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“If the president wants to address this issue - whether because the time has come anyway or as part of a larger Middle East peace initiative - he has the absolute power to do so as the head of the government by commuting Mr. Pollard’s sentence to time served,” Lowell said in an email.

The documents Pollard smuggled out of a Navy facility included classified information about U.S. weapons and military capabilities. They also detailed radar-jamming techniques and electronic capabilities of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and other moderate Arab governments, and included information about intelligence gathering in the United States by China. The Israeli government paid Pollard $45,000 for the documents, reimbursed him for three trips to Europe and Israel, and lavished expensive jewelry on his wife.

In a 1986 court statement that was made public in December 2012, then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger said Pollard had done “irrevocable” damage to the U.S. He said Pollard had provided the Israelis with more than 800 U.S. classified publications and more than 1,000 classified messages and cables.

“The defendant has substantially harmed the United States, and in my view, his crimes demand severe punishment,” Weinberger wrote. The court statement was part of a declassified CIA assessment of national security damage caused by Pollard’s disclosures.

During 1998 negotiations for a land-for-peace deal brokered at Wye River, Md., CIA Director George Tenet told Clinton he would resign if Pollard were freed as part of the talks. That apparently is the closest the U.S. had come to considering his release.

“I was shocked to hear Pollard’s name arise in the middle of these negotiations,” Tenet wrote in a memoir. “We were there to broker peace, not to pardon people who had sold out their country.”

But over the years, some former U.S. officials have softened. Former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Schultz and former CIA Director R. James Woolsey have called for Pollard’s release, as has Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

Even so, McCain said Tuesday that linking Pollard’s release to the Mideast peace negotiations “smacks of desperate diplomacy.” He joined a chorus of Obama administration critics who said Pollard should be freed either on the merits of his parole application or on humanitarian grounds - not as a carrot to keep talks afloat.

Even Democrats were skeptical. “It’s hard for me to see how that would jump-start the Mideast peace talks,” said Senate intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein. “It’s one thing after an agreement. It’s a totally other thing before an agreement.”

Elliott Abrams, a senior Mideast adviser to President George W. Bush, said it was logical that Pollard’s freedom would be given more consideration now, when he is close to parole eligibility. But Abrams said “it’s a very bad idea” and warned that it would amount to injecting politics into a foreign policy process.

The U.S. initially hoped to secure a peace agreement by the end of April. When it became clear several months ago that neither side was anywhere close to an agreement Kerry said he aimed to reach a framework by then to serve as the basis for continuing negotiations. But even that benchmark appeared elusive as Israeli and Palestinian leaders failed to agree on what the framework would include. Abrams said he believes Pollard should be released, but he said it appears it is being considered now only to keep Abbas from walking away in anger as a result of Israel failing to release more prisoners.

“It’s diplomatic malpractice in my view,” Abrams said. “You’re going to keep Abbas at the table for a few more months. What are we going to give him next year to keep him at the table?”


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Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Brussels, and Robert Burns, Eric Tucker, Bradley Klapper and Donna Cassata in Washington contributed to this report.