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Presidents often pay price for granting high-profile pardons

President Bush faces risks if he pardons I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice. (Gerald Herbert/associated press)

WASHINGTON -- Richard Nixon. Mark Felt. Caspar Weinberger. Marc Rich.

Is President Bush willing to risk -- on behalf of former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby -- the kind of political grief that pardons for those four men brought the presidents who granted them?

Nixon resigned the presidency over the Watergate scandal. Felt was the FBI man convicted of ordering illegal break-ins. Weinberger was the defense secretary charged in the Iran-Contra scandal. Rich was a fugitive financier.

All received presidential pardons processed outside normal channels.

As in those cases, Bush would have to bypass the regular clemency process to pardon Libby for the four felonies he was convicted of on Tuesday. Such pardons historically have gotten presidents into political trouble.

A number of conservative politicians, bloggers, and commentators, including editorial writers for the National Review and Wall Street Journal , want Libby pardoned -- preferably now. Top Democrats have demanded that Bush pledge not to pardon Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff.

William Jeffress, one of Libby's lawyers, said, "I believed a pardon for Scooter was appropriate last summer" when it came out that a State Department official, not Libby, was the initial source for a newspaper column disclosing the classified CIA job of Valerie Plame Wilson , wife of Iraq war critic Joseph Wilson.

White House press secretary Tony Snow said the president is careful about pardons and takes the process very seriously. "He wants to make sure that anybody who receives one -- that it's warranted," Snow said.

Compared with other chief executives, Bush does not grant many pardons. In his first year as Texas governor, he was betrayed. A constable he pardoned for a marijuana conviction was caught months later stealing cocaine.

As president, he's granted 113 pardons in just over six years -- the most restrictive record among the 11 presidents since the end of World War II.

The Constitution grants the president absolute power to grant pardons, without approval by Congress or second-guessing by the courts. Several have risked their reputations to do it:

President Ford pardoned Nixon for Watergate before Nixon was charged. Many observers say the resulting rage cost Ford his 1976 bid to be elected president.

President Reagan pardoned Felt and another FBI executive in 1981 while they were appealing convictions for ordering secret and illegal searches of the homes of relatives and friends of violent opponents of the Vietnam War. Prosecutor John W. Nields Jr. said Reagan surely did not know what the trial brought out about Felt -- who was later unmasked as the "Deep Throat" source that helped expose Watergate.

On Christmas Eve in 1992, just before he left office, the first President Bush pardoned Weinberger and a CIA official as they awaited trial on Iran-Contra charges, as well as four other administration officials who had pleaded or been found guilty in the scandal. Prosecutor Lawrence Walsh contended that "the Iran-Contra coverup . . . has now been completed," thus blocking him from fully examining Bush's role.

On his last day in office in 2001, President Clinton pardoned 140 people. One was Rich, who had lived abroad for 17 years to avoid trial on charges of evading $48 million in taxes. Congress held hearings on the Rich pardon. A federal investigation looked into whether the pardon was a reward for contributions by Rich's former wife to Clinton's library and his wife's Senate campaign; no charges were brought.

None of these pardons went through the vetting process set up at the Justice Department by President McKinley in 1898.

Department rules require that those seeking pardons wait five years after conviction or release from prison, whichever is later, before applying. Presidents are not bound by department regulations.

The waiting period allows petitioners "to demonstrate they can live as productive, law-abiding citizens," said Margaret C. Love, the department's pardon attorney from 1990 to 1997.

The pardon attorney's career staff verifies claims of rehabilitation and checks with the prosecutor, judge, and victim. Positive evaluations can shield a president from criticism.

Career prosecutors take a grave view of crimes against the justice system, such as perjury and obstruction of justice.

US attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who prosecuted Libby, voiced that viewpoint after winning the convictions. "Truth is what drives our judicial system," he said. "If people don't tell the truth, the system cannot work."

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