JOHN KIRIAKOU: Pardoning Turkeys Instead of Humans

Almost no pardon applications ever actually make it to the president’s desk if you don’t go gobble gobble.

President Harry Truman with a turkey, presented to him by the Poultry and Egg National Board, in the White House Rose Garden on Nov. 16, 1949. (Harry S Truman Presidential Library/NARA/Flickr)

By John Kiriakou
Special to Consortium News

I apologize for complaining every year when the U.S. president, no matter who it is, pardons two turkeys just before Thanksgiving. I don’t think it’s funny or cute or festive. I think it’s an insult to every person in America who actually deserves a pardon.

It’s bad enough for people like me, (or Jeffrey Sterling, Thomas Drake, or any other national security whistleblower) who have done their time, have applied for pardons from multiple presidents, and have been ignored.

Imagine what it must be like for people who are innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. What must go through Leonard Pelletier’s mind every year at the end of November, for example?

The Thanksgiving tradition began in 1863, when Abraham Lincoln pardoned a turkey, an act that wasn’t even reported in the press until 1865. By the early 20th century it was common practice to give friends and family members live poultry as an early Christmas gift and to have them “pardon” the turkey or chicken as part of a “Poultryless Thursday,” according to the White House Historical Society. How nice.

If you’re not a turkey, there is a hard-and-fast process for getting a pardon. First, a person who has been convicted of a federal crime must wait for five years after the expiration of his sentence, as well as any probation or parole. He must then go to the website of the office of the U.S. Pardon Attorney and fill out an electronic application. 

The former prisoner must be able to prove that he has shown public remorse for his crime and that he has led a productive and positive life since leaving prison. That sounds easy enough. With recidivism rates under 50 percent, you would think that there were plenty of eligible pardon applicants. But that’s not how the system works in real life. 

Prosector Gets a Say

First, the Office of the U.S. Pardon Attorney was supposed to be independent of the Justice Department. Indeed, the office was supposed to be housed in the White House as part of the Executive Office of the president. But it’s not. It’s housed at the Justice Department at 905 Pennsylvania Avenue NW in Washington. 

When a person applies for a pardon, the application works its way through the Justice Department’s bureaucracy and is then referred to the F.B.I. for a background investigation. Regardless of what the F.B.I. background investigation finds, the investigators always interview the case’s prosecutors and others associated with the prosecution. According to the U.S. Pardon Attorney’s website:

“The Pardon Attorney routinely requests the United States Attorney in the district of conviction or the Assistant Attorney General to provide comments and recommendations on clemency cases … The views of the United States Attorney are given considerable weight in determining what recommendations the Department should make to the President … The Pardon Attorney also routinely requests the United States Attorney to solicit the views and recommendation of the sentencing judge.”

The initial reaction of most American upon reading this is likely, “OK. That sounds great. There’s a system in place to pardon people.” But it’s not so simple. Almost no pardon applications ever actually make it to the President’s desk.

Few Get Approved

During the Obama Administration, there were 3,395 applications for pardons. Two hundred twelve were granted, 1,708 were formally denied, and the rest were ignored. That’s an approval rate of 6.2 percent. 

The Trump Administration was a little better, at least on paper, approving 144 of 1,969 applications, for an approval rate of 7.3 percent. Many of those approved by Trump, however, were cronies, political supporters, convicted war criminals and Republican insiders.

That brings us to Biden. The President made big news earlier this year when he pardoned 6,500 people who had been convicted on federal charges of “simple possession of marijuana.” That’s everybody who had ever been convicted of that crime. Ever. But those charges were all misdemeanors.

So how many other pardons has Joe Biden granted since he became President? Three. That’s right. Three. One had been sentenced to 87 months in prison for possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine.

The second was a former Secret Service agent convicted in 1964 of soliciting money to commit fraud and obstruction of justice. The third was convicted of facilitating the distribution of marijuana and aiding and abetting.

I’m happy for them. But I’m angry that the president hasn’t been more generous with one of the most impactful executive powers he has. Maybe he’ll be more generous later.

In the meantime, the rest of us go through life as “convicted felons.” I can’t even begin to tell you how many jobs I’ve been denied because of that. Bank of America closed my checking account and sent me a letter saying, “Sorry. We don’t do business with felons.”

USAA canceled my car insurance and said the same thing.

I’d really like to get past all of this. I’m sure everybody else with a felony conviction would like it, too. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that Joe Biden is the guy to do it.

And in the meantime, I’ll do my best to save enough money to do it the Washington way—I’ll hire a lobbyist to make a back room deal.

John Kiriakou is a former C.I.A. counterterrorism officer and a former senior investigator with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. John became the sixth whistleblower indicted by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act—a law designed to punish spies. He served 23 months in prison as a result of his attempts to oppose the Bush administration’s torture program.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

18 comments for “JOHN KIRIAKOU: Pardoning Turkeys Instead of Humans

  1. Paul Sherman
    November 29, 2022 at 13:14

    The ills of the Judicial system come from where the money flows and by what divisions between people can be fabricated (i.e., sexism, racism, etc) to justify changing and controlling that flow.

