President Bill Clinton ignored a recommendation from the CIA last month when he pardoned former Navy intelligence analyst Samuel L. Morison, the only government official ever convicted of leaking classified information to the media.
While Clinton's pardon of former CIA director John M. Deutch caught CIA officials by surprise, the president solicited advance comment from the agency on the possibility of pardoning Morison, who leaked three secret spy satellite photographs to Jane's Defence Weekly in 1984. But Clinton ultimately disregarded the agency's position and approved a pardon application Morison submitted to the Justice Department more than two years ago.
"We said we were obviously opposed -- it was a vigorous 'Hell, no' ," said one senior intelligence official. "We think giving classified information to people who are unauthorized to receive it is a bad thing to do and giving pardons to people who are convicted of doing that sends the wrong signal to people who are currently entrusted with classified information."
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence this week launched an inquiry into both intelligence-related pardons, asking CIA Director George J. Tenet in a letter whether he or anyone else in the U.S. intelligence community had advance knowledge that Clinton was considering pardoning either Deutch or Morison.
Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), the committee chairman, expressed particular concern about Clinton's decision to pardon Deutch without informing federal prosecutors, who had just finished negotiating a plea agreement with the former spy chief over the mishandling of classified information on unsecure home computers.
The agreement -- nullified by the pardon -- called for Deutch to plead guilty to a misdemeanor for the retention of classified information and to pay a $5,000 fine. It remains unclear whether Deutch asked for a pardon or whether Clinton acted on his own.
After Clinton issued 176 pardons and commutations on Jan. 20, his last day in office, Shelby and Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, sharply criticized the Deutch and Morison pardons.
Pardoning the only government official ever convicted of leaking classified information, the intelligence chairmen said, would do nothing to stop a torrent of media leaks in Washington. Indeed, Shelby said the pardon only underscores the need for new legislation explicitly criminalizing leaks.
But civil libertarians and First Amendment advocates lauded Clinton for pardoning Morison, arguing that the Reagan administration had inappropriately turned Morison's 1984 leak into a test case of whether the espionage statutes applied to unauthorized disclosures to the media.
"The pardon itself was an act of moral courage," said Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' project on government secrecy. "The president had nothing to gain by granting the pardon. The action was only going to irritate hard-liners in Congress and the intelligence community."
By pardoning Morison, Aftergood said, Clinton struck a blow for press freedom with a move that could make it difficult for prosecutors to convict government officials for media leaks in the future.
"There's been one and only one [successful] prosecution of leaks to the media -- and now there's been a pardon," Aftergood said. "It sends a signal that this is not something that should be prosecuted."
Reached at his home in Crofton, Md., Morison said yesterday in an interview that he was wrong to leak satellite photos of a Soviet aircraft carrier to Jane's. But he said he did so to alert the public that the Soviet Union was preparing to vastly expand its naval reach, and that he took no payment for the photographs.
Morison, 56, the grandson of famed naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison, said he is gratified by the pardon. "My family is very appreciative -- it removes a stigma," Morison said. "And if you know my family, that means a lot."