President Obama should pardon the nation’s leading political prisoners and whistleblowers as a lasting legacy, particularly in view of his uplifting rhetoric and his party’s losses Nov. 8.
Justice for those who have been framed in high-profile, historic cases — which include the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert F. Kennedy — would provide a vital civic lesson as the nation wrestles with what Electoral College winner Donald Trump has called his campaign for "law and order." Many Americans in the plurality that supported his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton interpret Trump's words, rightly or wrongly, as code for repression.
A bold pardon plan for the Obama administration’s final weeks would channel much of the sadness, anger and bickering prevalent among many Democrats who outvoted Republicans in the popular vote by about one percent but still lost the presidency, Congress, and soon the Supreme Court.
Pardons would redress the Obama administration's failings in several specific criminal cases — and bolster reform efforts more generally, including those envisioned by Republicans.
We recommend (and are doing so in lectures in Washington, DC and Dallas this week) that Obama show mercy to a representative sample of still-living defendants in political prosecutions. In some cases, political leaders were imprisoned for long terms far out of proportion to their conduct. In other instances, patsies took the fall for major crimes and brave whistleblowers were crushed.
These injustices have cleared the way for more powerful malefactors to escape. Perhaps worse, honest law enforcers, whistleblowers, and other good citizens are being discouraged for the future.
Our non-partisan Justice Integrity Project has documented these abuses extensively, as well as the way powerful financial and intelligence operatives assisted the president's early career in secret. Today, we draw on these previous columns and our book, Presidential Puppetry, which contain extensive appendices citing others' reporting and evidence.
The material today is blunt. That's needed to cut through the post-election clutter of punditry. Therefore, the president probably would not like it if he saw this. So, this column is not aimed for his attention but for yours. You cannot pressure effectively without the basic facts.
Several of the recommended pardon recipients, such as President Kennedy's former Secret Service protector Abraham Bolden (shown above), met their unjust fate because their brave whistleblowing sought to redress some of the nation's most outrageous scandals. Malefactors so powerful as to constitute a "Deep State" of hidden government controllers created some of these scandals.
Other defendants, such as Sirhan Sirhan, the accused killer of the leading 1968 Democratic presidential contender Robert Kennedy, appear to have been fall guys set up to hide the intrigues that shape our political landscape today. Even if Sirhan did kill Kennedy, as seems unlikely from the evidence, Sirhan should have been released long ago under standard parole guidelines. Instead, authorities are able to keep any important secrets hidden.
The photo of Kennedy's close friend Paul Schrade at right symbolizes the torment felt by some of those in the know about the nation's deepest mysteries.
The photo was taken by an Associated Press pool reporter during a closed February hearing after California authorities again denied Sirhan parole unfairly and with scant explanation. Schrade was shot by Sirhan in the head during the 1968 killing in a pantry of the Ambassador Hotel. Schrade is among those who believe Sirhan was firing a gun from Kennedy's front and could not possibly also have shot Kennedy from behind with the fatal bullet.
Yet authorities perpetuate the conventional wisdom through the years after destroying evidence, ignoring witnesses like Schrade, and keeping Sirhan behind bars.
Therefore, it would take an act of political courage for President Obama and his team seriously to reopen any of these mysteries. But the important point is that action by Obama would lessen the public's plight, not just that of defendants.
That would make pardons all the more impressive for his legacy because they would illustrate how he changed from his announcement just before taking office in 2009 that he would "look forward, not backward" at alleged government misconduct. Commentators interpreted Obama to mean that he would essentially ignore previous government crime, such as CIA torture.
Obama issued just one presidential pardon during his first term. That was far below the number granted by his predecessors. Obama's first White House counsel, Gregory Craig, has since explained that presidents and governors these days risk hurting their reputations by using their constitutional powers to grant clemency.
So, increasingly, few of them undertake a responsibility that Constitution framers regarded as essential for chief executives to grant, as we reported in a 2012 column Presidential Clemency System Broken, Experts Say. The trend illustrates yet-another aspect of the decline of rule of law and is particularly harmful when used to silence those involved in historic events since at least some person released is bound to become controversial.
Obama granted vastly more clemency actions during his second term. But he took few risks because he and his pardon office at the Justice Department focused on low-profile offenders.
The president reduced 102 sentences last month according to a CNN report, Obama reducing 102 inmates' sentences, the latest batch in a record-setting effort by the White House to reverse harsh sentences for mostly nonviolent drug offenders.
"Obama has now granted clemency to 774 individuals, the vast majority of whom were serving time for nonviolent drug crimes," the report said. "Just in the past year, Obama has granted clemency to 590 prisoners, the most commutations in any single year of US history."
Few of the beneficiaries were known to the public. Thus, the president conserved his political capital especially in his first term by studiously avoiding high-profile clemency that might annoy the nation's power structure, which has been instrumental, if not treasonous, in some of the major cases described below.
The president could simply limp through his remaining weeks and ceremonies (including the annual symbolic pardoning of a turkey at the White House) as he and the nation await the dismantling of his major policies and programs under a Trump presidency and Republican-controlled House, Senate and Supreme Court.
The White House photo above from last year on Nov. 25 displays a feel-good moment. The president, his daughters Sasha and Malia, and National Turkey Federation Chairman Jihad Douglas participated in the annual National Thanksgiving Turkey pardon ceremony in the White House Rose Garden.
But a difference this year is that many people do not feel good and want more than photo ops and rhetoric from leaders.