The value of friends

Its hard for me to even feign surprise at the announcement this week that George Bush was commuting the prison sentence for I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former Chief of Staff. Libby resigned from Cheney’s staff amidst allegations about his involvement with the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame, and he was subsequently convicted on a variety of perjury and obstruction charges. Sentenced by the trial judge to fines, probation, and 30 months in jail, Libby was out of jail awaiting a bail assessment pending an appeal of his conviction and sentence. The White House announcement that the prison sentence was being commuted came shortly after Libby’s request to remain free pending his appeal was denied.

It was a clear message from the White House that prison time is not a punishment is finds acceptable for Libby, despite his criminal conviction. Ironically, Bush took great pains in his own statement about the commutation to be sure people understood that respected the jury conviction of Libby, and its worth noting that commuting the prison sentence is a large step away from the pardon that would have seen Libby’s conviction voided all together (but its equally worth noting that this announcement in no way precludes Bush from later issuing a full pardon). Yet its hard to see Bush as having much respect for the criminal process when he ignores both the advice of the sentencing judge (and all those who reviewed the case during his attempts to remain free pending appeal), as well as the guidelines on commutation of prison sentences set out by Bush’s own Justice Department. Claims that Bush “thought that the jury verdict should stand” ring hollow when coupled with the sentiment that the “punishment was severe.” Apparently, Bush feels the US Justice system is capable of trying Libby, but not sentencing him … such cherry-picking of results makes it hard to argue any sort of principle here.

Had Bush offered some sort of justification, based on the facts of the case, to explain why the sentence was “severe” in relation to other people convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in a Federal trial, there might be some way to justify the move. Instead, in a move that is becoming all the more typical of his Imperial Presidency, he didn’t even bother to attempt an explanation.

“And I made a judgment, a considered judgment, that I believe is the right decision to make in this case. I stand by it.”
from “Bush: My decision was right” from the War Room, Salon.com

There isn’t even an attempt made to explain why he feels it was the right decision. From the perspective of this imperial White House, the American people should simply accept on faith that if the President thinks it was the right decision, then it must be the right decision, without question. No attempt is made to justify the decision because no reason is needed … it is the right thing to do simply because the President thinks it is the right thing to do. The “reason,” such as one is even necessary, for commuting the prison sentence of a man you agree is guilty is nothing more or less than because the President believes it “is the right decision to make in this case.”

That such an attitude is disgusting and appalling would seem, to me anyway, to be beyond question. But forgive me if I can’t generate any great level of shock or surprise at this announcement … its another example of the attitude gaining traction south of the border in recent years that the rule of law is only useful so far as it advances your own specific agenda. Whether its the removal of Habeas Corpus, the justification of warrant less phone tapping that included US citizens, the network of black prisons around the world, or the redefinition of torture to allow its use within US military prisons, one of the main themes of recent years south of the border has been the idea that the rule of law, that basic human rights, that the basic institutions of a civil society like the courts and the prisons can be thrown out the window if they somehow inconvenience a “necessary” goal. A prison sentence for Libby is “inconvenient” for the White House on a number of levels, not least of which is that one wonders how long he would have remained silent about the inner workings of the Cheney office from the inside of a jail cell, and as it has done on so many other occasions, its sent a clear message to the American people with the commutation of prison time for Libby. The White House has said, quite clearly, that the rule of law is only applicable in so far as it does not conflict with the interests of the Bush Presidency … as soon as it does conflict, all bets are off.

In the Globe and Mail today, the editorial published a fascinating quote from Bush’s 1999 memoirs while Governor of Texas. Discussing the issue of granting clemency, he had the following to say …

“In every case,” he wrote in his 1999 memoir, “I would ask: Is there any doubt about this individual’s guilt or innocence? And, have the courts had ample opportunity to review all the legal issues in this case?”
July 4th Globe and Mail Editorial

Its a very nice sentiment. I would ask Mr, Bush point blank if there is any question of Libby’s guilt or innocence? Bush seems to claim there isn’t when he says “I thought that the jury verdict should stand.” Have the courts had ample time to review all the legal issues in this case? Libby remained free while he contested the order that he await his appeal in jail, and only after exhausting all possible legal means to escape to Bush commute his sentence. It strikes me that the courts have had plenty of time, and Libby granted plenty of leeway, to review the legal issues of both the conviction, the sentence, and the denial of bail while awaiting his appeal. It seems, the “clemency” offered Mr. Libby violates all portions of the questions Bush would ask himself “in every case.” There is little doubt such behaviour is appalling, but forgive me if I am unable to generate much in the way of surprise.

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