On Monday, Barack Obama set a new record for the number of pardons and commutations granted in a single day by bestowing pardons on 78 federal prisoners and reducing the sentences of 153 others. Among the prisoners granted clemency were 54 serving life terms. Meanwhile, even as Islamic terrorists were striking targets in Germany and Turkey, other reports indicate the president plans to transfer up to 18 additional detainees out of the American prison at Guantánamo Bay. During his tenure he has decreased the number of detainees held at the facility for accused terrorists from 242 to (after his latest order takes effect) as few as 41. According to an article in the Washington Times from last January, the president’s determination to winnow the Guantánamo facility’s population as much as possible has forced administration officials to release ever higher-risk prisoners. That article states: “About 30 percent of Guantanamo graduates have resumed, or are suspected of restarting, terrorist activity. The number will likely increase as intelligence agencies gather more information.” A 2008 security assessment for one released member of al Qaeda read, for example:
Detainee has threatened to kill all Americans and identified [bin Laden] as his brother in arms … Detainee was recruited through a known al Qaeda facilitation network and he was identified as a suicide operative. Detainee’s threats to kill U.S. personnel and his refusal to truthfully answer questions indicate his continuing support to extremism.
By January 2016, however, the administration considered the prisoner sufficiently rehabilitated to leave the facility. We have been reporting on the president’s unprecedented clemency activity throughout the year (including here, here, and here). The administration claims that it has carefully vetted applicants for clemency to ensure only non-violent offenders were approved. But as noted in our prior reports, a number of them were serving lengthy terms, in some cases life, for armed drug trafficking crimes and other firearm-related offenses. The same was true of numerous prisoners who were pardoned on Monday. Their convictions include multiple counts of knowingly disposing of a firearm to a felon and falsification of firearm background check forms; use of a firearm in relation to a drug trafficking offense; unlawfully transporting firearms; possession of a stolen firearm; felon in possession of a firearm; possession with intent to distribute cocaine base; and even involuntary manslaughter. And while the president has used his executive authority to rewrite what he considers to be historic wrongs in the sentencing of crimes involving crack cocaine, the ravages of the crack trade on urban communities are well known. Recounting the height of the crack era, a New York City-based Drug Enforcement Administration agent told Frontline: “Crack literally changed the entire face of the city. I know of no other drug, except maybe LSD in its heyday, that caused such a social change.” The agent specifically cited street violence, child abuse, and spousal abuse, what he called, “horror stories that you wouldn’t believe.” He also noted the peculiar tendency of crack-addicted mothers to abandon their own children. And there’s no reason to believe President Obama is finished releasing prisoners back into the communities they once victimized with their crimes. In announcing the most recent commutations and pardons, a White House lawyer stated, “Today’s grants signify the President’s continued commitment to exercising his clemency authority through the remainder of his time in office. … I expect that the President will issue more grants of both commutations and pardons before he leaves office.” To say that Obama has a “commitment” to exercising his authority to release those convicted of violent crimes is putting it lightly. According to an article in Time from late November, even before his record-breaking day, Obama had “commuted more sentences than the past 11 presidents combined.” Obama’s White House tenure will soon come to an end. But the actions he is taking now will no doubt carry significant consequences for the future, consequences he will have caused but will no longer have to deal with as America’s president. His high-dollar donors and sycophants will have little to fear, but the ordinary Americans he has scorned or ignored will, as usual, bear the brunt of his decisions.