The White House is reviewing a new pardon request from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the case of former Navy intelligence analyst Jonathan Jay Pollard, who is serving a life sentence for spying for Israel.
The request came in a letter to President Obama from Mr. Netanyahu, who read it aloud during a session of the Israeli parliament on Tuesday, noting that the case “unites us all.”
“We have received the letter and will review it,” White House spokesman Thomas Vietor said, declining further comment.
In the past when Israel requested a pardon for Pollard, a U.S. citizen who was convicted of espionage in 1986, U.S. intelligence community leaders privately opposed several clemency appeals.
Last month, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said he was unaware of discussions between the president and Mr. Netanyahu on the issue and noted that he was “not aware that that’s something that the president is looking at doing.”
Joseph DiGenova, the former U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case, said Tuesday that Pollard was a spy who was paid and who tried to entice others to join his operation.
Mr. DiGenova said Pollard received about $500,000 a year plus expenses for giving intelligence documents to Israeli agents.
“By the time he was caught, he caused enough damage to U.S. intelligence that, according to the Defense Department, it cost between $3 billion and $5 billion to fix because of what he compromised,” Mr. DiGenova said. “That the country he spied for is seeking clemency is not only unprecedented, it is a joke.”
According to court documents and former intelligence officials close to the case, Pollard was rejected for a post at the CIA in 1977 and two years later went to work as a civilian intelligence analyst for the Navy.
He began spying for Israel in May 1984 and was arrested on Nov. 21, 1985, after he and his wife, Anne, were turned away by guards at the Israeli Embassy in Washington after they sought asylum.
He pleaded guilty to spying in a plea bargain in June 1986 and was given a life prison term in March 1987.
Pollard was able to walk out of his office with thousands of pages of classified intelligence documents because of poor security at the Naval Investigative Service headquarters in Suitland, Md.
Officials said at the time that the documents revealed information about the identities of U.S. and allied agents and electronic eavesdropping programs, as well as data that compromised codes used in secret communications.
President Clinton rejected a pardon appeal from Israel in January 1993 and turned down a direct request from Mr. Netanyahu, during his first term as Israeli prime minister, at a summit at Wye River, Md., in October 1998.
Supporters of Pollard, including Reagan administration Pentagon official Lawrence Korb, said the life sentence was unfair because Pollard agreed to cooperate with authorities in conducting a damage assessment.
The life sentence was based on a still-secret letter to the court from then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger outlining the damage.
Mr. Korb said in an address to the Israeli Knesset on Dec. 20 that the Weinberger memorandum exaggerated the damage from the case and that Pollard should be released after serving 25 years because he has paid his debt.
A former intelligence official close to the case, however, said the Weinberger statement identified 19 categories of damage and that Pollard’s prison time is not the issue. “The real issue is the truth, not the claims of Pollard apologists,” he said.
The Israeli government said at the time of Pollard’s arrest that his spying activities were part of a rogue operation.
But over time, Israeli leaders admitted that the case was officially sanctioned and pressed for his release. The first to do so was Yitzhak Rabin, the first Israeli prime minister to try to negotiate an independent Palestinian state.
Mr. Netanyahu has been particularly persistent in seeking Pollard’s release. In 2007, the Israeli leader visited Pollard in prison, and during his most recent campaign for prime minister, he promised to secure Pollard’s release.
Despite opposition from intelligence leaders, some U.S. politicians have expressed sympathy for Pollard.
Mr. Clinton wrote in his memoir that “for all the sympathy Pollard generated in Israel, he was a hard case to push in America; he had sold our country’s secrets for money, not conviction, and for years had not shown any remorse. When I talked to [National Security Adviser] Sandy Berger and [CIA Director] George Tenet, they were adamantly opposed to letting Pollard go, as was [Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright.”
Mr. Tenet at one point threatened to resign if Pollard was granted clemency, according to Mr. Tenet’s memoir.
In a 2000 debate during her U.S. Senate campaign in New York, Hillary Rodham Clinton said she had questions about due process in the handling of the Pollard case. “The question for me is around the due process issues concerning the way that he was sentenced,” she said.
In 1999 in a letter organized by Sen. Richard C. Shelby, Alabama Republican, a bipartisan group of 58 senators wrote to Mr. Clinton opposing a pardon for Pollard.
Mr. Shelby, at the time chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said of the case: “It doesn’t matter who you are working for. It’s illegal. Espionage is espionage, whether for friend or foe.”
The spy case soured the close intelligence relationship between U.S. and Israeli spy agencies for many years.
Israeli Mossad officer Rafael Eitan, whose career was cut short by the case, stated in 1997 that the case caused a “big fuss,” but that the risk was part of the espionage game.
“That is the lot of an intelligence officer who runs complex intelligence operations. When you work a lot and do a lot, especially in the intelligence field, you win some and you lose some,” Mr. Eitan told the newspaper Yediot Aharonot.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said Pollard should be released because of the length of the term so far and Pollard’s repeated expressions of remorse.
“I think it is a matter of justice and compassion that he be released,” he said. “This does not dismiss what he did, but he has paid a disproportionate price for his crime.”