President Bush spared former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby from a 2 1/2-year prison term in the CIA leak case Monday, stepping into a criminal case with heavy political overtones on grounds that the sentence was just too harsh.
Bush's move came hours after a federal appeals panel ruled Libby could not delay his prison term in the CIA leak case. That meant Libby was likely to have to report to prison soon and put new pressure on the president, who had been sidestepping calls by Libby's allies to pardon the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney.
"I respect the jury's verdict," Bush said in a 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 thirty months in prison."
Bush left intact a $250,000 fine and two years probation for Libby, and Bush said his action still "leaves in place a harsh punishment for Mr. Libby."
Democrats, predictably, were quick to criticize the President's decision:
House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mi.) released a statement saying that "until now, it appeared that the President merely turned a blind eye to a high ranking administration official leaking classified information. The President's action today makes it clear that he condones such activity. This decision is inconsistent with the rule of law and sends a horrible signal to the American people and our intelligence operatives who place their lives at risk everyday."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) added that "the President's decision to commute Mr. Libby's sentence is 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. Now, even that small bit of justice has been undone."
In the end, it appears that the President made the right call. Regardless of what he decided to do about Libby, he was going to be criticized. If he did nothing, conservatives would be on his back for not pardoning someone who was caught in the middle of a dubious criminal investigation. If he pardoned Libby outright, he would have heard much more whining from liberals. In the end, he showed respect for the rule of law by allowing Libby's fine and probation to stand. In President Bush's mind, Libby did commit perjury even if the underlying case (the Valerie Plame leak case) had very little merit. Libby still deserved to be punished and now that punishment seems to be just about right.