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Undoing the unreasonable
Contrary to the outcries from leading Democrats in Congress and the self-righteous expression of shock from the husband of ex-CIA spy Valerie Plame, President Bush finally has brought some justice to the case of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby. By commuting Libby’s utterly unreasonable sentence but leaving his $250,000 fine and two years of probation in place, the president also has put this victimless crime into perspective.
If you doubt this, compare Libby’s original punishment for lying and obstructing an inquiry into the outing of Mrs. Plame with that of Steven Griles, former deputy interior secretary, who pleaded guilty to lying and obstructing a congressional investigation. For using his influence to help lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his own girlfriend, Griles received a 10-month prison sentence and a $30,000 fine. He cried at even that, as the judge ignored the prosecutors’ recommendation for a five-month home detention and five months of prison.
If that doesn’t convince you Libby was a political scapegoat and in many ways the only victim in the special counsel’s probe of a leak that was determined not to be a crime, here’s another shocking comparison: A federal court recently gave a one-year sentence to a man arrested and convicted of making bombs, illegal firearms traffic and sexual abuse. Like Libby, he had no arrest record.
The unreasonableness of Libby’s 2½ year sentence was compounded by the fact the federal judge who handed it out not only saw Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff as Public Enemy No. 1 but refused to permit Libby to stay out of jail pending outcome of an appeal. An appeals court upheld that position last Monday. And Mr. Bush decided, without much of the usually accompanying consultation, that fairness demanded he commute an excessive sentence. Until then, Mr. Bush resisted all entreaties on Libby’s behalf. But he clearly felt, as many did, that the punishment did not fit the crime.
Mr. Bush made it clear he was swayed by the fact Libby would suffer for this the rest of his life after an impeccable career in public service. He also noted that “the district court, at the urging of special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, 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.”
The importance of the entire case has been exaggerated beyond any kind of reasonableness. It was stimulated by a political act by the CIA to knock down a claim Saddam Hussein was trying to buy “yellowcake” uranium from Africa. The CIA, under criticism for intelligence failures, assigned Joseph Wilson, Mrs. Plame’s husband, to investigate. His report undercut the claim.
The disclosure that Mrs. Plame worked for the CIA, at one time in a covert position, was a calculated effort by the White House to discredit Mr. Wilson’s report. Her name was leaked, but not by Libby, to columnist Robert Novak, who printed it and set off the investigation. When Fitzgerald took over the inquiry, he already knew Mr. Novak’s source was Richard Armitage of the State Department, and determined shortly that there was no violation of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act or the Espionage Act. Mrs. Plame’s importance to national security was negligible.
So why did Mr. Fitzgerald continued the investigation? There has been reasonable speculation that he set out to nail someone in the White House, perhaps the vice president or Karl Rove, the president’s chief political adviser who also talked to reporters about Mrs. Plame. That failed, and Libby took the fall for what is an everyday political occurrence in Washington.
Now the president has another decision to make. It won’t be easy given his statement in commuting Libby’s sentence, which expressed his respect for Mr. Fitzgerald and the jury (Mr. Fitzgerald’s reaction to the commutation was hardly as pleasant). Mr. Bush will have to determine whether he should pardon the former White House assistant, relieving him of the probation and fine. He made it clear to reporters he has not taken anything off the table.
But this is a president, who now often seems to be keeping his own counsel, determined in the face of sagging popularity and increased despair over Iraq and failure of his signature immigration plan to go his own course. In this case, he was utterly correct.
Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.
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