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Convicted Spy Jonathan Pollard To Be Released From Prison In November

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

One of the biggest spy cases of the past 30 years is drawing to a close. Today, the U.S. Parole Commission unanimously recommended that Jonathan Pollard be released. He had pleaded guilty to selling classified information to Israel. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The real-life espionage case seemed more like a movie when it broke back in 1985.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: FBI agents yesterday arrested Jonathan Pollard, a civilian counterintelligence analyst for the Navy, as he tried to escape into the Israeli Embassy in Washington.

JOHNSON: Jonathan Pollard eventually pleaded guilty, he said in order to ensure a relative received medical care. A federal judge in Washington sentenced him to life behind bars. But under the laws on the books at the time, Pollard would become eligible for mandatory parole after 30 years. Now that term is nearly up. This month, at a parole hearing in North Carolina, Pollard's lawyers emphasized his spotless prison record and argued there was no chance he'd ever break the law again. But former Justice Department and intelligence officials who worked on his case say he did grave damage to national security. Here's one of them, Spike Bowman, talking at a conference last year.

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SPIKE BOWMAN: He took so much information to the Israelis that they had to install two high-speed copiers in an apartment to take care of everything that he brought them.

JOHNSON: As for Pollard, he told the CBS program "60 Minutes" about some of his reasons.

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JONATHAN POLLARD: Soft reasons having to do with family that was destroyed in the Holocaust, having to do with the realization that this government, in the '40s, had abandoned the Jewish people to its fate in Europe.

JOHNSON: But retired federal agents say they believe Pollard was actually motivated by financial gain. Pollard's volunteer lawyers say they've secured him housing and a job in New York when he's released November 21, but they're asking the White House to grant him clemency to let him out sooner. Word of Pollard's release comes as the Congress debates whether to approve a nuclear deal with Iran. Israel, which opposes the deal, has long pressed for Pollard's freedom. But the White House says there's no link between his case and any foreign policy considerations. Attorney General Loretta Lynch offered her own response at the Aspen Security Forum last week.

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LORETTA LYNCH: I would say that it would have been extremely far thinking of people 30 years ago to sentence Mr. Pollard and set this mandatory release date to coincide with the Iran deal.

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LYNCH: And if they were able to pull that off, I'd be quite impressed.

JOHNSON: Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.