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4 July 2007

Libby let off? Not a surprise…

Raffaello Pantucci says the Libby commutation is more of the same from a hypocritical administration

By Raffaello Pantucci

So, apparently, it pays to be pals with the President of the United States of America. Well, duh. “Scooter” Libby was never going to go to jail. Anyone who has been paying attention to the Bush Administration’s actions should know this.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be indignant about the fact that the President has chosen to trump the American legal system. It’s just astonishing that someone who was as expedient to sign away lives towards execution as Governor of Texas, is equally prepared as President to forego the law and spare Libby. So, it is scandalous but not altogether surprising. Presidents have this prerogative after all. And this is a President who has made it repeatedly clear that he champions loyalty amongst staff, so he was hardly going to let Lewis get scooted off to prison.

However, it does slightly distract from what we should be focusing on, and what was really on trial: the extraordinary expansion of executive power in the United States. The “co-Presidents” Bush and Cheney have assiduously attempted to overturn all the checks and balances carefully enshrined in the American body politic by the Constitution, all in the name of national security.

Until the 2006 mid-term elections this was really not a problem. The invocation of the “war on terror” after 9/11 put the nation on a permanent war footing meaning that any presidential decision was to further that goal and therefore incontestable. Any attempt to contradict such edicts would expose the complainant to accusations of disloyalty and, anyway, there was absolutely no political support for such contradiction. They had both the Senate and the House and a proven track record in winning elections.

By mid-2006 the American public finally spoke with their feet. The Republican drubbing in the polls was followed by Donald Rumsfeld’s jettisoning overboard to keep an angry public at bay: proof at last that the American system of checks and balances was still vibrant and well.

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This was not a lesson that filtered into the Vice President’s office. Temperamentally happier operating in the shadows of power, Dick Cheney found himself under fire from all sides getting dragged kicking and screaming into the light. His perennial optimism on Iraq was daily contradicted by news reports, and the executive clout he wielded with total impunity increasingly came under fire as a reinvigorated Congress fought back.

Subpoenas were issued left and right as the newly minted Democratic Congress dug in and started to haul out junior members of the administration to hearings accounting for their administration’s actions. The President used executive privilege to keep himself out of the firing line, and attempts to extract information from the Vice President’s office were met with a decision to close down the unit pursuing the information. Even more entertaining than this, however, was the impressively Machiavellian contortion from the Veep’s office that since he is simultaneously part of executive branch (as Vice President) and part of the legislative branch (the Vice President is also President of the Senate) he is therefore answerable to laws of neither.

This leaves the Democrats with nowhere else to go but to pursue those lower down the ladder who ultimately cannot call upon this privilege. And left out there on a limb was “Scooter” Libby.

The entire situation has placed the President in quite a quandary. On the one hand, he could not fully pardon him, since this might incense the Democrats to really go after him (already some are talking of using this as grounds for impeachment), and yet to let him go to jail would doom him amongst Conservatives (who have raised substantial amounts of money and filled reams of column inches arguing their man’s case).

So the lame duck waddled down this middle path of commutation, excusing the jail time, but leaving the $250,000 fine and two and a half year probation in place. This is just about all the shade left under those clipped wings.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of Outreach at the Young Professionals in Foreign Policy