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Bush Declines to Rule Out Full Pardon for Libby

Hear Key Voices from the CIA Leak Case
Nina Totenberg Reports on Presidential Pardon Power

I. 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
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I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby and his attorney Theodore Wells (left) arrive for a hearing at the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., June 14, 2007.
Hear Columnists from 'The Washington Post' and the 'New York Times'

President Bush on Tuesday refused to rule out an eventual pardon for former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

"As to the future, I rule nothing in and nothing out," the president said a day after commuting Libby's 2 1/2-year prison term in the CIA leak case.

Bush said he had weighed his decision carefully to erase Libby's prison time. He said the jury's conviction of Libby should stand but that the 30-month prison term was too severe.

"I made a judgment, a considered judgment, that I believe was the right decision to make in this case," the president said. "And I stand by it." At the same time, he left the door open for the possibility of a pardon later.

The president's move to commute Libby's 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 prison, 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.

At the White House Tuesday, administration spokesman Tony Snow told reporters that the president had deliberated for "weeks and weeks" over the decision.

"This is hardly a slap on the wrist in terms of a penalty," Snow said, echoing the president's words.

During the combative news conference, Snow was asked if he meant to suggest that politics played no part in the decision.

"That is correct," he responded sharply.

Snow would not rule out the possibility of a full pardon at some later date. When asked whether Libby had asked the White House for a pardon or commutation of his sentence, Snow said there had been no direct communication.

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 said she 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.

"This administration is corrupt to the core," Wilson told NPR. "I would only hope that Americans now realize, with this subversion of our system of justice and the rule of law in this country, just exactly how corrupt they are. "

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 Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York 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."

Already at record lows in the polls, Bush risked a political backlash with his decision. President Gerald Ford tumbled in the polls after his 1974 pardon of former President 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

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