Bush Spares Libby From 30-Month Prison Term
NY Times
Published: July 3, 2007

WASHINGTON, July 2 — President Bush spared I. Lewis Libby Jr. from prison Monday, commuting his two-and-a-half-year sentence while leaving intact his conviction for perjury and obstruction of justice in the C.I.A. leak case.

Mr. Bush's action, announced hours after a panel of judges ruled that Mr. Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, could not put off serving his sentence while he appealed his conviction, came as a surprise to all but a few members of the president's inner circle. It reignited the passions that have surrounded the case from the beginning.

The commutation brought immediate praise from conservatives, who hailed it as a courageous step to avert a miscarriage of justice, and condemnation from Democrats, who said it showed a lack of accountability and respect for the law.

The president portrayed his commutation of the sentence, which fell short of a pardon and still requires Mr. Libby to pay a $250,000 fine and be on probation for two years, as a carefully considered compromise.

"I respect the jury's verdict," Mr. Bush said in a statement. "But I have concluded that the prison sentence given to Mr. Libby is excessive."

The president's decision means that Mr. Libby, 56, no longer faces the prospect of leaving his wife and two children, in what probably would have been a matter of weeks, to report to prison.

His last judicial hope of postponing incarceration dissolved earlier Monday after a panel of judges ruled that he had to begin serving his sentence soon. He had already been assigned a federal prisoner number.

It was the first time Mr. Bush had used his constitutional power to grant clemency in a prominent case with political overtones and suggested that with only 18 months left in office he may feel that his hands are untied.

Mindful of the controversy that greeted pardons issued by some of his predecessors, including Gerald R. Ford, Bill Clinton and his own father, Mr. Bush has until now limited his use of the power to routine cases, and had not publicly discussed his intentions in the Libby case. The action drew a sharp response from Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor in the case, in which Mr. Libby was accused of lying to investigators looking into the leak of a C.I.A. operative's identity. Mr. Fitzgerald criticized the president's characterization of the sentence as "excessive."

"In this case an experienced federal judge considered extensive argument from the parties and then imposed a sentence consistent with the applicable laws," Mr. Fitzgerald said in a statement. "It is fundamental to the rule of law that all citizens stand before the bar of justice as equals."

A lawyer for Mr. Libby, Theodore V. Wells Jr., issued a brief statement saying Mr. Libby and his family "wished to express their gratitude for the president's decision."

"We continue to believe in Mr. Libby's innocence," Mr. Wells said.

Mr. Bush's decision drew warm support from Mr. Libby's friends and supporters, who had created a defense fund that drew the support of dozens of prominent Republicans, including a half dozen former ambassadors and several former government colleagues. Former Senator Fred D. Thompson, now an undeclared candidate for president, held a fund-raiser for Mr. Libby.

"This is not a man who deserves to go to jail in any sense of the word," said Kenneth L. Adelman, a former Defense Department official and longtime friend of Mr. Libby, who stayed at his Colorado vacation home before his trial.

"Whatever he did wrong, he certainly paid," Mr. Adelman said, referring to Mr. Libby's resignation from his prominent position and his public humiliation. "This is a good person who served his country very well and is a decent person," he said.

Congressional Democrats rushed out statements lambasting the president's move. Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, called the commutation "disgraceful."

"Libby's conviction was the one faint glimmer of accountability for White House efforts to manipulate intelligence and silence critics of the Iraq War," Mr. Reid said. "Now, even that small bit of justice has been undone."

Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, acknowledged that the president had acted within his powers. But Mr. Leahy said: "Accountability has been in short supply in the Bush administration, and this commutation fits that pattern. It is emblematic of a White House that sees itself as being above the law."

In March a jury convicted Mr. Libby of lying to F.B.I. agents and a grand jury investigating the leak in 2003 of the secret Central Intelligence Agency employment of Valerie Wilson. Ms. Wilson is the wife of Joseph C. Wilson IV, a former ambassador who had accused the Bush administration of twisting intelligence to justify war with Iraq.

The criminal case polarized public opinion almost as bitterly as the war itself. Conservative backers of Mr. Bush contended that because no one was charged with leaking Ms. Wilson's identity, the investigation should have been dropped altogether. Others said that lying to a grand jury was a serious offense, while some liberal opponents of the war saw the charges as a measure of justice for an administration official they blamed for exaggerating the threat from Saddam Hussein and pushing the country into war.

In a brief interview Monday, Mr. Wilson, who recently moved with his wife to New Mexico, said the commutation "should demonstrate to the American people how corrupt this administration is." He suggested that its goal was to prevent Mr. Libby from telling all he knew about White House actions, particularly in the planning for war.

"By his action, the president has guaranteed that Mr. Libby has no incentive to begin telling the truth," Mr. Wilson said. Ms. Wilson, who has a book planned for publication later this year, declined to comment.

In pursuing criminal charges, Mr. Fitzgerald, the United States attorney for Chicago, said Mr. Libby had subverted the justice system by lying to investigators. In urging a strong sentence in May, Mr. Fitzgerald called Mr. Libby "a high-ranking government official whose falsehoods were central to issues in a significant criminal investigation."

The judge in the case, Reggie B. Walton of Federal District Court in Washington, echoed that notion in imposing the 30-month sentence last month. The sentence was within the range recommended by prosecutors, and Judge Walton declared that high officials had a "special obligation" to obey the law.

But the conviction set off a drumbeat on the right of calls for a pardon, with such influential conservative editorial voices as The Wall Street Journal and The Weekly Standard leading the campaign.

Publicly, the idea to commute rather than pardon appears to have first been floated in an op-ed article by William Otis, a former federal prosecutor who served as a special counsel to Mr. Bush's father when he was president,

Mr. Otis wrote in The Washington Post that commuting the sentence "would leave Libby with the disabilities of a convicted felon—no small matter for a lawyer and public figure." He will most likely never again be able to practice law. Mr. Otis said a partial commutation would show the importance of being truthful but added, "We will not insist on being vindictive."

In choosing to commute the sentence, President Bush opted for the lesser of his two major constitutional powers of clemency. A pardon would have wiped out all of Mr. Libby's penalties. Now the fine and probation would be erased only if Mr. Libby were to prevail on appeal.

Word of the commutation quickly spread on the presidential campaign trail. When Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., Democrat of Delaware, announced the news at a backyard campaign event in Iowa City, the crowd audibly gasped. One woman shrieked and said, "No!"

"These guys think they are above the law," Mr. Biden said. "That translates around the world."

Two Republican candidates for president, Mitt Romney and Rudolph W. Giuliani, expressed support for Mr. Bush's decision. Campaigning in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Mr. Romney said, "I believe that the circumstances of this case, where the prosecutor knew that there had not been a crime committed, created a setting where a decision of this nature was reasonable."

Mr. Bush's statement accompanying the commutation order was reminiscent of one issued by his father on Christmas Eve 1992 when he pardoned six officials convicted in the Iran-contra affair. His action drew a strong retort from the independent counsel in that case, Lawrence E. Walsh. Mr. Walsh said it "undermines the principle that no man is above the law."

In his lengthy statement about the commutation the current President Bush praised Mr. Fitzgerald as a "highly qualified, professional prosecutor who carried out his responsibilities as charged."

But he said: "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."

Reporting was contributed by Jo Becker and David Johnston in Washington, Jeff Zeleny in Iowa City and Michael Luo in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

Original Text