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John Kiriakou: Pardoning Turkeys Instead of Humans

Almost no pardon applications ever actually make it to the president’s desk if you don’t go gobble gobble.
President Harry Truman with a turkey, presented to him by the Poultry and Egg National Board, in the White House Rose Garden on Nov. 16, 1949. (Harry S Truman Presidential Library/NARA/Flickr)

By John Kiriakou / Consortium News

I apologize for complaining every year when the U.S. president, no matter who it is, pardons two turkeys just before Thanksgiving. I don’t think it’s funny or cute or festive. I think it’s an insult to every person in America who actually deserves a pardon.

It’s bad enough for people like me, (or Jeffrey Sterling, Thomas Drake, or any other national security whistleblower) who have done their time, have applied for pardons from multiple presidents, and have been ignored.

Imagine what it must be like for people who are innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. What must go through Leonard Peltier’s mind every year at the end of November, for example?

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The Thanksgiving tradition began in 1863, when Abraham Lincoln pardoned a turkey, an act that wasn’t even reported in the press until 1865. By the early 20th century it was common practice to give friends and family members live poultry as an early Christmas gift and to have them “pardon” the turkey or chicken as part of a “Poultryless Thursday,” according to the White House Historical Society. How nice.

If you’re not a turkey, there is a hard-and-fast process for getting a pardon. First, a person who has been convicted of a federal crime must wait for five years after the expiration of his sentence, as well as any probation or parole. He must then go to the website of the office of the U.S. Pardon Attorney and fill out an electronic application. 

The former prisoner must be able to prove that he has shown public remorse for his crime and that he has led a productive and positive life since leaving prison. That sounds easy enough. With recidivism rates under 50 percent, you would think that there were plenty of eligible pardon applicants. But that’s not how the system works in real life. 

Prosector Gets a Say

First, the Office of the U.S. Pardon Attorney was supposed to be independent of the Justice Department. Indeed, the office was supposed to be housed in the White House as part of the Executive Office of the president. But it’s not. It’s housed at the Justice Department at 905 Pennsylvania Avenue NW in Washington. 

When a person applies for a pardon, the application works its way through the Justice Department’s bureaucracy and is then referred to the F.B.I. for a background investigation. Regardless of what the F.B.I. background investigation finds, the investigators always interview the case’s prosecutors and others associated with the prosecution. According to the U.S. Pardon Attorney’s website:

“The Pardon Attorney routinely requests the United States Attorney in the district of conviction or the Assistant Attorney General to provide comments and recommendations on clemency cases … The views of the United States Attorney are given considerable weight in determining what recommendations the Department should make to the President … The Pardon Attorney also routinely requests the United States Attorney to solicit the views and recommendation of the sentencing judge.”

The initial reaction of most American upon reading this is likely, “OK. That sounds great. There’s a system in place to pardon people.” But it’s not so simple. Almost no pardon applications ever actually make it to the President’s desk.

Few Get Approved

During the Obama Administration, there were 3,395 applications for pardons. Two hundred twelve were granted, 1,708 were formally denied, and the rest were ignored. That’s an approval rate of 6.2 percent. 

The Trump Administration was a little better, at least on paper, approving 144 of 1,969 applications, for an approval rate of 7.3 percent. Many of those approved by Trump, however, were cronies, political supporters, convicted war criminals and Republican insiders.

That brings us to Biden. The President made big news earlier this year when he pardoned 6,500 people who had been convicted on federal charges of “simple possession of marijuana.” That’s everybody who had ever been convicted of that crime. Ever. But those charges were all misdemeanors.

So how many other pardons has Joe Biden granted since he became President? Three. That’s right. Three. One had been sentenced to 87 months in prison for possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine.

The second was a former Secret Service agent convicted in 1964 of soliciting money to commit fraud and obstruction of justice. The third was convicted of facilitating the distribution of marijuana and aiding and abetting.

I’m happy for them. But I’m angry that the president hasn’t been more generous with one of the most impactful executive powers he has. Maybe he’ll be more generous later.

In the meantime, the rest of us go through life as “convicted felons.” I can’t even begin to tell you how many jobs I’ve been denied because of that. Bank of America closed my checking account and sent me a letter saying, “Sorry. We don’t do business with felons.”

USAA canceled my car insurance and said the same thing.

I’d really like to get past all of this. I’m sure everybody else with a felony conviction would like it, too. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that Joe Biden is the guy to do it.

And in the meantime, I’ll do my best to save enough money to do it the Washington way—I’ll hire a lobbyist to make a back room deal.

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John Kiriakou
John Kiriakou

John Kiriakou is a former CIA counterterrorism officer and a former senior investigator with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. John became the sixth whistleblower indicted by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act—a law designed to punish spies. He served 23 months in prison as a result of his attempts to oppose the Bush administration’s torture program.


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