By Amy Goldstein and Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 4, 2007
President Bush held out the possibility yesterday that he eventually may pardon I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby as the White House sought to fend off Democratic outrage and conservative disappointment over the president's decision to commute the 30-month prison term of the vice president's former chief of staff.
A day after he intervened to keep Libby out of prison, Bush refused to reject the idea of issuing a full pardon, which some conservatives have been urging him to grant. A pardon would erase the four felony convictions Libby received for lying to federal investigators about his role in a White House leak of a covert CIA officer's identity.
"As to the future," the president told reporters, "I rule nothing in or nothing out."
Libby's defense team, however, indicated yesterday that the White House has provided ample help for now. William H. Jeffress Jr., one of Libby's attorneys, said a request for a pardon "is not anything that is imminent. We are focusing on the appeals."
Meanwhile, the federal judge who presided over one of the most high-profile Washington trials in years said yesterday that the elimination of Libby's prison term calls into question another part of Libby's sentence.
When Bush announced his decision Monday evening, he emphasized that Libby still faced what the president characterized as a "harsh" sentence, and noted that he was leaving in place a $250,000 fine and two years of supervised probation. Yesterday, however, U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton, a Bush appointee, filed a court order saying that federal law "does not appear to contemplate a situation in which a defendant may be placed under supervised release without first completing a term of incarceration."
Walton asked prosecutors and defense lawyers to tell the court by Monday how they think the matter should be handled "in unusual circumstances such as these."
As the judge tried to sort through the legal fallout, congressional Democrats began to mine the political consequences of the president's action. House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (Mich.) announced a hearing for next week to explore what he called "the presidential authority to grant clemency and how such power may be abused."
"Taken to its extreme," he said, "the use of such authority could completely circumvent the law enforcement process and prevent credible efforts to investigate wrongdoing in the executive branch."
Libby, a 56-year-old lawyer, was Vice President Cheney's top aide and a key figure in forging the administration's foreign policy until he was indicted in 2005. He was the only person charged in a three-year federal investigation, led by Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald, of whether any administration officials broke the law when they leaked to reporters the identity of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame. No one was charged with the leak itself.
Plame's husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, was sent by the CIA to evaluate reports that Iraq was trying to buy uranium in Africa for a nuclear weapons program. Wilson concluded that the reports were inaccurate. Shortly after the Iraq war started in 2003, he accused the White House of distorting intelligence to convince the public that the invasion was justified.
Libby was one of four high-ranking administration officials found to have leaked Plame's identity to Washington journalists. Prosecutors said the leak was part of a White House campaign, in which Cheney played a direct part, to tarnish Wilson's reputation.
Libby was charged with lying to FBI agents and a federal grand jury about how and when he learned of Plame, and what he told reporters about her. Walton sentenced him last month to the 30-month prison term that Bush commuted Monday.
Yesterday, Bush called his decision "a considered judgment" and said he stands by it. White House press secretary Tony Snow sought to portray the action as a middle ground that avoids what the president has called an "excessive" prison term while leaving the felony convictions intact.
He said Libby's convictions themselves are "a very severe penalty" that "has profound impacts on his ability to earn a living as a lawyer, because he's not going to be able to practice law. So this is hardly a slap on the wrist, in terms of penalty."
Snow also made clear that the White House will stick to its policy of declining to comment on details of the case, including the involvement of other officials, because the commutation allows Libby to continue his appeal.
Asked yesterday whether the president should fire his top political adviser, Karl Rove, who was shown at the trial to have participated in the leaks about Plame, Snow replied: "[W]e are not going to make comments in detail until the legal process is over. And it is not; there is still an appeal."
Paul C. Light, a professor of public service at New York University, called the commutation "a weird decision. It's neither here nor there." He said that, politically, "the administration was trying to reap the benefits of giving Libby his freedom while not creating a firestorm about a pardon. But I don't think it'll work."
Defense lawyers and experts on federal sentencing guidelines said the president's actions are at odds with the administration's position on those guidelines. The Bush Justice Department has opposed attempts to impose sentences more lenient than what the guidelines call for, even in cases involving white-collar criminals with no criminal history, such as Libby.
"On the one hand, you have the administration taking the position in every federal sentencing that a guidelines sentence should be imposed," said Barry Boss, a Washington defense lawyer and former co-chairman of the U.S. Sentencing Commission's Practitioners Advisory Group. "And then you have President Bush saying in his statement that the guidelines are too harsh."
The president has the authority to commute any sentence at any time. However, the Justice Department has its own procedures for recommending commutations to a president. Under those rules, Libby would not have been eligible until he had started to serve his prison term and ended his appeals. Jeffress said yesterday that defense attorneys had not asked Justice or Bush to commute Libby's sentence.
Several legal observers noted that the administration had opposed a plaintiff in a recent Supreme Court case who sought a lighter penalty than the 33 months in prison to which he was sentenced after convictions for perjury and obstruction of justice.
In Rita v. United States, Victor A. Rita argued for leniency on the grounds that he was a 24-year veteran of the Marine Corps, with tours of duty in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf War, a longtime employee of the immigration service and in poor health. The government contended that the district judge considered those factors and had imposed the sentence in a reasonable way.
The Supreme Court ruled on June 21 that sentences that fall within the federal guidelines may be presumed "reasonable" by appeals courts reviewing them. That was the position advocated by the solicitor general.
Staff writers Michael A. Fletcher and John Solomon contributed to this report.