WASHINGTON -- In a move that even Republicans said would spark a firestorm, President Bush spared I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr. from prison yesterday, calling the former White House aide's 2 1/2 -year sentence for lying during a federal investigation into the leak of a CIA agent's identity "excessive."
By commuting Libby's prison term, Bush risked political backlash in showing leniency to a man who had loyally served his administration as Vice President Dick Cheney's top aide. Respected for his intellect and reasoned demeanor, Libby is widely viewed as an architect of U.S. policy toward Iraq, and his conviction was interpreted by administration critics as a slap at how the White House misused intelligence leading up to the Iraq invasion.
Bush granted executive clemency to Libby just hours after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia rejected the former aide's plea to remain free while he appealed his conviction. In a late-afternoon statement, released shortly after Bush's return from a Maine summit with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, the president called the commutation "an appropriate exercise" of his powers under the Constitution.
The action is different from a pardon, which would have reversed Libby's conviction and wiped his record clean. Unless his conviction is overturned on appeal, Libby still must pay a $250,000 fine and serve two years of probation.
"The reputation he gained through his years of public service and professional work in the legal community is forever damaged," said Bush, who noted the arguments made by both critics and supporters of the investigation by special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney in Chicago, responded last night that Libby's sentence had followed "laws governing sentencings which occur every day throughout this country. ... It is fundamental to the rule of law that all citizens stand before the bar of justice as equals."
In a written statement, Fitzgerald offered no comment on Bush's exercise of his authority to commute Libby's sentence. But he said Libby "remains convicted by a jury of serious felonies, and we will continue to seek to preserve those convictions through the appeals process."
Libby, the highest-ranking White House official sentenced to prison since the Iran-contra affair two decades ago, was found guilty in March of four counts of perjury and obstruction in a case that became part of a string of setbacks for the Bush administration.
He was sentenced in May by U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton, a 2001 Bush appointee known for his toughness on criminals, who noted Libby's "overwhelming" guilt and refused to allow him to remain free on bail while his case was on appeal.
Bush had been urged for months by conservatives to pardon Libby, an idea that has been gaining favor among Republican presidential candidates. Many Bush allies contended that it would be a travesty for a president who prizes loyalty to allow a hard-working aide to go to prison who had not been convicted of the underlying crime of disclosing the identity of a CIA agent, Valerie Plame.
Cheney's spokeswoman Lea Ann McBride said yesterday, "The vice president supports the president's decision."
Many Republicans were slow to react, though former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, a likely 2008 Republican presidential candidate, said he was "very happy" for Libby. Thompson serves as an official of a defense fund that has raised millions on Libby's behalf, and he had personally argued for a pardon.
Former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, also a GOP presidential candidate, said in a statement that "the president came to a reasonable decision, and I believe the decision was correct."
Conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan said on MSNBC that Bush acted "in the teeth of what he knows is going to be a firestorm." Buchanan pointed out that public opinion was strongly opposed to any sort of leniency by Bush; a recent CNN/Opinion research poll found that only 19 percent of the public favored pardoning Libby.
Reaction from Democrats was swift and scathing.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called Bush's decision "disgraceful. Libby's conviction was the one faint glimmer of accountability for White House efforts to manipulate intelligence and silence critics of the Iraq war."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Bush had betrayed the trust of the American people.
"The president said he would hold accountable anyone involved in the Valerie Plame leak case," she said. "By his action today, the president shows his word is not to be believed."
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, said, "I always think about my neighborhood and guys who go to prison for stealing a bicycle. ... Most Americans want fairness: You have to serve the sentence, period."
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Montgomery County Democrat, said it "clearly sends the terrible message that the Bush administration condones this kind of criminal conduct and once again refuses to hold people in the administration accountable for their wrongful conduct."
"The men and women of the CIA who put their lives on the line every day to gather intelligence and protect our country deserve better," said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Baltimore County Democrat.
How the White House would respond to the conviction had been the subject of intense speculation. Bush had refused to broach the topic, saying it would be inappropriate to comment while a legal case was pending.
The case against Libby has its roots in Bush's claim that Iraq's Saddam Hussein harbored weapons of mass destruction and was a threat to the United States.
Libby and other top administration officials sought information about former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who debunked Bush's claim that Hussein had sought uranium from Africa. They then told selected reporters that Wilson was married to CIA employee Valerie Plame, who was first named by syndicated columnist Robert Novak.
Libby denied to investigators that he told reporters about Plame and said during his trial that he first learned of her identity from Tim Russert of NBC News. But Russert denied that, and several journalists refuted Libby's story.
Libby was the only person indicted in the investigation; Fitzgerald did not bring charges against him or anyone else for disclosing Plame's identity.
Presidential decisions to grant clemency can be controversial. Gerald Ford's approval ratings plummeted and never recovered when he pardoned Richard M. Nixon after Watergate.
Invoking that memory, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, said Bush "is just taking it to a whole new level."
"The president believes that he and his administration are above accountability under the law, and that's just not American," Cardin said.
"That's not why the clemency provisions are in the Constitution. It's to deal with serious issues of justice that require intervention, not to help out your staff."