President Bush's press conference today made me suspect that he plans at least some pardons to block prosecution of CIA and Pentagon employees and contractors involved in so-called "enhanced interrogation" of war-on-terror prisoners. I think the president may also extend clemency to those who took part in the warrantless wiretapping program(s) he ordered. (I offered an early assessment of the pros and cons of such pardons in The New York Sun more than a year ago.)
To be sure, Mr. Bush dodged the pardon question when it was put to him today by Sheryl Gay Stolberg of the New York Times. "I won't be discussing pardons here at this press conference," he said.
However, during the presser, the president was at his most passionate, even resentful, when he described second guessing of his post-9/11 decisions.
"All these debates will matter not if there's another attack on the homeland," he said. "The question won't be, you know, were you critical of this plan or not; the question is going to be, why didn't you do something?Do you remember what it was like right after September the 11th around here? ...People were saying, how come they didn't see it, how come they didn't connect the dots? Do you remember what the environment was like in Washington? I do. When people were hauled up in front of Congress and members of Congress were asking questions about, how come you didn't know this, that, or the other? And then we start putting policy in place -- legal policy in place to connect the dots, and all of a sudden people were saying, how come you're connecting the dots?"
Mr. Bush also made pretty clear that he didn't give a rip about "short-term history," by which he seemed to mean that he'd take his chances with the historians in a decade or more and worries little about his reviews on Jan. 21. He also evinced little concern about the views of his hard-line critics here or abroad, who are likely to be the most vocal about lawlessness and such if he does pardons.
All those factors make me suspect Mr. Bush would be willing to accept the firestorm that would follow pardons. Granted, Vice President Cheney's recent statement that pardons aren't necessary militates slightly against their issuance. So does President-elect Obama's statement that he doesn't want to dwell on the past. However, those who crafted some of these policies trust Democrats and the whole Justice Department for that matter about as far as they can throw them. The issue here is not whether people will be convicted or even indicted for their conduct. Both eventualities are highly unlikely. But mere criminal investigation could cost some officials hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece in legal bills. That prospect is what will push Mr. Bush toward pardons, if the lawyers tell him they are practical.
I put the chance of blanket 9/11-related pardons at about around 65% as of this writing.