it to him to try to get him back, even though there was acknowledgement that he was spying on Israel's best friend in the world," he said.

That, coupled with the sentiment within Israel that Pollard has been incarcerated beyond what is commensurate with his crime, has resulted in a large Israeli fan base for him.

Danin cations that nobody outside of the intelligence community can be certain that they're fully aware of how much Pollard may have threatened U.S. security by sharing documents.

"We don't know precisely how serious and damaging it was," he said.

Click here to read the CIA's damage assessment on the Jonathan Pollard case (.pdf)

NBC News' Pete Williams and Robert Windrem contributed to this report.