By Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 3, 2007
President Bush commuted the sentence of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby yesterday, sparing Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff 2 1/2 years in prison after a federal appeals court had refused to let Libby remain free while he appeals his conviction for lying to federal investigators.
Bush, who for months had sidestepped calls from conservatives to come to Libby's aid, broke his silence early yesterday evening, touching off an immediate uproar from Democrats who accused the White House of circumventing the rule of law to protect one of its own.
The president announced his decision in a written statement that laid out the factors he had weighed. Bush said he decided to "respect" the jury's verdict that Libby was guilty of four felonies for lying about his role in the leak of a covert CIA officer's identity. But the president said Libby's "exceptional public service" and prior lack of a criminal record led him to conclude that the 30-month sentence handed down by a judge last month was "excessive."
The president noted that he had promised before not to intervene until Libby had exhausted his appeals. But he stepped in short of that point. "With the denial of bail being upheld and incarceration imminent," Bush said, "I believe it is now important to react to that decision."
Although he eliminated Libby's prison term, Bush did not grant him a full pardon, which was sought by some conservatives and would have erased his conviction. As a consequence, Libby will still have to pay a $250,000 fine and will remain on probation for two years. The president said Libby's punishment remained "harsh," in part because his professional reputation "is forever damaged."
Bush commuted the sentence hours after a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected Libby's request to postpone his prison term while he pursued appeals. The panel concluded that his grounds for appeal were unlikely to be strong enough to prevail in higher courts.
The appellate judges' unanimous opinion upheld an identical ruling slightly more than two weeks ago by U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton, the trial judge in Libby's case. After a month-long trial that forced presidential aides and prominent journalists onto the witness stand, Libby was found guilty of two counts of perjury and one count each of lying to FBI agents and obstructing a federal investigation into whether administration officials illegally disclosed the name of CIA officer Valerie Plame.
Bush has granted far fewer pardons and commutations than any of his predecessors, dating to John F. Kennedy. He commuted three previous prison terms during his 6 1/2 years in office.
At a time when his popularity is as low as any president's in modern history, Bush's action also defied public opinion. Shortly after Libby was convicted in March, three national public opinion polls found that seven in 10 Americans said they would oppose a pardon of Libby.
Still, the president appeared to calculate that he would antagonize his conservative base too severely if he did not provide Libby some form of reprieve, according to people close to the White House.
Lea Anne McBride, a spokeswoman for Cheney, declined to say whether the vice president had a role in the decision, other than to say that Cheney supports it.
Last night, an array of Democrats, including several presidential candidates, reacted to Bush's move with derision. Former senator John Edwards (N.C.), a White House hopeful, said: "Only a president clinically incapable of understanding that mistakes have consequences could take the action he did today."
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.