This column was written by David Corn.
The president who led the nation into a disastrous war in Iraq by peddling false statements and misrepresentations has come to the rescue of a White House aide convicted of lying by commuting his sentence. Before the ink was dry on today's court order denying Scooter Libby's latest appeal — a motion to allow him to stay out of jail while he was challenging his conviction — George W. Bush commuted Libby's sentence. Libby will no longer have to serve the 30-month prison sentence ordered by federal district court Judge Reggie Walton. He will, though, have to pay the $250,000 fine that was part of the sentence.
The commutation — which is not a pardon and does not erase Libby's conviction — is a reminder that Bush and his crew do not believe in accountability. Bush has been rather stingy in the use of his pardon power. And regulations issued by his Justice Department note that recipients of pardons should serve their sentences and demonstrate contrition before obtaining presidential absolution. (Libby had expressed no remorse and was not scheduled to report to jail for several weeks.) Yet with this commutation, Bush ducked those requirements, and he is allowing Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, who was found guilty of lying to federal investigators in the CIA leak case, to go unpunished. The fine will be no problem for Libby. His neoconservative friends and admirers will kick in to cover that tab. (Perhaps even Cheney will send a check.)
Libby had become a symbol of the Bush White House's problem with the truth. After all, his lies had been designed to block FBI agents and federal prosecutors from learning the full truth of a White House effort to discredit a critic who had accused the Bush administration of twisting the prewar intelligence. And now the final act in the long-running CIA leak scandal — Bush's commutation — stands as another symbol of this grand theme: lying doesn't really bother this crowd. In the 2000 presidential campaign, Bush claimed he would bring responsibility to the White House and, as a PR stunt, he dubbed his campaign jet Accountability One. Yet with this commutation, he takes the position that in his administration an aide who purposefully misleads government officials investigating a possible national security crime need not be held fully accountable.
This is no shocker. Early on in the CIA leak affair, the White House announced that anyone involved in the 2003 leak that disclosed the CIA employment of Valerie Wilson, an undercover Agency officer, would be booted out of the administration. But Karl Rove, who had disclosed classified information about Valerie Wilson to two reporters and who apparently lied about his actions to White House press secretary Scott McClellan, was not pink-slipped. Bush has never acknowledged this broken promise. (Libby left the White House only after he was indicted in the fall of 2005.)
Bush shielded Rove, and now — better late than never — he's doing the same for Libby. Ever since Libby's conviction in March, neoconservative and conservative Libby partisans have been urging — or demanding — that Bush pardon Libby. They have cried that his indictment, his conviction, and his sentence were travesties of justice. They blasted Bush for declining to intervene in the proceedings, branding the president (their pal!) a coward. They acted as if Bush's refusal to pardon Libby was a personal betrayal of each and everyone of them. They showed more concern for Libby than any of the civilians who have perished in Iraq in the years since they, Libby and their allies engineered the invasion of Iraq. Libby was their cause; he was one of them.
Once again, Bush, being nudged by the neocons, has sent a clear message: telling the truth doesn't matter. Bush has refused to acknowledge that he, Cheney, and other administration officials — to be polite about it — stretched the truth about Iraq and the threat it posed before the war. Today, he says that if you lie to protect the White House (especially the vice president), you can escape retribution. But if Bush, Cheney and the others could get away with big untruths about war, why shouldn't Libby get away with small lies about a cover-up? Fair's fair, right?
The foundation of a democratic judicial system is that the sentence fits the crime. In this instance, the commutation fits the administration.
By David Corn
Reprinted with permission from the The Nation