Bush was right in commuting Libby’s jail term

President George W. Bush did the appropriate thing in commuting the sentence of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby — Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, who was sentenced to 30 months in jail and a fine of $250,000 for his role in what has become known as Plamegate.

Libby will serve no jail time, but will still have to face the fine and loss of his law license, pending his likely appeal of the verdict.
Given the nature of the conviction — Libby was prosecuted for lying to investigators about a non-crime — and the complicated details of the case, it might seem surprising to outside observers that the decision would result in such overheated negative reaction.

Democratic Sen. Barack Obama lamented that “(t)his decision to commute the sentence of a man who compromised our national security cements the legacy of an administration characterized by a politics of cynicism and division, one that has consistently placed itself and its ideology above the law.”

Other leading Democrats slammed the decision as “disgraceful,” and an affront to equal justice before the law, while some Republicans criticized the president for not granting Libby a full pardon.

New York Times columnist David Brooks accurately described Plamegate as a long-running farce, best viewed in a world of partisanship, hypocrisy, ego and prosecutorial overreach. Libby, for instance, was accused of outing CIA agent Valerie Plame, although prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald already knew that somebody else had outed Plame.

At the sentencing, Fitzgerald nonetheless called for a stiff penalty, arguing that he had “obtained substantial evidence indicating that one or both of the statutes may have been violated.”

The only problem: Libby wasn’t convicted of those underlying crimes. Yet the judge seemed to agree with sentencing a man harshly for crimes he was not prosecuted for committing.

In truth, the real reason for the posturing: Libby and the Plame situation became a touchstone for people’s deeply held beliefs about the Iraq war.

Plame’s husband, Joe Wilson, claimed that a vindictive White House leaked information about Plame being a CIA agent to get back at Wilson for his efforts to debunk a key claim the administration made about Saddam Hussein trying to purchase yellowcake uranium in Niger.

The president’s foes could not topple him or Karl Rove or Vice President Dick Cheney over their Iraq decisions, but they did topple one underling, Libby.

We’ve opposed the Iraq war from the start and agree with many of the president’s critics. The administration did gin up a weak case for war, and used evidence that has later been proved to be false. Libby did play a role in crafting this disastrous policy, yet at the end of the day, the issue of justice in policymaking is best served through public debate and elections rather than through the criminalization of policy differences.

Yes, Libby was convicted of lying to prosecutors, but a long jail sentence seemed out of line. President Bush took the right course, leaving the conviction on Libby’s record and forcing him to pay a fine, while keeping him out of jail.

The president and Republicans might pay a political price for this decision, but we suspect that ultimately the president and his party will pay a higher price for their foolhardy decision to embark on war.