President Bush today commuted the 30-month prison sentence of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, just hours after a federal appeals court panel said the former White House aide could not remain free on bond pending an appeal.
Mr. Bush waived all prison time but left intact the $250,000 fine and two years probation ordered by U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton in Libby's conviction on charges of perjury, obstruction of justice and lying to the FBI and grand jury in an investigation into the disclosure of the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame.
"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. Therefore, I am commuting the portion of Mr. Libby's sentence that required him to spend thirty months in prison."
Mr. Bush said the remaining fine and probation ordered by the court still "leaves in place a harsh punishment for Mr. Libby."
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit had ruled earlier in the day that Libby could not remain free on bond pending an appeal, saying the former White House chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney "has not shown that the appeal raises a substantial question" under federal law that would merit letting him remain free.
The one-paragraph ruling was unanimous and included Judges David Sentelle, nominated by President Ronald Reagan; Karen LeCraft Henderson, nominated by President George Bush; and David Tatel, nominated by President Bill Clinton. Libby's incarceration had been expected in as little as three weeks at a minimum security detention center in Maryland, Virginia or New Jersey.
The appeals court ruling forced the hand of Mr. Bush, who increasingly had been targeted by conservative supporters clamoring for him to pardon the highest-ranking White House official ordered to prison since the Iran-Contra affair.
"The reputation he gained through his years of public service and professional work in the legal community is forever damaged," Mr. Bush said. "His wife and young children have also suffered immensely. He will remain on probation. The significant fines imposed by the judge will remain in effect.
"The consequences of his felony conviction on his former life as a lawyer, public servant, and private citizen will be long-lasting," he said.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Cheney said, "The vice president supports the president's decision."
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, was not as forgiving. "As Independence Day nears, we are reminded that one of the principles our forefathers fought for was equal justice under the law," Mr. Schumer said. "This commutation completely tramples on that principle."
At sentencing, Judge Walton said he saw no reason to allow Libby to remain free but gave the defense time to argue its position. He said the evidence against Libby was "overwhelming" and warned him he was unlikely to win a reversal of his conviction in the appellate court. In his statement, Mr. Bush noted that throughout the Libby case he has said it would not be appropriate to comment or intervene until Libbys appeals had been exhausted. But with the denial of bail being upheld and incarceration imminent, it was now "important to react" to that decision.
He said that from the beginning of the investigation he made it clear to the White House staff and others that he expected full cooperation with the Justice Department, and that dozens of White House staff and administration officials had "dutifully cooperated."
"This case has generated significant commentary and debate," Mr. Bush said, noting that neither Libby nor anyone else has been charged with violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act or the Espionage Act, which were the original subjects of the investigation into the leak of Mrs. Plame's CIA role.
He said both critics and defenders of the Libby investigation had made important points, but that he had reached his own conclusion based on their arguments and the circumstances surrounding the case. "In making the sentencing decision, the district court rejected the advice of the probation office, which recommended a lesser sentence and the consideration of factors that could have led to a sentence of home confinement or probation," he said.
"The Constitution gives the president the power of clemency to be used when he deems it to be warranted," he said. "It is my judgment that a commutation of the prison term in Mr. Libbys case is an appropriate exercise of this power."
Libby drew support from more than 150 military commanders, diplomats, friends and others who called for leniency. They said in letters to the court he played a significant role in ending the Cold War and in the early days of the war in Iraq.
Many of the letters were delivered by the Libby Legal Defense Trust, a group of prominent neoconservatives who donated a million dollars to help defray Libby's legal expenses. The letter writers included former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John R. Bolton and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
"That's fantastic. It's a great relief," Trust member Richard Carlson told reporters. "Scooter Libby did not deserve to go to prison and I'm glad the president had the courage to do this." [Bullet]Joseph Curl contributed to this article.