We're learning that President Bush consulted with few advisers before commuting the sentence of former Vice-Presidential Chief of Staff Lewis Libby. In a decision announced late yesterday, Mr. Bush determined that Libby would not serve jail time for his conviction on perjury and obstruction of justice charges in the Valerie Plame case. However, the President left the conviction intact, meaning that Mr. Libby must spend the next two years on probation and pay a $250,000 fine. The conviction also means that Libby, an attorney, will likely lose his law license, greatly eroding his future earnings potential.
The Libby commutation is consistent with the worst choices of the "Great Decider," a vague stab at some sort of consensus (as we saw in the failed immigration bill), or a spur-of-the moment, "I can do it because I can" decision, a la the Harriet Miers nomination. In both cases, Mr. Bush only managed to infuriate opponents at both ends of the political spectrum, and further erode his own base, and that of the Republican Party.
Ditto for the Libby decision. Commuting his sentence--while allowing the conviction and fine to stand--were some sort of sop toward the jury's decision, while keeping Mr. Libby out of a federal prison. Whatever. If it's true that a competent prosecutor can persuade a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich, let's just say that the panel which convicted Mr. Libby would have dispatched the same snack to a federal jail. You may recall their week of tortured deliberations before finally deciding that Libby was guilty, then expressing regret over their verdict, opining that the "wrong guy" was on trial.
And, lest we forget, Mr. Libby was not convicted of the alleged "crime" which spurred his multi-year investigation--the alleged disclosure of a CIA agent's identity. We say "alleged" because there's ample evidence that Valerie Plame's cover was blown long before she became a topic of conversation between White House officials and members of the press. Bill Gertz of the Washington Times discovered that Plame's CIA affiliation was known to Russian intelligence in the mid-1990s, and by Cuban agents a few years later--assuming they hadn't been tipped off by their friends in Moscow.
Making matters worse, the "company" for which Ms. Plame worked was well-known as a CIA front, and the agency never bothered to update her non-official cover. There is also ample evidence that Ms. Plame and her serial liar husband, Ambassador Joe Wilson, were sloppy (at best) in protecting her identity. Their "Who's Who" entry listed the CIA as her employer; she gave campaign contributions to Al Gore as an employee of a known agency front company, and Mr. Wilson purportedly blew her cover (again) in an interview with liberal journalist David Corn, about the time of Bob Novak's original column. In short, Valerie Plame's affiliation with the Central Intelligence Agency was one of the nation's worst-kept secrets, one reason that Special Prosecutor Peter Fitzgerald could never indict anyone for that "crime."
Instead, Mr. Libby was indicted--and convicted--for the crime of a faulty memory. It was a verdict that stunned much of the legal community, earning Libby support from scholars ranging from Robert Bork to Alan Dershowitz. As Professor Dershowitz--no friend of the Bush Administration--noted that he and Judge Bork agree on virtually nothing. But both recogized the travesty of the Libby case.
Critics would argue that lying to investigators and obstruction of justice--the crimes for which Libby was convicted--are serious offenses, worthy of a 30-month prison sentence. But justice also requires a measure of fairness and proportionality. Not too many months ago, another former, high-ranking White House official stood in the dock, accused of stealing and destroying classified documents. For that offense, former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger received no jail time, and, amazingly, he'll regain his security clearance in only three years.
Mr. Bush had an opportunity to rectify the Libby outrage, but elected (instead) for the half-a-loaf approach. If Mr. Libby wants to clear his name, he must continue a long--and expensive--legal appeal. By some estimates, the former White House aide's legal bills are approaching $2 million, and growing by the day. Good legal help doesn't come cheap. True, there may be a book or movie deal down the road, but that's little consolation for a man whose life has been destroyed by an over-zealous prosecutor, the poisonous atmosphere that lingers inside the Beltway, and a President that was (apparently) too timid to do the right thing.