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Commuting Sentence, Bush Spares Libby from 30-Month Jail Term

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President Bush has commuted the sentence of Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, sparing him from a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence in the CIA leak case. Bush’s move came just five hours after a federal appeals panel ruled that Libby could not put off serving his sentence while he appealed his conviction. That meant jail time for Libby was imminent — the U.S. Bureau of Prisons had already assigned him a federal prisoner number. We get reaction from analyst and author Marcy Wheeler. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush has commuted the sentence of Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, sparing him from a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence in the CIA leak case. Bush’s move came just five hours after a federal appeals panel ruled Libby could not put off serving his sentence while he appealed his conviction. That meant jail time for Libby was imminent. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons had already assigned him a federal prisoner number.

Libby was convicted in March, the highest-ranking White House official ordered to prison since the Iran-Contra scandal. He was found guilty of perjury, obstruction of justice and making false statements in the investigation into who blew the cover of CIA officer Valerie Plame, whose husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, had criticized the Iraq War.

In a statement on Monday, Bush said, “I respect the jury’s verdict, but I have concluded the prison sentence given to Mr. Libby is excessive.” Bush didn’t give Libby a full pardon. The felony conviction will remain, and Libby will still have to pay a $250,000 fine and serve two years of probation. But he won’t see a day of jail time. The president’s announcement came at the start of the Independence Day holiday week, with Congress in recess.

Democrats swiftly condemned Bush’s decision. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada called it “disgraceful.” Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy of Vermont said it was “emblematic of a White House that sees itself as being above the law.” The Washington Post reports Bush has granted far fewer pardons and commutations than any of his predecessors dating back to John F. Kennedy. He commuted three previous prison terms during his six-and-a-half years in office.

Marcy Wheeler has been closely following this story. She’s the author of Anatomy of Deceit: How the Bush Administration Used the Media to Sell the Iraq War and Out a Spy. She writes for the political blog, “The Next Hurrah.” She joins us from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Marcy.

MARCY WHEELER: Thanks for having me, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response to the commutation of Scooter Libby’s sentence? He won’t serve a day in jail.

MARCY WHEELER: It’s not surprising in the least. George Bush and Dick Cheney couldn’t afford the risk that Libby would flip on them rather than go do jail time, but it is pretty disgusting, I think.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain that. What do you mean they couldn’t afford him to flip on them?

MARCY WHEELER: Well, the whole point of the obstruction of justice was that Libby was refusing to answer certain questions that really pointed right towards especially Dick Cheney, but even George Bush himself. The best example is that after reading Joe Wilson’s op-ed, Vice President Cheney ordered Scooter Libby to leak something to Judy Miller. And then, following that, Scooter Libby proceeded to leak Valerie Plame’s identity and the contents of the CIA report on Joe Wilson’s trip. Now, Scooter Libby says that he was ordered to leak the NIE, the National Intelligence Estimate, but that doesn’t make any sense, given the rest of his story, so it seems logical and probable that Dick Cheney in fact ordered Scooter Libby to leak Valerie Plame’s identity, but by lying, Scooter Libby has protected the vice president from any kind of criminal implication from his actions.

AMY GOODMAN: And how does President Bush wiping out his jail time protect Bush and Cheney?

MARCY WHEELER: Well, in some ways, the commutation is actually worse than a pardon, because with a commutation, Scooter Libby still retains his Fifth Amendment privileges. So if John Conyers tomorrow called up Scooter Libby and said, “We’ve got to talk. I’d like to know exactly what happened when Dick Cheney ordered you to leak something classified to Judy Miller. I want to know whether President Bush actually did declassify it or whether Vice President Cheney was just making that up” — he does that, and Scooter Libby just says, “I plead the Fifth,” and we still don’t get — we, as American citizens, don’t get to understand what our president and what our vice president did to retaliate against somebody who was just exercising his First Amendment speech rights.

