July 03, 2007

Bush Assaults Rule of Law to Save Libby

It is tempting to view the commutation of prison time for Lewis Libby, the disgraced White House aide convicted of lying and obstructing justice, as another instance of craven hypocrisy by President Bush. As a candidate in 1999, Bush assured voters, "I don't believe my role is to replace the verdict of a jury with my own," unless "new facts" arose or the trial was "unfair" -- a standard which the Libby case clearly fails.

Or perhaps the commutation will serve as a disturbing reminder of how the administration regularly lies with impunity in Washington. President Bush famously promised, in serious tones at a televised White House meeting, to both fire and punish anyone involved in the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame. Instead, he retained all the senior officials embroiled in the scandal, even after their roles were exposed in trial testimony and news reports, with no visible consequences. Now the President is using his clemency power to protect the one official convicted on related crimes. In his surreal statement about that choice, Bush volunteered his belief that "if a person does not tell the truth, particularly if he serves in government and holds the public trust, he must be held accountable."

But it would be wrong to criticize Bush's decision as one more hypocritical or deceitful maneuver, because it is actually far more profound.

The commutation of the 30-month prison sentence for Lewis Libby, the highest-ranking White House official convicted of a felony since Iran-Contra, fits into a larger, systemic assault on American rule of law by the Bush Administration.

In fact, Libby's special treatment is a microcosm of current U.S. policy. Libby is basically receiving a post-conviction protection that the Bush Administration now routinely extends to many potential criminals in the U.S. government. The administration successfully pushed legislation last year granting immunity to officials who might someday be prosecuted for war crimes or torture. It is a policy that embodies the administration's distinctly un-American view that powerful government officials should operate above the law.
As Americans gather for July 4th celebrations, talk will likely turn to two convicted criminals who embody Bush's approach to the rule of law: Lewis Libby and Paris Hilton. So powerful and rich, they can live above the law, and they make no apologies for it. Americans overwhelmingly opposed a pardon for Libby, and initial polling suggests they oppose the commutation. The question for politicians is not whether they agree with the public on this fundamental matter of law and order, but what are they going to do about it?

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