A Pardon For Libby? Be careful, Mr. President

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A day after he used his constitutional power to commute the 30-month sentence
of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, President Bush left open the possibility of a full pardon.

A pardon would not only override the sentence issued by U.S. District Judge Reggie
B. Walton, but also erase the verdict of jurors who convicted Libby of two counts
of perjury, one count of lying to the FBI and one count of obstruction of justice.

In more than 200 years, presidents have often used the power to pardon but only rarely
to aid those connected with the White House. Libby was an assistant to the president
himself as well as chief of staff and national security adviser to the vice president. A full
pardon would put Bush in dangerous constitutional territory -- opening him up to
accusations of misusing his powers to excuse the actions of a subordinate.

Two modern era examples illustrate the problem that would pose:

President Nixon considered clemency for the seven men convicted of bugging the
Democratic national headquarters at the Watergate Hotel, in the vain hope that
White House involvement wouldn't be revealed. In the end, Nixon decided in favor of
hush money, but this contemplated abuse of the pardon power was part of the
obstruction of justice convictions of several high-level White House officials. It was
included in articles of impeachment against Nixon.

Nixon's White House counsel, John Dean, who was convicted of obstruction of justice,
wrote recently: "If Watergate had any lesson, it was that when someone connected to
the White House is heading for prison, it is dangerous for the president or those close
to him to even think about -- not to mention talk about -- clemency."

President George H.W. Bush pardoned six high-level Reagan era officials. In that case,
Congress had cut off funds for the contras fighting to overthrow the Nicaraguan
government. So officials did an end run around Congress, selling weapons to Iran and
using the money to fund the contras. Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh condemned
the pardons: "George Bush's misuse of the pardon power made the coverup complete."

In the current case, according to Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, Libby engaged in
repeated and blatant lies. This made it impossible to find out whether high-level officials
such as Richard Armitage, Karl Rove, Ari Fleischer and Libby were the only ones to
disclose classified information about a covert intelligence agent; whether the disclosures
were part of a concerted effort; and whether other officials -- such as Vice President Dick
Cheney -- approved the disclosures.

Libby's advocates want people to believe that the investigation is a partisan witch hunt.
But that requires ignoring facts. It was the CIA that asked the Justice Department to
investigate allegations that the White House broke federal laws by disclosing the identity
of an undercover officer. It was the Bush Justice Department that appointed a special
counsel. It was a Bush-appointed judge who issued the 30-month sentence.

Most presidents understand that the power of pardon has to be used cautiously, lest
they appear to be trying to buy silence. Bush entered perilous waters by overriding the
judge's sentence of Libby. He would be wise to abandon thoughts of a full pardon before
he gets in any deeper.

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