AMY GOODMAN: Does it also mean, if Scooter Libby didn’t want to go to jail but was facing that jail time, there was the possibility he would speak, and this wipes that out?

MARCY WHEELER: Yeah, I mean, I went to see Scooter Libby’s actual sentencing, and through the entire trial he kind of maintained a calm, but when the sentence was actually read out he looked like a ghost. He looked like he had never actually believed that he was going to have to do jail time. And at that moment, you know, for a split second, you believed that this very loyal man perhaps might actually go and start telling the truth about what Vice President Cheney and President Bush had done with respect to the leak case.

AMY GOODMAN: Does it also mean — I mean, the president has continually said, the vice president, that they will not comment, as this case goes through the legal system, that actually it’s still alive, because there hasn’t been a final pardon, so it means they can continue to say they won’t comment?

MARCY WHEELER: Oh, I think that the press is going to be asking a lot of questions today about why it is — I mean, here’s another thing that’s scandalous about this, Amy. The Bush administration is pushing Congress to require minimum sentences. What they’re trying to do is they’re trying to change the law, such that the minimum sentencing requirements are mandatory. So they’re saying that you and I, if we’re found guilty of something, are required to fulfill that minimum sentence. Scooter Libby’s minimum sentence, according to the guidelines, was 30 months, and George Bush says, no, he doesn’t have to do what you and I would have to do in the same circumstances.

So it seems like, I mean, this just raises the bar, and I hope that the press continues to ask questions about this, and I hope that they refuse to let Bush, you know, get away with not answering these questions, because the point is that Bush and Cheney really are deeply implicated. There are plenty of indications that they knew Valerie Plame was covert, that they did this deliberately, and the one thing that has protected them so far has been Scooter Libby’s silence.

AMY GOODMAN: How is Bush implicated directly, Marcy Wheeler?

MARCY WHEELER: Well, it’s actually interesting. What started off the — what kicked off the campaign into high gear against the Wilsons was on — if you remember — on June 8, 2003, Condi Rice went on George Stephanopoulos’s show, and she got beat up because she claimed that nobody knew the Niger intelligence was false. The next morning, first thing in Scooter Libby’s notes for the day was a note saying that Bush was concerned about these allegations about the Kristof article. And after that, after Bush getting involved, is when the vice president’s office started doing all of this research into Joe Wilson’s trip, into Valerie Wilson, and so on and so forth.

And then, come October, when Vice President Cheney was trying to get Bush to exonerate Scooter Libby, he actually wrote a note that basically said the president — and then he crossed out the president, because he didn’t want to implicate him, but he was about to write — the president asked Scooter Libby to put his neck in the meat grinder, basically to respond to Joe Wilson.

So, from start to finish, at least according to Vice President Cheney, George Bush has been centrally involved in this. Plus, I mean, according to Libby, according to Cheney, George Bush is the one who declassified whatever it was that Scooter Libby leaked to Judy Miller. Did George Bush declassify Valerie Plame’s identity? That’s a question we have a right to know, and that’s a question that Scooter Libby’s lies have prevented us from learning the answer to.

AMY GOODMAN: Marcy Wheeler, Scooter Libby still has to pay a $250,000 fine. Can you talk about who actually will be paying that? Can you talk about his defense fund, who’s running it, where the money is coming from?

MARCY WHEELER: Yeah, I mean, Scooter Libby has a defense fund that includes people like presidential candidate Fred Thompson, who used to be a Law & Order guy but now thinks that, you know, it’s OK to lie. It’s people like James Woolsey, who was very deeply implicated in introducing INC defectors and basically making the fraudulent case to bring us into war. It’s Mary Matalin, who —

AMY GOODMAN: James Woolsey, the former CIA director. The INC, of course, the Iraq National Congress, Ahmed Chalabi’s group, that was pushing for war.

