Libby gets prison, Bush may face dilemma
Ex-Cheney aide gets 21/2-year sentence in probe of a former CIA operative’s outing. Pressure for a pardon may hit president soon.
By Richard B. Schmitt
Times Staff Writer
June 6, 2007
WASHINGTON — Former vice presidential aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby faces the prospect of becoming the first high-level White House official to go to prison since the Nixon administration, after a federal judge sentenced him Tuesday to serve 2 1/2 years for perjury and obstruction of justice.
Though numerous public officials have been investigated, charged and even convicted in the three decades since Watergate, they almost always have avoided prison by appeal, plea bargain or pardon. But at the sentencing, U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton raised the possibility that he would order Libby to prison even while he pursued an appeal of his conviction.
That prospect left Libby’s attorneys scrambling to keep him free. Walton delayed a decision until next week, but if Libby is ordered into custody, that would probably bring pressure from his allies for a presidential pardon — and confront President Bush with an untimely political dilemma.
Libby, a onetime chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, was sentenced for obstructing a federal probe into the disclosure of Valerie Plame’s position as a CIA operative. His attorneys argued that he should serve no prison time because of his record of public service and other good works, and because he had already suffered a fall from grace that was personally and professionally humiliating.
But an unmoved Walton sentenced Libby at the higher end of federal guidelines, and indicated that he was inclined to order Libby to surrender to authorities in a few weeks. He also ordered Libby to pay a $250,000 fine, serve two years of supervised release after his incarceration, and produce a DNA sample — among other requirements.
Stoic and somewhat ashen-faced, Libby faced the court, flanked by his attorneys, and briefly addressed Walton before sentence was pronounced. “It is respectfully my hope that the court will consider my whole life,” Libby said, adding that he also appreciated the “many courtesies” he received from court staff during the trial.
Walton told him that he had a betrayed a public trust.
“People who occupy these types of positions, where they have the welfare and security of the nation in their hands, have a special obligation to not do anything that might create a problem,” the judge said. Libby repeatedly lied to investigators, Walton said, which warranted stiff punishment to ensure public confidence in the judicial system.
Libby and his legal team left the courthouse without comment.
Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor, also declined to comment.
Pleas for leniency
In handing down the sentence, Walton rejected pleas for leniency from scores of figures from the worlds of politics and national security in which Libby had long operated.
The more than 150 letters included requests from former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and from World Bank President Paul D. Wolfowitz, who recently said he would resign June 30 in the wake of charges that he gave preferential treatment to his companion, a bank employee.
Others wrote to urge against a light sentence, saying it would send a message that powerful and connected people received special treatment in the courts — an argument Walton seemed to embrace.
Libby, 56, was convicted in March on four of five counts of lying to FBI agents and a grand jury in a case rooted in the administration’s decision to go to war in Iraq.
Plame was identified as a CIA expert on weapons of mass destruction in news reports in July 2003, shortly after her husband, former envoy Joseph C. Wilson IV, wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times challenging a claim that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was seeking nuclear material in Niger. Wilson had been sent to the African nation by the CIA to assess the claim a year earlier; he found it baseless.
According to evidence presented at the trial, Libby and the office of the vice president were keen on discrediting Wilson, and used the identity of his wife to suggest that he got the assignment due to nepotism.
Fitzgerald was appointed to see if Libby or other officials who had spoken to reporters violated a law prohibiting disclosure of the identify of covert agents. He alleged at trial that Libby concocted a story that he first learned about Plame from reporters, a fact that would insulate him from liability.
The prosecution was controversial, however, because Libby was not the first person to disclose the identify of Plame to journalists, and because neither he nor anyone else was charged with breaking the law protecting agents.
Defense attorneys argued to Walton on Tuesday that it was “irrational” to send Libby to jail under those circumstances. “No one was ever charged. Nobody ever pleaded guilty,” attorney William Jeffress Jr. said. “The government did not establish the existence of an offense.”
Fitzgerald told Walton that the lies Libby told created a “house of mirrors” that threw investigators off course and prolonged the investigation.
While acknowledging that Libby worked “long and hard” in public service, Fitzgerald said Libby’s status should not be a factor in the sentencing, and he urged Walton to send a message that “the truth matters, and station in life does not.”
Question of bail
While the 30-month sentence was longer than most observers had predicted, Walton’s upcoming decision about whether to allow Libby to remain free on bail pending appeal could have even more far-reaching consequences.
Walton indicated he was disinclined to permit bail in Libby’s case because it did not appear there was a substantial chance that he would win his appeal.
The remarks appeared to throw the defense team off guard. Attorney Theodore V. Wells Jr. asked for the opportunity to brief Walton on the merits of the appeal. Walton relented, and set a hearing on the issue for June 14.
If he does not grant bail, Walton indicated that, according to the Bureau of Prisons, Libby would have to surrender to authorities within 45 to 60 days.
The prospect of Libby landing in prison soon could change the politics of the case.
Many observers have believed from the beginning of the prosecution that if Libby were convicted, Bush would grant him a presidential pardon to ensure that he never served a day in prison.
But this scenario assumes Libby’s attorneys would be able to keep him free during his appeal, and that Bush would not have to consider a pardon until the final days of his administration — when the political costs would be minimal.
Now, Walton may effectively be forcing Bush’s hand.
“The judge is sending a signal: ‘If you think this is a pardon case, do it now. I don’t think it is appropriate to let this be strung out indefinitely,’ ” said Douglas A. Berman, a sentencing expert at Ohio State University law school. “The legal and political issues get ratcheted up extraordinarily,” Berman said, if Walton orders Libby to prison next week.
