WASHINGTON // As the Christmas holiday approaches, a few convicted felons hope to land at the top of George W Bush's gift list. In the final two months of his presidency, many people believe Mr Bush will sign a spate of 11th-hour presidential pardons, a strange - and, some say, frequently abused - power bestowed on all US presidents by the constitution. The country's founding document grants the president nearly limitless power "to grant reprieves and pardons". Anyone, other than an impeached president, can be granted clemency, regardless of what crime they commit. A pardon does not need congressional approval, it cannot be overturned, and the president is not required to explain his actions.
"That is as close as the president gets to being a king," said Raghav Singh, the author of Presidential Pardon. Past presidents have granted clemency to quite a ragtag group, from convicted drug dealers and murderers to draft dodgers and white-collar criminals. Even a former president, Richard Nixon, was granted a pre-emptive presidential pardon to guard against potential prosecution stemming from the Watergate scandal.
Such meddling in the criminal justice system has sometimes erupted into storms of controversy. During Bill Clinton's administration, for example, a special prosecutor was assigned to investigate the 140 pardons and 36 commutations that he inked on his final day in office. Among those Mr Clinton chose to exonerate were well-funded political allies, convicted domestic terrorists and his own half-brother, Roger Clinton, who had been convicted on a drug charge in the 1980s.
Still, presidential pardons are more commonly used in less controversial ways, said Margaret Colgate Love, who served as the US pardon attorney from 1990 to 2007. Ms Love said most pardon recipients these days are rehabilitated criminals, or those who have served out their sentences and become law-abiding citizens but who are still saddled with the "stigma of conviction". Former criminals, she said, may be barred from certain jobs, and may experience difficulties with ordinary tasks such as voting and obtaining licences. Sometimes the only way to correct that is through a pardon, she noted.
"It is, in a sense, like putting a period to the end of the criminal justice experience," said Ms Love, who now has a private practice representing clients who seek clemency. Mr Bush has issued 157 pardons during his eight years in office, fewer than any other recent president except for his father, George HW Bush, who issued 74 in a four-year span. None of the younger Bush's pardons have raised any eyebrows.
And there may not be any reason to expect a spree of new pardons during Mr Bush's final weeks in power. Despite Mr Clinton's last-minute rash of reprieves, history shows that most presidents grant pardons evenly throughout their presidencies. Still, the rumour mill in Washington has been churning at full speed, as journalists and political analysts guess which unsavory characters might make Mr Bush's list.
The name that surfaces most often is Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the vice president's former chief of staff, who was convicted last year of obstructing a federal leak investigation. Mr Libby's sentence has already been commuted. Others wonder whether Mr Bush will offer pre-emptive pardons to government workers who have used harsh interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects. A pardon would protect those who employed the controversial methods - which were approved by the White House - against future prosecution.
And, of course, there is Ted Stevens, the longest serving Republican senator in history, who is fresh off a conviction in federal court for concealing more than US$250,000 (Dh918,000) in gifts from an oil tycoon. Although such pardons would likely spark criticism, Mr Bush will not be the first to face the public's wrath over his clemency powers. The absolution of Mr Nixon by his successor, Gerald Ford, enraged critics who wanted to see the disgraced president stand trial. On Jimmy Carter's first day in office, he granted blanket amnesty to thousands of US citizens who unlawfully dodged the Vietnam War draft, a move that angered many veterans.Ronald Reagan pardoned Robert Wendell Walker, who had been convicted of attempted bank robbery and then went on to murder his wife in 2000. George HW Bush set off a firestorm when he pardoned six of Mr Reagan's officials - including Caspar Weinberger, the former defence secretary - for their roles in the Iran-contra affair.
In 2000, Democrats and Republicans roundly criticised Mr Clinton when he granted a reprieve to Marc Rich, a "fugitive financier" indicted for evading $48 million in taxes. Before the pardon, Mr Rich's ex-wife donated $450,000 to Mr Clinton's presidential library and $70,000 to Hillary Clinton's successful senate campaign, gifts that many saw as a quid pro quo. Kathleen Dean Moore, the author of Pardons: Justice, Mercy and the Public Interest, said pardoning political friends violates the original purpose of pardon power, which is to enable the president to deliver "a more perfect justice".
"The pardoning power is supposed to be a matter of public welfare," she said. Ms Moore said she doubted that Mr Bush would pardon Mr Libby, who many believe was a scapegoat for a plot hatched at the highest levels of Mr Bush's administration. She also questioned whether Mr Bush would issue a blanket pardon to interrogators who may have violated international law by acting on his orders. "There is very strong tradition in the law that nobody should be his or her own judge," she said. Mr Reagan, for example, resisted the temptation to pardon his own officials in the Iran-contra affair, instead leaving that task to his successor. "It would be like [Mr Bush] finding a way to forgive himself."
Still, Mr Bush, who is no stranger to controversy, has divulged little about his intentions. And, with presidential pardons, he does not have to. "We never discuss pardons and the process," Dana Perino, the president's press secretary, told reporters on Wednesday. "I can't tell you when the president would be issuing pardons. I expect that there would be some. I don't expect them in the last day though."