Is Obama’s Drug Clemency a Mirage?

President Obama once promised hope and that is what some non-violent drug offenders have left as they serve draconian “drug war” sentences. But Obama’s offer of clemency may be more mirage than reality, says ex-CIA officer John Kiriakou, who himself was imprisoned for telling the truth about illegal torture.

By John Kiriakou

The federal government’s program to reduce prison sentences for thousands of federal offenders sentenced under draconian drug laws will fail to help almost anybody without the immediate intervention of the White House. In the meantime, thousands of federal drug offenders are stuck in a rut with no end in sight.

The Justice Department announced the Clemency Project in 2014 as a way for drug offenders to argue that their sentences are overly long, and that, if their crimes had been committed today, they would have been given significantly less time in prison. For many federal prisoners, this program is the only chance they have to have some semblance of a real life, to die outside prison walls, or to spend whatever time they may have left with family.

President Barack Obama talks on the phone with President Vladimir Putin of Russia in the Oval Office, March 1, 2013. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken listen at right. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama talks on the phone in the Oval Office, March 1, 2013. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken listen at right. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The way the program is supposed to operate is that any federal drug offender who meets a strict set of criteria can apply for a sentence reduction. If they meet these criteria, they are assigned an attorney, and that attorney can go before a federal judge and ask for resentencing.

The criteria are that the prisoner must be currently serving a federal sentence in prison and, by operation of law, likely would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of the same offense today; the prisoner must be a non-violent, low-level offender without significant ties to large-scale criminal organizations, gangs, or cartels; the prisoner must have served at least 10 years of his sentence; the prisoner must have no significant criminal history; he must have demonstrated good conduct in prison; and he must have no history of violence prior to or during his current incarceration.

I spent 23 months in prison after blowing the whistle on the CIA’s illegal and immoral torture program. During those 23 months, I made friends, many of whom were doing very long stretches for what seemed to me to be innocuous drug offenses. When the Clemency Project was first announced, it seemed too good to be true. I fear that as the end of the Obama administration nears, it may be.

Let me give you some examples of the people this program is supposed to help. My closest friend in prison was “Mark.” Mark is in his mid-40s and is from Philadelphia. Back in the 1990s, Mark’s stepfather taught him how to make high quality methamphetamine, which they and a group of cohorts then sold to a crime ring in the city. There were nine people in the conspiracy.

After about six months, Mark decided that this wasn’t the life for him, and he voluntarily left the operation. He was the only person to do so. Mark went on to open a successful small business that employed a half dozen people, he got engaged, and he started to build a life for himself.

Years passed. Finally the FBI, DEA, and ATF swooped in and arrested everybody except Mark. He waited another year for the other shoe to drop and, finally, he was arrested, too.

Mark refused to testify against his co-defendants. He didn’t realize that they had all agreed to testify against him. Eight of the defendants took pleas and got sentences of five and a half years. Mark went to trial, where he was found guilty of conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine.

Despite the fact that he was the only defendant to leave the conspiracy, and despite the fact that he had the least involvement in the conspiracy, he was given three consecutive sentences of life without parole. That was later reduced on appeal to 30 years. This was for a first-time, nonviolent drug offender.

Mark has been in prison for more than 16 years. His record has been exemplary. He’s earned a variety of certifications, he has a loving and supportive family, and he’s never been in trouble. He can and should be a productive member of society. His only hope is the Clemency Project.

Mark’s case is not unusual. There are thousands of people in our prisons like him. And many are in even worse situations. The Huffington Post recently reported on the story of Carlos Tapia-Ponce, a 94-year-old serving a life sentence for managing a cocaine warehouse. He has been in prison for 26 years and has twice been denied compassionate release for chronic health problems.

Even though he has also been denied release under the Clemency Project, his attorney is appealing the decision, and the application apparently will be reconsidered. If the Clemency Project is not for Carlos Tapia-Ponce, then who is it for? Is this 94-year-old man that much of a threat?

One question that the Justice Department  and sentencing judges  ought to ask themselves is, “Is society truly served by keeping these people in prison, in some cases for the rest of their lives?” I would posit that it is not. Society would be better served if these prisoners could work, pay taxes, tend to their families, and lead normal lives. Long sentences are punitive. They don’t help “society” in any way.

