Pardoning former sailor was the right thing to do

President Donald Trump was right to pardon Kristian Saucier. The former submarine machinist's mate received a year in federal prison and an other-than-honorable discharge for photographing components of the USS Alexandria's nuclear propulsion system.

What Saucier did was wrong, as he has admitted, but in taking the case to federal court the military and the FBI treated him differently and more harshly than other crew members or famous higher-ups with their own confidential materials problems — presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Army General David Petraeus, for example.

Now that Saucier has been pardoned in the criminal case, the Navy ought to review his discharge status, which affects his eligibility for benefits as a veteran.

Kristian Saucier pleaded guilty in May 2016 to a single count of unauthorized retention of national defense information, a felony charge. He served almost a year in prison at Federal Medical Center at Fort Devens in Massachusetts. He was released Sept. 6, 2017.

Saucier was a crew member on the Los Angeles-class Alexandria when, on at least three different occasions in 2009, he used his cellphone camera to take pictures of various technical components while the submarine was docked at the Naval Submarine Base in Groton. The investigation began in 2012 after his cellphone was found in a dump in Hampton. By that time he was a first-class petty officer serving as an instructor at the Naval Nuclear Power Training Unit in New York state.

His obvious bad judgment in taking photos of his workplace, which he knew was against the law, was compounded by his destruction of a personal camera, the camera's memory card and a laptop that investigators found in the woods on property owned by a family member.

But no evidence was presented at trial that he conveyed the images of classified components to a foreign agent. The cases of two other Alexandria crew members, charged with taking similar pictures, were handled within the Navy justice sytem. Those resulted in loss of pay and, in one case, reduction in rank.

Federal District Court Judge Stefan R. Underhill dismissed a second charge on which Saucier was indicted, obstruction of justice. In imposing a lighter sentence than the guidelines called for, Underhill called the case "sad" but said that every service person needs to understand "the consequences of playing fast and loose with important information."

Many Americans, particularly veterans, saw irony in the contrast between Saucier's punishment and then-unfolding news of Hillary Clinton's loose email practices with classified material during her time as Secretary of State. Even more galling to some was the comparison to President Barack Obama's pardoning of Chelsea Manning who, as PFC Bradley Manning before her gender transition, leaked hundreds of thousands of classified documents.

General Petraeus, meanwhile, got off with a relative slap on the wrist. He pleaded guilty in 2015 to a misdemeanor charge of mishandling classified material, information he had given to his mistress, who at the time was researching a book. 

Military veterans and former federal employees who had past access to confidential information told The Day at the time of Saucier's sentencing that they had been constantly instructed about the rules governing secrecy. People in those roles must be vigilant about the principles of confidentiality and avoid even a technical offense such as Saucier claims. There is a camera in every pocket that holds a smartphone, and as Judge Underhill recommended, the temptation to use it should be removed by a ban on cellphones in confidential areas.

While the pardon was fair, no one should mistake the fact that presidential pardons are generally more about politics than clemency. Trump forecasted the pardon in an appearance on Sean Hannity's Fox News program, just as he did with his pardoning of former sheriff Joe Arpaio, a retired Arizona lawman who was convicted for intentionally disobeying a judge's order in an immigration case. Before his pardon, Saucier had been discussing his case, as is his right, on mostly conservative talk shows that could be expected to have among their listeners people who support the president.

The Justice Department's usual process for pardons might have eventually produced one for Saucier, but not before the usual five-year waiting period that is meant to give an idea of the person's rehabilitation. By pardoning him now, the president had a win-win: fairness for Saucier much sooner and a chance to be magnanimous.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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