Speaking of Pardons...

Breckinridge L. Willcox - Washington Post - February 24, 2001

Some of President Clinton's last-minute pardons have generated a firestorm of controversy, especially those such as Marc Rich's, in which there was willful circumvention of the normal recommendations and reviews done by the Justice Department and the pardon attorney. But there are other pardons on the Jan. 20 list that, although subjected to Justice's vetting process, are equally problematic. One of them involves former Navy intelligence analyst Samuel Loring Morison. It is difficult to justify on factual, legal and policy grounds.

At the time of his crimes in 1984, Morison was a civilian employee of the Naval Intelligence Support Center (NISC). He was the Soviet amphibious analyst and carried a top secret Sensitive Compartmented Information security clearance. He was well aware of the restrictions placed on his use, handling and dissemination of classified information. At the same time, and known to the Navy, Morison was employed as editor of the American section of Jane's Fighting Ships, an annual publication of a British concern, Jane's Publishing Co.

On July 24, 1984, Morison stole four glossy photographs from the desk of a fellow NISC employee. The photographs, taken a few days earlier by a KH-11 reconnaissance satellite, depicted a Soviet aircraft carrier under construction in a Black Sea naval shipyard. The photographs were stamped "Secret" and "Warning Notice: Intelligence Sources or Methods Involved" on the borders. Morison cut the warnings off the photographs and mailed them to his contacts at Jane's Defence Weekly. One adorned the cover of the Aug. 11 issue, and all were subsequently reproduced in numerous news media.

In early August, Jane's Defence Weekly provided Morison a check for $300 for "editorial contributions for July 1984." This was in addition to his annual editor's fee received from Jane's Fighting Ships. At the same time, Morison had been seeking employment at Jane's, and the day after he mailed the photographs, he wrote a Jane's editor asking to be remembered "when next year's budget is put together or when there is a vacancy."

The publication of the photographs caused a predictable reaction within the American intelligence community, and an extensive investigation was undertaken. Morison repeatedly lied to his superiors about his involvement, and even suggested others as possible culprits. When interviewed by the FBI, he denied ever having seen the photographs and having received any money from Jane's Defence Weekly.

At the request of American authorities, Jane's returned the photographs. A latent thumbprint of Morison's was identified on one of them. On Oct. 1, 1984, Morison was arrested at Dulles Airport as he was about to board a plane for England. He again denied involvement. A search of his apartment turned up two excerpts from classified NISC intelligence reports concerning an explosion at a Soviet naval facility at Severomorsk. His office typewriter ribbon was found to contain numerous letters to Jane's officials, including a summary of the Severomorsk explosion.

Simply put, Morison was acting with the basest of motives -- stealing classified information to curry favor with a potential employer. He was indicted on charges of espionage and theft of government property. Convicted by a jury on all charges, he was sentenced to two years' imprisonment, and served his time.

At trial, on appeal and in his pardon application, Morison argued that he was a well-intentioned "leaker" motivated purely by patriotic concerns and that he was "targeted" for prosecution as a "test case." Those arguments were rejected by the jury and by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Morison conviction has been cited by the Department of Justice as a seminal case, justifying the use of the espionage laws to prosecute those who willfully compromise intelligence sources and methods. It stood as a signal reminder to those with access to classified information that they will be held to their oath.

The Clinton pardon is inexplicable. While submitted through the pardon attorney, it failed miserably to meet the two key standards published by the Justice Department for favorable consideration: acceptance of responsibility and impact on law enforcement. A pardon applicant must, according to the standard, "be genuinely desirous of forgiveness rather than vindication." Morison's application -- and supporting letters from his surrogates such as Arthur Schlesinger -- repeated the flawed claim that Morison was well intentioned; indeed, Morison lied in his application by asserting that "no money changed hands."

Morison's efforts to liken himself to Daniel Ellsberg do not stand up to scrutiny. He repeatedly lied and declined multiple opportunities to validate his claimed motivation. The government, the jury and reviewing courts all viewed his defense of a "pure press leak" as contrived. His pardon application never even addressed his conviction involving the Severomorsk information, on which there could be no claim of a well-intentioned "leak."

More important, law enforcement and the validity of prosecuting deliberate compromising of classified information cannot possibly be served by this pardon. The pardon attorney's published standards include the following: "[t]he likely impact of favorable action, particularly on current law enforcement priorities, will always be relevant to the President's decision." While I was not privy to the pardon attorney or Justice Department's recommendation to the president, it would be astounding to think it was favorable.

President Clinton did more than simply ignore the interests of law enforcement in this case; he affirmatively thwarted them.

The writer, a Washington lawyer, was U.S. attorney in Maryland and handled the Morison case on appeal.

See Also:
  • The Clemency Page
  • Clinton Ignored CIA in Pardoning Intelligence Analyst