President Donald Trump‘s flurry of pardons before leaving the White House include the handler of a former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst who spied for Israel.
Aviem Sella, 75, a former Israeli air force colonel and spy, was indicted by American courts in 1986 for conducting espionage on behalf of the Israeli government. He recruited and handled Jonathan Pollard, an American analyst who provided thousands of classified American documents in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars.
The case strained ties between the two nations and Pollard—arrested in 1985—was eventually sentenced to life in prison. He was released in 2015 but parole rules kept him in the U.S.
This parole was terminated in 2020—Pollard said likely with a “wink and a nod” from the White House—allowing the 66-year-old and his wife to move to Israel, where he had been awarded citizenship in 1995.
The pardon statement from the White House said: “Sella’s request for clemency is supported by the Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer, the United States Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, and Miriam Adelson”—the widow of billionaire and GOP super-donor Sheldon Adelson, who died this month.
“The State of Israel has issued a full and unequivocal apology, and has requested the pardon in order to close this unfortunate chapter in U.S.-Israel relations,” the statement read.
Netanyahu celebrated Pollard’s release in December, meeting him and his wife on the tarmac at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport. Days after his parole ended, the prime minister spoke with Pollard by phone and told him: “When are we going to see you here? We’re waiting for you.”
When he landed in Israel, Pollard said: “We are ecstatic to be home at last. There is no one who is more proud of this country or its leader than we are. We hope to become productive citizens as soon as possible.”
Sella served in the Israel Defense Forces during the 1982 Lebanon War and was involved in Operation Mole Cricket 19, a daring and successful Israeli effort to suppress Syrian surface-to-air missile sites at the outset of the war. After this, he took a sabbatical to travel to the U.S.
There, he earned a master’s degree in computer science at New York University. While working towards his PhD, Sella recruited Pollard, who told his new handler that the Americans were withholding important intelligence from Israel.
According to The New Yorker, Pollard’s monthly salary from the Israelis eventually rose to some $2,500 per month, with tens of thousands of dollars more spent to cover costs for hotels, meals and even jewelry. In his pre-sentencing statement, Pollard admitted he “did accept money for my services,” which he said was “a reflection of how well I was doing my job.”
The assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting Pollard said the spy was thought to have received a total of $50,000 in cash from his Israeli handlers, and was told another $30,000 would be deposited annually for him in a foreign bank account.
Pollard, the attorney said, had committed to spy for Israel for at least 10 years and would receive some $540,000 over the course of the arrangement.
Sella’s role was not made public during Pollard’s trial, which meant he—unlike the spy’s other handlers—was not given immunity in return for cooperation with the investigation. Sella returned to Israel, which refused to extradite him to the U.S. where he was tried and convicted in absentia.
The issue continued to strain U.S.-Israeli relations. When Sella was given command of the country’s Tel Nof air base, Congress threatened to cut military aid to Israel. The country refused to remove Sella, who eventually resigned to defuse the stand-off.