    The work of John is admirable and commendable.

    It is easy to cast blame and point fingers. It is much more difficult to actually do something about what it is we want to blame and point in the first place. True, a recent article mentions, “We can tax the rich at much higher rates”.(hxxps://

    This past General election Californians had the perfect opportunity to do just that. Proposition 30 gave people a chance to significantly increase the income tax only for those making — and reporting — in excess of $4 million each year. Not only was Prop. 30 defeated by a majority of voters, it was strongly opposed by a Democratic Governor all throughout the campaign.

    Corporate executives may have their faults, as we all do. The real problem is that none of us really want to change the way our economic system works; none of us trust each other more than we trust ourselves, our own instincts; none of us remember enough of the history of a recent past, nor have the passion to read, study, and criticize it.

    Loosing Twitter may actually be a good thing. Isn’t it about time we start fluttering our feathers and chirping in real life?

    Employees have been serfs and slaves of Employers for too long. Isn’t it about time to try something communal, collective, and cooperative?

  2. November 29, 2022 at 06:10

    It horrifies me that the repercussions from your outrageous conviction would follow you for so long; I wish it wasn’t so. BTW, you must have gotten a ton of sympathetic letters when you were incarcerated, one of them mine. I was amazed and thrilled that you wrote me back and I cherish your response of nine years ago. You’re one of the few who make me hopeful for the future; wish there were more.

    • Beatrice Williams-Rude
      November 29, 2022 at 13:36

      Thank you, Rosemary; once again, thank you John!!!
      We are all in your debt.

  3. WillD
    November 28, 2022 at 22:12

    ‘Turkeys’ pardoning turkeys? It’s what many might call ‘taking the piss’.

  4. LeoSun
    November 28, 2022 at 12:28

    Ain’t that America sump’n to see?!?

    “In the land of free and the home of the brave“ GOOD MEN’S & WOMEN’S lives have been totally shattered, tattered & torn to pieces, by their EMPLOYER, The Machine aka the USG. Basically, used, abused & abandoned, by the muckity-mucks, “the state calls its own violence law, but that of an individual, crime.”

    In addition to a colossal GO FUND ME account, a PACT is needed to hold the Agencies’ criminals to account for the crimes they have perpetrated against humanity, in our Divided $tates of Corporate America. WHO they gonna call? The ICC-International Criminal Court? Fuhgeddabout it. The ICC is “DEAD.”

    In May 2002, however, POTUS, Gee Dubyah Bush, “authorised the United States to “un-sign” the Rome Statute because it was fundamentally illegitimate.”

    – According to the Rome Statute, the ICC has authority to prosecute genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes of aggression. It claims “automatic jurisdiction,” meaning that it can prosecute individuals even if their own governments have not recognized, signed, or ratified the treaty.”
    – Thus, American soldiers, politicians, civil servants, private citizens, and even all of you sitting in the room today,” @ The Federalists Society, hosting $atan aka JOHN BOLTON, “are purportedly subject to the court’s prosecution should a party to the Rome Statute or the chief prosecutor suspect you of committing a crime within a state or territory that has joined the treaty.
    – To protect American service members from the ICC, in 2002 Congress passed the American Service-Members’ Protection Act, or ASPA, which some have branded “The Hague Invasion Act.”

    “Today, on the eve of September 11th, I want to deliver a clear and unambiguous message on behalf of the president of the United States: The United States will use any means necessary to protect our citizens and those of our allies from unjust prosecution by this illegitimate court.

    – We will NOT cooperate with the ICC.
    – We will provide NO assistance to the ICC.
    – We will NOT join the ICC.
    – We will let the ICC die on its own.”

    “AFTER ALL, for all intents and purposes, the ICC is already dead to us.” JOHN F/BOLTON

    A Year Ago, 2021, The People’s Forum, hosted VIJAY PRASHAD, “WHAT’s the ‘Left” to do in a World on Fire?” hxxps:// CRANK It UP!!!

    Know, WHERE the muckity-mucks f/up, “They’re NOT Signatories to The Treaty of Rome.”

    – Raise your hand, IF, you were @ The People’s Forum 2022, “A Path to Peace in Ukraine” hxxps://

    A Call for Action, “Abolish the FBI. Abolish the CIA. SAVE, Julian Assange. NO Nukes, SAVE Planet Earth.” I’m on board!!!

    Can “we” make it happen?!?? IMAGINE, if, the first action taken, GONE, Be the Alphabet Agencies, GONE! Abolished. Aborted. Dissolved; AND, the criminals running the Agencies, they GONE, too.” AND, Assange’s, Kiriakou’s, Sterling’s, Drakes, Hedges, The Gray Zone, Pepe Escobar, Daniel Hale, Ed Snowden, CN, et al., everyone whose life has been f/with, now restored. Everybody, One. Everybody, Two. Everybody, FREE of The Machine’s toxic tentacles that got a hold on US!!! Indeed, Protest & Survive!!! Fingers crossed, We, the People, “See you on the Street.”

