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Bush Commutes Libby's Prison Sentence
House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (Mich.) said in a statement that "until now, it appeared that the President merely turned a blind eye to a high ranking administration official leaking classified information. The President's action today makes it clear that he condones such activity."
Conyers was expected to move swiftly to conduct hearings on the commutation, congressional sources said.
All but a few Republicans were conspicuously silent. House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) said: "President Bush did the right thing today in commuting the prison term for Scooter Libby. The prison sentence was overly harsh, and the punishment did not fit the crime."
Former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.), an unannounced presidential candidate who has helped lead Libby's defense fund and called for Bush to pardon Libby, said: "This will allow a good American who has done a lot for his country to resume his life."
Libby did not comment publicly on his reprieve from the sentence he received from Walton four weeks ago. One of his attorneys, William H. Jeffress Jr., said yesterday that the legal team learned of Bush's decision just 15 minutes before it was announced publicly.
Theodore V. Wells Jr., Libby's lead attorney, said in a statement last night, "Mr. Libby and his family wish to express their gratitude for the President's decision today." Wells signaled an intent to keep pursuing appeals, saying, "We continue to believe in Mr. Libby's innocence."
Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who led the three-year leak investigation and was the chief prosecutor during Libby's trial, said he did not challenge the president's prerogative under the Constitution to commute prison sentences.
But Fitzgerald disputed Bush's characterization of Libby's sentence as excessive, saying: "An experienced federal judge considered extensive argument from the parties and then imposed a sentence consistent with the applicable laws. It is fundamental to the rule of law that all citizens stand before the bar of justice as equals."
Fitzgerald said Libby "remains convicted by a jury of serious felonies," and he vowed to continue to fight Libby's efforts to overturn his conviction through appeals.
Libby, a 56-year-old lawyer, was Cheney's right-hand man for nearly five years and helped write the administration's national security policies. He was the only person charged in the leak investigation, which penetrated to the highest echelons of the White House. No one was charged with the leak itself.
Fitzgerald interviewed both Bush and Cheney as part of the probe. The vice president had been expected to be a star witness at the trial, but he ultimately did not testify.
Libby was convicted March 6. Prosecutors convinced the jury that Libby deliberately obscured his role in a White House campaign in 2003, shortly after the Iraq war began, to discredit Plame's husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV.
The CIA had sent Wilson to the African nation of Niger in 2002 to assess reports that Iraq had tried to buy nuclear material there for weapons. He concluded that the reports were groundless. Later, when Bush and his aides repeated them anyway, Wilson accused the president of twisting his findings to justify the war to the public.
Prosecutors maintained that administration officials, including Libby, leaked Plame's identity and CIA position to insinuate that the agency had chosen Wilson for the Niger mission because of nepotism. Defense attorneys said that Libby had not sought to deceive investigators but had innocently misremembered what he knew and said about Plame, because she was insignificant to him.
In a statement yesterday, Wilson said that he and his wife are "deeply disappointed" by Bush's decision. "The president's actions send the message that leaking classified information for political purposes is acceptable," he said. "Mr. Libby not only endangered Valerie and our family, but also our country's national security."
Douglas A. Berman, a law professor at Ohio State University who is an expert on federal criminal sentencing policies, said it is "hypocritical and appalling from a president whose Justice Department is always fighting" attempts by judges and lawmakers to lower the punishment called for under federal sentencing guidelines. Berman said Bush's message amounted to "My friend Scooter shouldn't have to serve 30 months in prison because I don't want him to."
Margaret Colgate Love, the pardon attorney in the Justice Department from 1990 to 1997, primarily in the Clinton administration, called Bush's action "very unusual" and recalled that her office would not consider applications for a commutation "unless the person had already started serving his sentence." But she said that the president, as Bill Clinton showed in the controversial pardons he issued the day he left office, has wide discretion.
Staff writers Robert Barnes and Christopher Lee, political researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb, and washingtonpost.com staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.