As for the President, addressing draconian drug sentences is a great idea, even if it doesn’t address the sentencing laws themselves. The Clemency Project has the potential to help thousands of people  indeed, thousands of families  rebuild their lives.

But it will only work if the Justice Department can process the applications. And that hasn’t happened. A year after the program was announced, only two out of 30,000 prisoners had had their sentences shortened. By December 2015, the list of those whose sentences were commuted grew by only another 95.

We need presidential action right now. Without it there will be no legacy of justice in drug sentencing. And there’s not a lot of time.

John Kiriakou is an associate fellow with the Institute for Policy Studies. He is a former CIA counterterrorism officer and a former senior investigator with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. [This story originally appeared at Readers Supported New at ]

6 comments for “Is Obama’s Drug Clemency a Mirage?

  1. J'hon Doe II
    February 1, 2016 at 20:01

    A selection of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s writings for searching and browsing

    Literary Ethics: from Addresses, published as part of Nature; Addresses and Lectures

    Ralph Waldo Emerson

    An Oration delivered before the Literary Societies of
    Dartmouth College, July 24, 1838


    The invitation to address you this day, with which you have honored me, was so welcome, that I made haste to obey it. A summons to celebrate with scholars a literary festival, is so alluring to me, as to overcome the doubts I might well entertain of my ability to bring you any thought worthy of your attention. I have reached the middle age of man; yet I believe I am not less glad or sanguine at the meeting of scholars, than when, a boy, I first saw the graduates of my own College assembled at their anniversary. Neither years nor books have yet availed to extirpate a prejudice then rooted in me, that a scholar is the favorite of Heaven and earth, the excellency of his country, the happiest of men. His duties lead him directly into the holy ground where other men’s aspirations only point. His successes are occasions of the purest joy to all men. Eyes is he to the blind; feet is he to the lame. His failures, if he is worthy, are inlets to higher advantages. And because the scholar, by every thought he thinks, extends his dominion into the general mind of men, he is not one, but many. The few scholars in each country, whose genius I know, seem to me not individuals, but societies; and, when events occur of great import, I count over these representatives of opinion, whom they will affect, as if I were counting nations. And, even if his results were incommunicable; if they abode in his own spirit; the intellect hath somewhat so sacred in its possessions, that the fact of his existence and pursuits would be a happy omen.

    Meantime I know that a very different estimate of the scholar’s profession prevails in this country, and the importunity, with which society presses its claim upon young men, tends to pervert the views of the youth in respect to the culture of the intellect. Hence the historical failure, on which Europe and America have so freely commented. This country has not fulfilled what seemed the reasonable expectation of mankind. Men looked, when all feudal straps and bandages were snapped asunder, that nature, too long the mother of dwarfs, should reimburse itself by a brood of Titans, who should laugh and leap in the continent, and run up the mountains of the West with the errand of genius and of love. But the mark of American merit in painting, in sculpture, in poetry, in fiction, in eloquence, seems to be a certain grace without grandeur, and itself not new but derivative; a vase of fair outline, but empty, — which whoso sees, may fill with what wit and character is in him, but which does not, like the charged cloud, overflow with terrible beauty, and emit lightnings on all beholders.

    I will not lose myself in the desultory questions, what are the limitations, and what the causes of the fact. It suffices me to say, in general, that the diffidence of mankind in the soul has crept over the American mind; that men here, as elsewhere, are indisposed to innovation, and prefer any antiquity, any usage, any livery productive of ease or profit, to the unproductive service of thought.

    Yet, in every sane hour, the service of thought appears reasonable, the despotism of the senses insane. The scholar may lose himself in schools, in words, and become a pedant; but when he comprehends his duties, he above all men is a realist, and converses with things. For, the scholar is the student of the world, and of what worth the world is, and with what emphasis it accosts the soul of man, such is the worth, such the call of the scholar.

    The want of the times, and the propriety of this anniversary, concur to draw attention to the doctrine of Literary Ethics. What I have to say on that doctrine distributes itself under the topics of the resources, the subject, and the discipline of the scholar.