    “We’re simply trying to survive—and the first principle of survival is not to worry about the impossible and concentrate on what’s possible.” Robert A. Heinlein

    • Paula
      November 28, 2022 at 16:38

      Of course the US withdrew from the ICC. It was and still is criminal. US rules of law are for them to break and to apply only to others.

  5. Winston
    November 28, 2022 at 10:41

    The only Human that Joe Biden is likely to Pardon is Hunter Biden.

    Anything else would require a soul, and Joe Biden was demonstrating as the Senator from MasterCard putting the banks ahead of the bankrupt that he has been without a soul for a long, long time. Of course, remember, that the Federal Death Penalty did not exist before Joe Biden as Judiciary Chair pushed through the Biden Crime Bill that made the Federal Death Penalty a reality. Joe Biden has a proven track record of doing the opposite of pardoning people.

  6. Winston
    November 28, 2022 at 10:37

    I now refer to that show as “Democrats Now!”

    They used to be independent. They were once the voice of the Left’s Anti-Globalization and Anti-War movements. I remember marching and watching Amy Goodman with her portable gear among the antiwar protestors doing reports. But, no longer.

    Somewhere along the way, they found a lot more money than they used to have, and became another voice in the Democrat Noise Machine. These days, they seem far more likely to report a CIA ‘news’ story on Glory to Ukraine than to give a fair voice to a CIA dissident. Democrats Now! is fully a part of the modern Politics of Hate. That’s just my opinion, but it has been a long time since a quick check of their website left me doing anything but fleeing in disgust.

    Just for a check, I went over there, and there are what appear to be CIA sponsored stories of Hatred aimed at both China and Russia at the top of their page. And then I flee quickly, just like I’ve done constantly for quite some time now.

  7. peon d. rich
    November 27, 2022 at 19:33

    What about Leonard Peltier? The most egregious of the many many egregious acts of political prosecution in prison today. Especially in light of Thanksgiving turkey pardons.

  8. November 27, 2022 at 17:50

    As John, knows, it isn’t just the pardon system of the largest prison system in the world that is the problem. The whole system from top to bottom is a corrupt and inhumane system. In school, they teach us that whistleblowers are protected from prosecution — just one more lie told to us by the oligarchy that that cannot bear the light of day.

  9. Bill Todd
    November 27, 2022 at 13:39

    The wording you quoted from the “U.S. Pardon Attorney’s website” is interesting given that it only indicates what recommendations will normally be solicited from elements of the DoJ, not that any entity in the DoJ has actual control over whether the pardon request moves on to the U.S. Pardon Attorney (who is apparently a separate part of the Executive Branch, not a part of the DoJ even though the office shares its building, perhaps because it confers with the DoJ so extensively). Whether the U.S. Pardon Attorney itself has authority delegated by the president to decide whether any given request for a pardon will move on to “the president’s desk” is unclear.

  10. Alex Cox
    November 27, 2022 at 12:17

    The former secret sevice agent pardoned this year was Abraham Bolden. His story is more complex than you suggest, and might be worth retelling.
    Also, weren’t you quoted a cash figure as necessary to obtain a presidential pardon?

    • John Kiriakou
      November 28, 2022 at 10:10

      I sure was. Rudy Giuliani wanted $2 million up front. Cory Lewandowski wanted $1 million. Pardons were literally for sale during the Trump Administration.

  11. Em
    November 27, 2022 at 12:15

    Perhaps a more apt header for the article would have been: Inhumane Beings Pardon Turkeys Instead of Humans?

    Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Ford, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush II, Obama, Trump, Biden.

    “What’s in a Name?” after all!

    Almost seventy years is still par for the course in the American game of politics!

    The rules of the game need to be revolutionized systematically, from the ground up, given that it’s only the select who

    get to participate in the actual play.

  12. TP Graf
    November 27, 2022 at 11:48

    Mr. Kiriakou’s experience with the “pardon” system speaks volumes to how our “caring and visionary” leaders are anything but. The burden of a felony conviction isn’t anything I’ve ever had to bear, but I’ve seen its effects on people first hand–including life-long Democrats expressing concern that I had a felon on the payroll.

  13. G
    November 27, 2022 at 09:44

    Really appreciate you & your insights!
    I once heard you say that “Democracy Now” banned you from their show. I am very curious to know why. Can you share this on Consortium?

    • John Kiriakou
      November 28, 2022 at 10:11

      I honestly have no idea. It’s a shame, too. I like and watch Democracy Now. I have no idea how I fell afoul of them.

      • Bill Carini
        November 29, 2022 at 18:47

        Aaron Maté was once a producer on Democracy Now, and now he can’t get on the show. The only reasonable explanation is that he is blackballed by a major donor to Democracy Now Inc.

Comments are closed.