MARCY WHEELER: Yeah, so this is a person who’s deeply implicated in contributing to this false case for war, while he’s dumping money and he’s making the case that Scooter Libby should do no jail time. There’s Mary Matalin. Mary Matalin was involved in the response to Wilson the week of the leak, and she’s the one running this entire show, this entire defense fund. So it’s all these people who are very, very deeply implicated, if not in the actual leak itself, although there are quite a few who are implicated in the leak and in passing on classified information, but also very deeply implicated in the case for war. And these people are raising money so that Scooter Libby doesn’t have to pay any personal price for having lied to federal prosecutors.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush can still pardon him, as well; is that right?

MARCY WHEELER: Oh, sure. I think the biggest reason why Bush didn’t pardon Libby already is because once Libby is pardoned, then he loses his Fifth Amendment rights. So if he does pardon Libby, then, again, John Conyers is going to call him into Congress and say, “Tell us the truth about what Cheney and Bush actually did.”

AMY GOODMAN: Dana Perino, the White House press secretary, said less than a month ago, given the fact that the judge has set up a process for appeal and given the way the president has handled this for the past year or so, he’s not going to intervene.

MARCY WHEELER: That didn’t last very long, did it? Like I said, I think they were really worried that if Libby actually had to go to jail — I also think they suspected — one of the judges, who yesterday basically said Scooter’s appeal had not enough merit to justify giving him bond pending appeal, was Judge Sentelle, who was a Reagan appointee. He got involved in Iran-Contra and in the past has always done precisely what the Republican Party has needed to do to get people off on crimes. And even Judge Sentelle found that Scooter Libby’s case, his conviction seemed merited, and that Scooter Libby’s claims to have a reason to appeal the case didn’t have much to them.

AMY GOODMAN: The other development this week was the U.N. disbanding its weapons inspection team, UNMVIC, the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, that has finally concluded there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Can you end by talking about the significance of what Scooter Libby did and — you’re saying his connection to Vice President Cheney and President Bush — why this is so central to what we’re seeing now in Iraq, to the war in Iraq?

MARCY WHEELER: Well, we’re at the point now where it’s crystal clear: The case that was made to bring us into war was completely fraudulent. And at the time when a private citizen started making that case publicly to the American people, the Bush administration’s first response was to lash out, to break the law, to put the United States at further security risk. I mean, Valerie Wilson was out there on the front lines trying to prevent the proliferation of WMD, and Vice President Cheney decided to piss away that entire career just so that he could fight back against Joe Wilson’s claims that, in fact, the 16 words, the claim that Iraq was looking for uranium in Niger, was bunk. So, you know, where are the priorities of this administration? They’re going to bring us into war on the claim that it’s protecting us from WMD and then ruin the career of a CIA officer who was doing precisely that. She was putting her life on the line to make sure that we were kept safe from exactly that, the proliferation of WMD.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s very interesting that President Bush issued this commutation from Kennebunkport, Maine, with his dad there, President George H.W. Bush, who, well, it was with his involvement that the law was written that CIA agents should not be outed and if they are it’s a crime.

MARCY WHEELER: Right, but then, of course, Bush’s father also has a history of pardoning somebody to prevent any kind of implication in his own acts of potential criminal violation. In that case, the Iran-Contra.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you be specific about the people that he pardoned?

MARCY WHEELER: Oh, sure. George Bush Sr. pardoned Cap Weinberger just as the investigation in Iran-Contra was getting close to his own actions. It was pretty clear he was involved in that. And so, he did the same thing that Bush just did: pardon the guy who can implicate you, and then everything’s gone, everything. I mean, it’s as if these people think that they operate above the law and they are not subject to the same laws that you or I are subject to.

AMY GOODMAN: Marcy Wheeler, thanks very much for joining us, author of Anatomy of Deceit: How the Bush Administration Used the Media to Sell the Iraq War and Out a Spy. She writes the political blog, “The Next Hurrah,” under the name “emptywheel.”

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