    I. The resources of the scholar are proportioned to_______________

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:” [This is a cause that’s] bringing people in both houses of Congress together.
    It’s created some unlikely bedfellows.
    You’ve got Van Jones and Newt Gingrich.
    You’ve got Americans for Tax Reform and the ACLU.
    You’ve got the NAACP and the Koch brothers.

    No, you’ve got to give them credit.
    You’ve got to call it like you see it.”

    Truth vs. Bullspit
    Ye Be the Judge.

  2. Charles Taylor
    January 30, 2016 at 08:31

    I would like to feel bad for the non-violent offender in this story, “Mark.” However, I have witnessed very clearly how the drug he was manufacturing ravages lives. Methamphetamine, in every shape and color, has directly led to loss of human life in the most horrific and violent shapes and colors that can be imagined. The collateral damage of abandoned and abused family is beyond measure. My opinion on those who manufacture and/or make that particular drug available on the streets is they should be thrown under the jail forever. Is society truly served by keeping these people in prison for the rest of their lives? I posit the answer a definite yes. And, yeah, I realize the “drug war” has been largely ineffective and mostly socially damaging. Still my own personal experiences prevent me from feeling sympathy for “Mark” or anyone else like him. Sorry.

  3. J'hon Doe II
    January 29, 2016 at 00:57

    It’s not an Obama “liberal program” Bob –
    It’s the F -k’t up United States criminal justice system.

    Read to link above… .
    What’ Obama’s doing is chumming up with the Koch Brothers.
    JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Jane, I’d like to ask you—in July, speaking at the NAACP annual convention in Philadelphia, President Obama praised the Koch brothers for their involvement in the campaign to reform the criminal justice system. This is what he said.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:” [This is a cause that’s] bringing people in both houses of Congress together. It’s created some unlikely bedfellows. You’ve got Van Jones and Newt Gingrich. You’ve got Americans for Tax Reform and the ACLU. You’ve got the NAACP and the Koch brothers. No, you’ve got to give them credit. You’ve got to call it like you see it.”

    JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, a day after President Obama’s speech in July, we interviewed Mark Holden, senior vice president and general counsel for Koch Industries, on why the Koch brothers were getting involved in a coalition to reform the criminal justice system.

    Jane Mayer: And the Kochs have long cared about criminal justice reform. But what people may not realize is that they’ve pushed a different kind of reform than most liberals have. What they would like to do is get rid of many crimes that have to do with pollution, that have to do with corporate crimes, tax crimes. They want to weaken prosecution of companies like their own.

    Now, there is a tiny overlap. If you did a Venn diagram of where the far right and everybody else overlaps, they would like to see sentencing reform for drug offenders at this point, which—nonviolent drug offenders, which you’ve—you know, it’s an important issue. It’s good they’re talking about it. It’s not something they’ve cared about until 2014. And I have a new piece out in The New Yorker which notes that in 2014 they launched a huge public relations campaign to change their image. They’re involved in what David Axelrod described as one of the biggest rebranding efforts anybody’s ever launched. And I see this as certainly part of it.

    And the reason I do is—you’ll see, if you read this book—there are tapes. There are tapes that were leaked out from one of their meetings, where they describe how they need to change their image. After they did not win the presidency in 2012, despite the money they put behind Mitt Romney, they went back to the drawing board, and they tried to figure out what they were doing wrong. And they did a huge number of polls. And they came to the conclusion that the public thought they were greedy and didn’t trust them. And so, they speak in this tape about how we need to prove that we have good intent and we care about other people. And at that point, they launched a number of programs that have to do with doing good works for the poor. So, I see this as quite related to that.

  4. Bob
    January 28, 2016 at 17:26

    Another Obama “Liberal” program. Our first black president is in the tradition of post-civil war black carpetbagger politicians for hire. Not really his fault, he is just a “gussied-up” butler doing what his Wall Street masters tell him to do.

  5. J'hon Doe II
    January 28, 2016 at 15:54
    • ahf
      January 28, 2016 at 20:48

      yes–like so many other beautiful speeches he has made–much is said -very little done.

Comments are closed.