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the Cleveland Plain Dealer

Bush White House Likes a Guy with Conviction(s)

Elizabeth Sullivan

Now that Scooter Libby isn't going to jail, he can take heart at some of the employment prospects that could await him.

Presidential clemency may be a long-honored tradition going back to George Washington, who pardoned 19 men in the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion.

Yet it's also becoming a ticket back to public life.

Take the current administration.

One pardoned political miscreant - Elliott Abrams - now is the top National Security Council official running White House policy on the Middle East.

In 1991, Abrams pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of withholding from Congress information about the Iran-contra arms-for-hostages scandal. He was pardoned soon after by the senior President Bush.

Today, some credit Abrams with the strategy of arming and training Fatah militants in the Gaza Strip - so they could be decisively defeated by Hamas in bloody street battles.

For a while, the State Department under the current President Bush was running what looked like an employment bureau for earlier-investigated bureaucrats.

No longer on the payroll is Otto Reich, who couldn't get confirmed because of the taint of directing what investigators called a "prohibited, covert propaganda" office at the State Department in the 1980s. The office promoted the Nicaraguan contras.

Reich denied wrongdoing and never was charged with any misdeeds. Nonetheless, President Bush had to wait until Congress went off on a recess in 2002 to name Reich assistant secretary of state for Western hemisphere affairs.

In the job, Reich helped turn the tide - of anti-U.S. hostility.

He was so openly critical of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez that it fed a still-persisting belief in the region that the United States was behind the failed 2002 Venezuelan coup against Chavez - even though an internal State Department report cleared U.S. officials of wrongdoing. Bush later named Reich a "special envoy" - another job Congress didn't have to confirm - before Reich left the administration in 2004.

John Negroponte today is a workhorse of U.S. diplomacy, former ambassador to the United Nations and Iraq, now deputy secretary of state.

Yet documents released in recent years regarding possible U.S. knowledge of Honduran human-rights abuses in the 1980s suggest that Negroponte, as U.S. ambassador from 1981 to 1985, was among a small clique of officials who played down significant abuses by the Honduran military while helping hide Honduran aid to the Nicaraguan contra rebels.

Negroponte was never charged with any wrongdoing.

Not so Watergate figure John Poindexter, who briefly served at the Pentagon during Bush's first term. From 2002 until Congress yanked the funding in 2003, Poindexter ran a controversial information technology office within the forward-thinking Defense Advanced Research Project Agency charged with examining ways to counter asymmetric threats, such as those from terrorists.

Poindexter, however, didn't need a pardon. His 1990 conviction for obstruction, making false statements to Congress and conspiracy related to the Nixon-era Watergate cover-up was reversed on appeal because prosecutors failed to segregate testimony protected by a congressional grant of immunity.

Granted, Libby still has a felony conviction on his record (pending a pardon). That may not stop future presidents from offering him their version of the full employment act for tainted public servants.

Sullivan is The Plain Dealer's foreign-affairs columnist and an associate editor of the editorial pages.

© 2007 The Plain Dealer

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