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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Today, the White House acknowledged that President Bush bypassed normal Justice Department channels when he decided to commute Lewis Libby's two-and-a-half-year prison sentence. By doing that, the president provoked the kind of uproar that greeted his father when he pardoned all the Iran-CONTRA defendants, and the kind of anger that greeted President Clinton when he issued pardons for high rollers with connections to the Democratic Party.

NPR's Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: The scene in the White House briefing room was all too familiar today as spokesman Tony Snow wiggled and waggled in an attempt to explain how Libby is different from 3,000 others currently seeking commutations.

Unidentified Woman: Will all 3,000 of those be held at the same standard that the president applied to Scooter Libby?

Mr. TONY SNOW (White House Press Secretary): I don't know.

Unidentified Man: Are you saying this White House handled this case in an extraordinary manner or in a routine manner?

Mr. SNOW: I think it handled it in a routine manner in the sense that the president took a careful look, but it is an extraordinary case.

TOTENBERG: By the end, little was clear except that the president had acted without input from prosecutors or the Justice Department. That Scooter Libby, the vice president's former chief of staff, had not asked for a pardon and that while the president yesterday issued only a commutation of Libby's two-and-a-half-year prison term, he was not ruling out a pardon later on.

The Libby commutation is out of character for Mr. Bush who has a long history, both as governor and as president, of stinginess with clemency. As governor of Texas, he once rejected a plea from the pope not to execute a woman who'd become a born-again Christian on death row. As president, Mr. Bush has been more sparing in his exercise of the pardon power than any president in a hundred years.

In his first six years in office, he pardoned only 113 people, granted only three commutations and denied forty-one hundred. By contrast, six years into his presidency, President Reagan had pardoned more than 300 people and commuted 13 sentences for those still serving time. In most of the commutation cases, Mr. Reagan reduced the sentence to make a prisoner eligible for parole. Today, of course, parole is no longer available in the federal system.

Since 1854, the pardon power has been administered through the attorney general in the Justice Department. Until the 1990s, recommendations made by the pardon office were routinely adopted by the president who often issued hundreds of pardons each year. Commutations were to reduce sentences of those already in prison. Indeed, clemency experts said today they had to go back to the 1920s to find a person like Scooter Libby whose sentence was commuted before he served any time. Margaret Love served as the Justice Department's pardon attorney from 1990 to '97.

Ms. MARGARET LOVE (Former Pardon Attorney, Justice Department): I think that Presidents Reagan and Bush - the first President Bush - both regarded it as part of their job and they took what was recommended to them by the Justice Department and they did all of it. I think things changed for the President Clinton.

TOTENBERG: President Clinton, says Love, got himself into trouble by getting the White House staff to make pardon recommendations, a process that inevitably grew chaotic and was subject to political influence. The most notorious of the Clinton pardons went to fugitive financier Mark Rich, who was represented ironically by Scooter Libby. Former Pardon Attorney Love, who thinks many prison terms are excessive, agrees with President Bush that Libby's is too.

Ms. LOVE: I think that's an awfully long time. I think that prison ought to be reserved from people who we're scared of, not people who we're mad at.

TOTENBERG: But Love concedes that Libby's sentence was inline with others. Indeed, the Supreme Court, just last month, upheld a harsher sentence in a case nearly identical to Libby's - same charges, perjury and obstruction of justice, a first time offender and a defendant with a long record of public service, 25 years in the military.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

SIEGEL: There's a roundup of what op-ed pages have to say about Libby's sentence and commutation at our Web site, npr.org.

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