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Bush commuted libby prison sentence { June 2007 }

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Bush Spares Libby Prison Without Voiding Conviction (Update3)
By James Rowley

July 3 (Bloomberg) -- President George W. Bush, pressured by prominent Republicans to pardon I. Lewis ``Scooter'' Libby and by top Democrats to let justice run its course, spared the former White House aide imprisonment without erasing the stain of a felony conviction.

Still, Bush today wouldn't preclude the possibility of a full pardon for Libby sometime in the future. ``I rule nothing in and nothing out,'' the president said.

Bush yesterday commuted what he called Libby's ``excessive'' 30-month sentence for obstructing the investigation into who leaked a covert intelligence agent's identity. The president's statement said the reputation Libby earned as a lawyer and government official was ``forever damaged'' by the conviction.

``I took this decision very seriously,'' Bush told reporters today after visiting wounded soldiers at a military hospital in Washington. He said he wiped out the prison sentence while leaving the conviction intact because ``I felt like the jury verdict ought to stand.''

Commutation is ``a splitting of the difference'' between a pardon and doing nothing, said Stephen Hess, an expert on the presidency at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Bush did ``what he feels he has to do now for somebody that has really gone down on his sword for the president,'' Hess said. ``The rest of it is justice served, as the president would see it.''

`All Citizens' Equal

Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney who prosecuted Libby, took exception to Bush's characterization of the sentence as too harsh, defending the punishment imposed last month by U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton. ``It is fundamental to the rule of law that all citizens stand before the bar of justice as equals,'' he said in a statement. ``That principle guided the judge.''

Fitzgerald and Walton are both appointees of Bush.

Libby may appeal his conviction for obstructing justice, perjury and making false statements, which still carries a $250,000 fine and two years of probation. He also faces disbarment as a lawyer.

White House spokesman Tony Snow wouldn't say if Cheney sought leniency for his former aide. The president didn't commute Libby's sentence for political reasons and ``does not look upon this as granting a favor to anyone,'' the spokesman said.

The reaction to Bush's action was divided along partisan lines. Democrats accused the president of flouting the principle of equal justice under the law, while Republicans praised the decision to commute the sentence of Libby, 56, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney.

`Above the Law'

Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, a candidate for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, said in a statement that it showed the ``administration simply considers itself above the law.'' Clinton said it ``sends the clear signal that in this administration, cronyism and ideology trump competence and justice.''

Other contenders for next year's Democratic nomination, including Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, also criticized the decision. Obama called it ``the legacy of an administration characterized by a politics of cynicism and division.''

Republican presidential hopefuls had a different view. Fred Thompson, a former senator from Tennessee who's considering a run for the Republican nomination, said he was ``very happy for Scooter Libby.'' Thompson, who had called on Bush to issue a pardon, said he had ``respect'' for the president's move. ``This will allow a good American, who has done a lot for his country, to resume his life,'' Thompson said.

Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who is a former U.S. attorney, said Bush ``came to a reasonable decision, and I believe the decision was correct.''

Appeals Court

Bush issued the commutation proclamation the same day that a three-judge appeals court panel unanimously rejected Libby's petition to remain free on bail while he appealed the conviction.

A federal jury in Washington found Libby guilty on March 6 of lying to grand jurors and federal agents during Fitzgerald's investigation into who leaked the identity of Valerie Plame, a Central Intelligence Agency official whose husband had criticized Bush's Iraq war policy in 2003.

Jurors found that Libby lied to thwart Fitzgerald's probe of whether the Bush administration deliberately identified Plame to retaliate against her husband, Joseph Wilson. Plame's name appeared in print days after Wilson, in a July 6, 2003, New York Times column, accused the Bush administration of twisting intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq earlier that year.

Melanie Sloan, a lawyer who represents Plame and Wilson in a civil suit against Libby and Cheney, said yesterday's decision showed the administration ``believes leaking classified information for political ends is justified.''

`Not What I Wanted'

Fitzgerald's critics argued that Libby should not have been prosecuted when nobody was charged with illegally releasing Plame's name, a separate criminal offense. Libby resigned as Cheney's top aide upon being indicted in 2005.

``It's not what I wanted, which was a pardon last January, but it's better than seeing Libby carted off to jail in handcuffs,'' said Republican strategist Rich Galen, who predicted the decision won't hurt Bush politically.

``There's not much room to go anywhere when you're at 27 percent in the polls,'' he said.

Bush also had the option of shortening Libby's prison term.

Bush has commuted three other sentences since he took office in 2001. That's the fewest of any president in the last 100 years, except for his father, President George H.W. Bush, who issued three commutations, according to the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney.

Justice Department

The president made the decision without consulting the Justice Department and was advised by White House Counsel Fred Fielding, said presidential spokesman Tony Fratto. ``Executive clemency is the president's exclusive power under the Constitution, and there are precedents for exercising that power without going through the pardon attorney process,'' he said in an e-mail.

Bush ``has denied over 4,000 applications and he has many thousands of applications still pending for consideration, and he has only found three of all those worthy,'' said Margaret Love, a former Justice Department attorney who now represents prisoners seeking pardons or commutations of their sentences.

``I hope this means he will have a change of heart about using the power,'' Love said.

Last Updated: July 3, 2007 12:36 EDT

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