In a move that has keenly disappointed some of his strongest conservative allies, President Bush has decided not to pardon Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, for his 2007 conviction in the CIA leak case, two White House officials said Monday.
On Bush's last full day as president, Bush did commute the sentence of two former Border Patrol agents—Jose Compean and Ignacio Ramos—for shooting a Mexican drug dealer and then lying about it. But White House press spokesman Tony Fratto told NEWSWEEK "you should not expect any more" pardons and commutations from Bush before he leaves office Tuesday. Another senior official, who requested anonymity discussing sensitive matters, confirmed that no more pardons would be granted.
Bush's decision leaves a long line of rejected pardon applicants, many of whom have retained politically well-connected Washington lawyers, to make their case for presidential mercy in Bush's final days in the White House. Among them were junk-bond king Michael Milken, media mogul Conrad Black, former Illinois GOP governor George Ryan and former Louisiana Democratic governor Edwin Edwards. Bush also apparently turned down a last-minute plea from Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski to pardon her former GOP colleague Ted Stevens for his recent political corruption conviction.
But the decision not to pardon Libby stunned some longtime Bush backers who had been quietly making the case for the former vice presidential aide in recent weeks. A number of Libby's allies had raised the issue with White House officials, arguing that as a loyal aide who played a key role in shaping Bush's foreign policy during the president's first term, including the decision to invade Iraq, Libby deserved to have the stain of his felony conviction erased from the record. In the only public sign of the lobbying campaign, The Wall Street Journal published an editorial strongly urging Libby's pardon.
"I'm flabbergasted," said one influential Republican activist, who had raised the issue with White House aides, but who asked not to be identified criticizing the president. Ambassador Richard Carlson, the vice chairman of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a neo-conservative think tank, added that he too was "shocked" at Bush's denial of a pardon for Libby.
"George Bush has always prided himself on doing the right thing regardless of the polls or the pundits," Carlson said. "Now he is leaving office with a shameful cloud over his head." Carlson, who was among those who recently weighed in on behalf of Libby with the White House and previously raised money for his legal defense fund, said that Libby had taken a "knife in the heart" from critics of the president and deserved to have his conviction erased.
Libby was convicted for perjury and obstruction of justice two years ago in a case that grew out of a Justice Department investigation into the July, 2003 leak of former CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson's identity. Libby was never charged with actually divulging Plame's identity to reporters—an act that was widely seen as an attempt by administration officials to discredit her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, for his criticism of the Iraq war. But Libby was charged, and convicted, of lying about his own knowledge of Plame; trial evidence established that Libby first had learned about her work for the CIA from his boss, the vice president, and later passed along information about Plame to a New York Times reporter in an off-the-record meeting that had been specifically approved by Cheney. In his closing argument to the jury, special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald strongly suggested that Libby had lied to the grand jury in order to shield the truth about Cheney's role. "There is a cloud on the vice president…, Fitzgerald said. "That cloud remains because the defendant obstructed justice." Cheney's office has consistently refused to comment on the case.
Fratto offered no explanation for why Bush chose not to grant a pardon for Libby. But some lawyers following the case pointed to Bush's July, 2007 statement when he commuted Libby's prison sentence of two and a half years—a statement that left it especially hard for the president to justify a full pardon. Just as Libby was about to go to jail that summer, Bush intervened to spare him from incarceration. At the time, he said that the White House had reviewed the case; while "I respect the jury's verdict," Bush said, he had concluded that the prison sentence was excessive. Bush's statement also noted that those who defended the prosecution of Libby "argue, correctly, that our entire system of justice relies on people telling the truth. And if a person does not tell the truth, particularly if he serves in government and holds the public trust, he must be held accountable."
The rejection of Libby's bid is consistent with Bush's overall stingy record when it comes to using presidential pardon powers. In part as a reaction to Bill Clinton's last-minute pardon spree, including the especially controversial one granted to fugitive financier Marc Rich, Bush has issued far fewer pardons than any president in modern history, according to clemency scholars. In the case of Ramos and Compean, whose conviction in the 2005 shooting of a Mexican drug dealer ignited a fierce debate over illegal immigration, Bush accepted the jury's verdict, according to Fratto. But the president concluded that the prison sentences—for more than 10 years each—were too harsh. The president was also influenced by bipartisan congressional support for a commutation from lawmakers such as Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, California Democrat Diane Feinstein and (before he left to join the new Obama administration) Democratic Rep. Rahm Emanuel, Fratto said.
Still, critics said that Bush overall has shown himself far too unwilling to use an important presidential power. When told that the only last day acts of clemency would be Ramos and Compean, Margaret Love, the former chief pardon attorney for the Justice Department from 1990-1997 and now a private lawyer representing pardon applicants, said: "I can't believe this is all there is."