hide captionI. Lewis "Scooter" Libby and his attorney Theodore Wells (left) arrive for a hearing at the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., June 14, 2007.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
President Bush's move to commute former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's 2 ½-prison term for lying and obstruction of justice in the CIA leak case has drawn harsh criticism from Democrats who said the decision showed the administration's lack of accountability.
Stopping short of issuing a pardon, Mr. Bush issued a statement Monday sparing Libby from jail, but he left in place a $250,000 fine and probation for the ex-chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney. The president's announcement came just hours after a federal appeals panel ruled that Libby could not delay his prison term.
Because he was not pardoned, Libby remains the highest-ranking White House official convicted of a crime since the Iran-Contra affair.
"I respect the jury's verdict," Mr. Bush said in a written statement. "But I have concluded that the prison sentence given to Mr. Libby is excessive. Therefore, I am commuting the portion of Mr. Libby's sentence that required him to spend 30 months in prison."
The president said his action still "leaves in place a harsh punishment for Mr. Libby."
Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald disputed the president's assertion that the prison term was excessive. Libby was sentenced under the same laws as other criminals, Fitzgerald said.
"In this case, 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's attorney, Theodore Wells, said in a statement that the Libby family was grateful for Bush's action and continued to believe in his innocence.
The leak case has hung over the White House for years. Special Prosecutor Fitzgerald questioned top administration officials, including Bush and Cheney, about their possible roles. And Libby's trial revealed the extraordinary steps the president and vice president were willing to take to discredit a critic of the Iraq war.
Nobody was ever charged with the leak, including Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage or White House political adviser Karl Rove, who provided the information for the original
article. Prosecutors said Libby obstructed the investigation by lying about how he learned about Plame and whom he told.
Plame believes Libby and other White House officials conspired to leak her identity to reporters in 2003 as retribution against her husband, Joseph Wilson, who criticized what he said was the administration's misleading use of prewar intelligence on Iraq.
"Congress ought to conduct an investigation of whether or not the president himself is a participant in the obstruction of justice," Wilson told The Santa Fe New Mexican in a telephone interview following the president's announcement.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said the president's decision to commute Libby's sentence eliminated "the one faint glimmer of accountability for White House efforts to manipulate intelligence and silence critics of the Iraq war."
"The Constitution gives President Bush the power to commute sentences, but history will judge him harshly for using that power to benefit his own vice president's chief of staff who was convicted of such a serious violation of law," Reid he said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, (D-CA), said the decision "condones criminal conduct."
Democratic hopefuls Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton also weighed in on the decision.
Obama said it was "exactly the kind of politics we must change" while Clinton labeled it a "clear signal that in this administration, cronyism and ideology trump competence and justice."
The leak case has hung over the White House for years. Special Prosecutor Fitzgerald questioned top administration officials, including Bush and Cheney, about their possible roles. And Libby's trial revealed the extraordinary steps that Bush and Cheney were willing to take to discredit a critic of the Iraq war.
Already at record lows in the polls, Bush risked a political backlash with his decision. President Ford tumbled in the polls after his 1974 pardon of Richard M. Nixon, and the decision was a factor in Ford's loss in the 1976 election.
Bush's father - former President George H.W. Bush – issued pardons shortly before leaving office in 1992 for former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and five other former officials who had served in the Reagan administration. The six were involved in the Iran-Contra affair, in which arms were secretly sold to Iran to win the freedom of American hostages, then the money was funneled to anti-communist guerrillas in Nicaragua despite a congressional ban on military aid.
On Monday, White House officials said Bush knew he could take political heat for commuting Libby's prison sentence and simply did what he thought was right. They would not say what advice Cheney might have given the president.
From NPR reports and The Associated Press
Bush Statement on Commuting Libby's Sentence
President Bush issued the following statement on his decision to commute the 2 1/2-year sentence of former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby in the CIA leak case. Source: The White House.
The United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit today rejected Lewis Libby's request to remain free on bail while pursuing his appeals for the serious convictions of perjury and obstruction of justice. As a result, Mr. Libby will be required to turn himself over to the Bureau of Prisons to begin serving his prison sentence.
I have said throughout this process that it would not be appropriate to comment or intervene in this case until Mr. Libby's appeals have been exhausted. But with the denial of bail being upheld and incarceration imminent, I believe it is now important to react to that decision.
From the very beginning of the investigation into the leaking of Valerie Plame's name, I made it clear to the White House staff and anyone serving in my administration that I expected full cooperation with the Justice Department. Dozens of White House staff and administration officials dutifully cooperated.
After the investigation was under way, the Justice Department appointed United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois Patrick Fitzgerald as a Special Counsel in charge of the case. Mr. Fitzgerald is a highly qualified, professional prosecutor who carried out his responsibilities as charged.
This case has generated significant commentary and debate. Critics of the investigation have argued that a special counsel should not have been appointed, nor should the investigation have been pursued after the Justice Department learned who leaked Ms. Plame's name to columnist Robert Novak. Furthermore, the critics point out that neither Mr. Libby nor anyone else has been charged with violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act or the Espionage Act, which were the original subjects of the investigation. Finally, critics say the punishment does not fit the crime: Mr. Libby was a first-time offender with years of exceptional public service and was handed a harsh sentence based in part on allegations never presented to the jury.
Others point out that a jury of citizens weighed all the evidence and listened to all the testimony and found Mr. Libby guilty of perjury and obstructing justice. They argue, correctly, that 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. They say that had Mr. Libby only told the truth, he would have never been indicted in the first place.
Both critics and defenders of this investigation have made important points. I have made my own evaluation. In preparing for the decision I am announcing today, I have carefully weighed these arguments and the circumstances surrounding this case.
Mr. Libby was sentenced to thirty months of prison, two years of probation, and a $250,000 fine. In making the sentencing decision, the district court rejected the advice of the probation office, which recommended a lesser sentence and the consideration of factors that could have led to a sentence of home confinement or probation.
I respect the jury's verdict. But I have concluded that the prison sentence given to Mr. Libby is excessive. Therefore, I am commuting the portion of Mr. Libby's sentence that required him to spend thirty months in prison.
My decision to commute his prison sentence leaves in place a harsh punishment for Mr. Libby. The reputation he gained through his years of public service and professional work in the legal community is forever damaged. His wife and young children have also suffered immensely. He will remain on probation. The significant fines imposed by the judge will remain in effect. The consequences of his felony conviction on his former life as a lawyer, public servant, and private citizen will be long-lasting.
The Constitution gives the President the power of clemency to be used when he deems it to be warranted. It is my judgment that a commutation of the prison term in Mr. Libby's case is an appropriate exercise of this power.