Too Much Mercy
Scooter Libby's prison sentence was excessive, but so is President Bush's commutation.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

IN COMMUTING I. Lewis Libby's prison sentence yesterday, President Bush took the advice of, among others, William Otis, a former federal prosecutor who wrote on the opposite page last month that Mr. Libby should neither be pardoned nor sent to prison. We agree that a pardon would have been inappropriate and that the prison sentence of 30 months was excessive. But reducing the sentence to no prison time at all, as Mr. Bush did -- to probation and a large fine -- is not defensible.

Mr. Libby was convicted in March on charges of perjury, making false statements and obstruction of justice. Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff had told the FBI and a grand jury that he had not leaked the identity of CIA employee Valerie Plame to journalists, but after hearing abundant testimony and carefully deliberating, a jury concluded that he lied. As we wrote at the time of the conviction, lying under oath is unacceptable for anyone, and particularly for a government official. As Mr. Bush said in his statement yesterday, "our entire system of justice relies on people telling the truth. And if a person does not tell the truth, particularly if he serves in government and holds the public trust, he must be held accountable."

Yet there were mitigating factors in this case. After two years of investigation, special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald charged no one with a crime for leaking Ms. Plame's name; he never demonstrated that a crime occurred. Early on, the prosecutor had learned that the primary source of the disclosure to columnist Robert D. Novak was then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, who was not charged. Mr. Libby's trial provided convincing evidence that the revelation of Ms. Plame's identity was not the result of a conspiracy to punish her husband, administration critic Joseph C. Wilson IV -- the allegation that caused all the partisan furor surrounding the case and that led to Mr. Fitzgerald's appointment. Advocates for clemency point to President Bill Clinton, who lied under oath but was not removed from office or put in jail, and to Mr. Clinton's former national security adviser, Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, who lied to investigators about sneaking documents from the National Archives but who also received no jail time.

Add to that Mr. Libby's long and distinguished record of public service, and we sympathize with Mr. Bush's conclusion "that the prison sentence given to Mr. Libby is excessive." The probation office, as the president noted, recommended less time -- 15 to 21 months. But Mr. Bush, while claiming to "respect the jury's verdict," failed to explain why he moved from "excessive" to zero. It's true that the felony conviction that remains in place, the $250,000 fine and the reputational damage are far from trivial. But so is lying to a grand jury. To commute the entire prison sentence sends the wrong message about the seriousness of that offense.

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