Bush has used his pardon powers “less generously than any president in 100 years,” according to Margaret C. Love, a former pardon attorney at the Justice Department, which normally screens White House pardon requests.
Bush on Clinton pardons
Bush also criticized a series of pardons President Clinton granted on the way out of office in January 2001, including one for fugitive commodities trader Marc Rich, whose former wife was a donor to the Clinton presidential library. Clinton bypassed normal Justice Department channels in issuing the pardons, a course that Bush indicated he would not emulate.
In addition, many of the individuals Bush has pardoned have already served their sentences. Under those circumstances, he may take political heat for sparing Libby before he serves a single day.
Deputy White House press secretary Dana Perino, accompanying the president Tuesday on Air Force One from the Czech Republic to Germany, told reporters that Bush “felt terrible for the [Libby] family, especially for his wife and kids.” She said that Bush would comment no further on the case at this time.
In a prepared statement issued through his attorney, Cheney praised Libby and said he was “deeply saddened by this tragedy” and its effect on his former aide, wife and two children. “The defense has indicated it plans to appeal the conviction in the case,” the vice president concluded. “Speaking as friends, we hope that our system will return a final result consistent with what we know of this fine man.”
Other senior administration officials have served time since the 1970s Watergate scandal that sent Nixon aides John Mitchell, John D. Ehrlichman, H.R. Haldeman and others to prison. But unlike Libby, they did not work in the White House itself or their crimes were not committed while they were in office.
Former Justice Department official and Clinton associate Webster L. Hubbell was sentenced to 21 months in prison in 1995 in connection with defrauding his former law firm in Arkansas.
And many figures were charged in the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostage scandal during the Reagan administration. But many of those convictions were thrown out on appeal, and other defendants received pardons from President George H.W. Bush.
The Plame affair
The CIA leak affair began to unfold in July 2003, about the time former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV wrote an opinion article in the New York Times accusing the Bush administration of twisting the intelligence it used to go to war in Iraq. In his January 2003 State of the Union address, President Bush said Iraq had sought uranium for nuclear weapons from Niger, in West Africa. Wilson wrote that, during his CIA-sponsored trip to Niger in 2002, he found no evidence to support Bush’s claim — and that the administration knew it.
Eight days after Wilson’s article appeared, syndicated columnist Robert Novak wrote that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, worked at the CIA and may have played a role in sending him to Niger. Disclosing the identity of an undercover CIA operative can be illegal, and a criminal investigation was launched.
No one was charged with leaking Plame’s identity. But in October 2005, a grand jury indicted then-White House aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. Prosecutors said Libby told three reporters about Wilson and Plame but lied to investigators about it. Libby’s defense was that he didn’t lie but simply forgot the conversations because, as Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, he had been focused on national security matters at the time.
Source: Times research
Letters to judge plead for probation, maximum term
Dozens of people seeking to weigh in on the appropriate sentence for Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby submitted letters in recent weeks to U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton. Most expressed support for probation, although several urged the longest possible sentence to show that no one is above the law. Here are some excerpts:
“I know a great many of our fellow citizens hope and pray that those who serve in our federal government will be individuals of strong character and integrity, who cherish our freedoms and our way of life. Over these past decades, I have had the privilege of serving with a great many people of that type, and among them, without hesitation, I would include Mr. I. Lewis Libby…. Our country has been fortunate to have had his service.”
“It is painful for me to reflect on the fact that his life would have been very different if we had never met. He would almost certainly now be a successful attorney in Philadelphia, enjoying a comfortable life with his wonderful wife and their two beautiful children. However, our country would have also been deprived of the very considerable service that he has rendered…. Mr. Libby has made many other contributions to our common security — and put in many long hours of selfless hard work — not out of ambition but solely out of a deep sense of responsibility and a desire to make this country safer for all of us.”
“My lifelong view, which has only been validated in adulthood, is that kids are the most honest and true evaluators of people. Watching my children with Scooter, and all children with him, you’d think he hung the moon. He is gentle and caring. He is genuinely interested in others’ well being and still inspires me to this day. He is a compelling teacher and extraordinary role model for integrity and humility…. My family is praying the wisdom and mercy you bring to bear in determining Scooter’s future will include a consideration of his family, the price they have already paid and what further justice would be served by additional devastation to them and the many other children who love Scooter.”
“Keeping every detail straight is impossible. No one has a photographic memory, and no one has perfect recall…. I fully understand that letters such as this are not permitted to relitigate issues before the court, but if I can accomplish nothing else, I hope to convey that Scooter Libby was busy with matters of state of the highest urgency and moment for the American people. As such, information flowed across his desk on a daily basis like water coming out of a high-pressure fire hydrant, with more demands for action than could be humanly met.”
“I met Scooter early in the second Bush administration, when he served as chief of staff to Vice President Cheney…. He is a man of strong views, some of which I do not share. But in my observations, he pursued his objectives with integrity and a sense of responsibility. I would never have associated the actions for which he was convicted with his character. Nor do I believe that they will ever be repeated.”
“I strongly implore you to put Scooter in jail. He is a criminal and deserves no special treatment. In fact, his high profile and privileged background make it even more important that he be treated with no special deference…. When we average Americans tell our children about things like this, we need to be able to impress upon them that the law should apply to all — even the rich, powerful and connected.”
Source: Associated Press