Saved from prison by Bush's favour: the White House aide who lied to a grand jury
· Rightwing pressure wins commutation for Scooter
· Democrats say president has trampled on the law

Ewen MacAskill
London Guardian
Tuesday July 3, 2007

George Bush created a political storm yesterday by intervening to stop the disgraced White House aide, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, from going to jail. The president, in a statement, said the prison sentence imposed on Mr Libby, who was found guilty of perjury in a complex spy case linked to the Iraq war, was too harsh.

Mr Bush, who made the statement after leaving a summit with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, at Kennebunkport, Maine, said: "I respect the jury's verdict. But I have concluded that the prison sentence is excessive."

Mr Bush was under pressure from the vice-president, Dick Cheney, and other conservatives to commute the two-and-a-half year jail sentence imposed last month. When Mr Libby was sentenced, television and radio talk shows were innundated with calls of support for the former White House aide from Republicans.

Conservative commentators raged against the judge, Reggie Walton, and the prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, and called on Mr Bush to act on behalf of a loyal servant. But Democrats and others yesterday accused the president of operating with double standards, protecting a convicted felon from jail because of his association with the White House.

Mr Bush's decision is likely to hurt his presidency further. With 19 months left in office, he has suffered the most consistently low poll ratings of almost any modern president, is running an unpopular war and last week lost his last chance to bring in a major piece of domestic legislation - reform of the immigration law.

Probation

He commuted Mr Libby's jail sentence, but did not grant him a pardon. Mr Libby still faces a $250,00 (£125,00) fine and will remain on probation.

"My decision to commute his prison sentence leaves in place a harsh punishment for Mr Libby," the president said. "The reputation he gained through his years of public service and professional work in the legal community is forever damaged. His wife and young children have also suffered immensely ... The consequences of his felony conviction on his former life as a lawyer, public servant and private citizen will be long-lasting."

The White House move was prompted by a federal court decision earlier yesterday not to allow Mr Libby to remain at home pending the outcome of an appeal. This would have meant that he would have been heading to jail within the next few weeks. It was expected he would have served out his time in a minimum security jail in one of the states close to Washington DC, in Virginia, Maryland or New Jersey.

His strategy until then had appeared to be to string out the appeal until January 2009 in expectation of a pardon when Mr Bush left office.

Harry Reid, the Democratic leader in the Senate, described Mr Bush's action as "disgraceful". Charles Schumer, a Democratic senator, echoed this: "As independence day nears, we're reminded that one of the principles our forefathers fought for was equal justice under the law. This commutation completely tramples on that principle.

But Republicans such as Fred Thompson, one of the frontrunners for the Republican nomination for the 2008 presidential race, welcomed it, noting Mr Libby's long service to the US.

Covert

The former ambassador Richard Carlson, who helped to raise millions for Mr Libby's defence fund, said: "That's fantastic. It's a great relief. "Scooter" Libby did not deserve to go to prison and I'm glad the president had the courage to do this."

Mr Libby, who was Mr Cheney's chief of staff, was found guilty of obstructing a federal investigation into the "outing" of the covert CIA operative Valerie Plame. The suspicion at the time, though never confirmed, was that the Bush administration revealed her identity to take revenge on her husband, Joe Wilson, a former ambassador who had publicly dismissed as rubbish the president's claim that Iraq had been seeking uranium from Niger to build a nuclear weapon.

In his statement, Mr Bush said he had remained silent throughout the case until the legal process was exhausted. "But with the denial of bail being upheld and incarceration imminent, I believe it is now important to react to that decision," he said.

The president ran over the arguments for and against the sentence. He said some critics felt the punishment did not fit the crime because Mr Libby was a first-time offender with years of exceptional public service. Others "argue, correctly, that our entire system of justice relies on people telling the truth," Mr Bush said.

"They say that had Mr Libby only told the truth, he would have never been indicted in the first place." But he added: "I have made my own evaluation. In preparing for the decision I am announcing, I have carefully weighed these arguments and the circumstances surrounding this case."

Timeline: the road to jail and back

February 2002 Joseph Wilson, a former US ambassador, travels to Niger to investigate claims that Saddam Hussein tried to buy uranium. Wilson tells the US government that the claims are based on forged documents

January 2003 George Bush says in his State of the Union address: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa"

June 2003 A US government source tells New York Times reporter Judith Miller that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, worked for the CIA

July 2003 Wilson goes public about his Niger trip. Seven days later Plame is "outed" as a CIA operative

September 2003 A criminal investigation is launched to find out who leaked Plame's identity

October 2003 Libby is interviewed by federal agents

March 2004 Libby testifies to a grand jury and denies deliberately leaking Plame's identity

October 2005 Libby is indicted by the FBI on five counts: obstruction of justice and two counts each of false statement and two counts of perjury

September 2006 Former US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage confesses to leaking Plame's name

March 2007 Libby is found guilty on four out of five charges.

June Libby given a 30-month prison sentence

July 2 George Bush commutes sentence, sparing him jail. A $250,000 fine stands.

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