Prime Directives Versus Just Desserts

Former Vice President Dick Cheney asserts that his former chief of staff, Lewis I. “Scooter” Libby, “deserved a presidential pardon” after his conviction for obstruction of justice, perjury making false statements to federal investigators. President George W. Bush did, as one of his last acts in office, commute Libby’s sentence, but he didn’t pardon the guy, even though Cheney apparently strongly urged him to do so.

Although I disagree with Cheney’s sentiments, I understand his surprise and discomfiture at having been rebuffed in his quest to secure a pardon for his friend. If government has any unquestioned standing rules, one of them is that being a “public servant” means never having to take real responsibility for one’s actions.

When government employees are accused of crimes, their first line of defense is secrecy. At the federal level, this often means using a “classified” stamp on potentially incriminating, or even embarrassing information. While lower levels of government can’t fall back on “national security — classified!” they often simply arrogate themselves the same power without naming it. For example, in the normal course of things, a police department will simply decline to divulge the name of a police officer accused of illegally shooting a suspect or bystander. And usually they’ll get away with it.

The second line of defense is the doctrine of “sovereign immunity.” This is the notion that if someone is “just doing his job” for the government, he can’t be held accountable for the consequences. A related dodge — used to exempt FBI assassin Lon Horiuchi from prosecution for the murder of Vicki Weaver at Ruby Ridge — is the assertion that the Constitution’s “supremacy clause” (article Six, paragraph 2) exempts federal employees from state or local laws.

It’s generally understood in the ranks of government that if stonewalling and falsifying the evidence doesn’t work, and that if “sovereign immunity” isn’t enough to get a government employee off the hook, he or she can expect executive clemency. This comes in two varieties: Commutations of sentence and full pardons.

The gold standard is the full pardon — not only is the criminal’s sentence lifted, but his or her reputation is theoretically rehabilitated and his or her rights — including the “right” to head back to the taxpayer trough — are fully restored. This is what Cheney wanted for Libby.

Commutation of sentence isn’t as good. It allows a criminal conviction to stand, but merely allows the criminal to be spared any as yet unlevied portion of his or her sentence. And it’s handed out like candy: Even reprobates like Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean, the Border Patrol agents who beat a surrendering suspect, shot him in the ass when he tried to flee the beating, left him for dead in the desert and filed false reports to conceal the entire incident, can reasonably hope to receive commutation of their sentences, especially if they enjoy the support of ignorant but energetic constituencies.

Anyway, it’s hard not to empathize with Cheney. He grew up (politically speaking) in the Nixon administration, where even a disgraced president whose errand boys had committed a burglary which he had then proceeded to cover up could get pardoned … then three decades later he can’t get the same for the little guy who’s willing to take one for the team.

When considering the nature of government, it’s useful to reflect on things like the Bush/Cheney/Libby controversy. These incidents really point up the nature of the state: It’s a criminal conspiracy in which the kingpins have the power to pardon their co-conspirators. Nice gig if you can get it, I guess.

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