Linda Heard: Mocking Justice in the Name of Compassion

By Linda Heard
Most White House watchers are aware that former vice presidential aide Lewis “Scooter” Libby was no more than a fall guy in the outing of a CIA agent.

There is little doubt Valerie Plame’s secret identity was exposed so as to punish her husband for writing an op-ed discrediting prewar intelligence that Iraq had purchased uranium yellow cake from Niger. And, of course, others had to be deterred from whistle blowing that could erode the administration’s fragile case for war.

Patsy or not, Libby was tried by his peers and found guilty of “knowingly and corruptly” obstructing the grand jury by lying to FBI agents and to the jury. It is reasonable to believe he did so to keep his superiors out of the picture, which may be viewed in some quarters as a noble sacrifice. But Libby is no martyr. Before he was due to serve his 30 months’ sentence it has been commuted by the very office he sacrificed himself to protect.

Isn’t there something glaringly wrong with this cozy scenario? Doesn’t it send a powerful message that there is one law for the rich and powerful and another for the rest of us lesser mortals?

One can understand why George Bush might want to use his executive privilege to let one of his own off the hook — and especially someone who no doubt retains administration secrets — but in light of the fact the president’s own adviser Karl Rove was implicated in the scandal he should have sublimated the urge and told Libby to take his medicine.

Bush initially defended his decision to commute Libby’s sentence by describing it as “excessive’ while highlighting Libby’s loss of professional credibility together with a $250,000 fine and two year probation as punishment enough.

Polls show that most Americans are outraged by this assault on the justice system, which Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont has labeled “emblematic of a White House that sees itself as being above the law”.

There may be worse to come since Bush refuses to rule out awarding Libby a complete pardon some time down the road. What does he have to lose? His approval ratings have sunk to their lowest ever and his tenure is nearing its end.

In any other president such a display of “compassion” for a former colleague — or should I say loyal servant — may have been better accepted by the public. The problem is that Bush showed his true colors when he was the governor of Texas when he was asked to commute the death penalty for over 50 death row inhabitants including people who were mentally challenged or little more than children when their crimes were committed.

In those cases, there was no evidence of Bush’s compassion as all requests for commutation were refused on the basis that each of the inmates had enjoyed full access to legal representation and had benefited from a fair and just judicial system.

The same could certainly be said of Libby, who fought his case with an army of high-profile lawyers in tow.

Sen. Leahy is right on the button when he cites the White House as seeing itself above the law as the Libby commutation is only one in a long history of law massaging. President Bush asserted executive privilege to ignore subpoenas that demanded documents should be handed over to Congress in relation to the firings of federal prosecutors.

Dick Cheney, the vice president, is an acknowledged master of legal manipulation. During the 2002 investigation of Enron, whose chief executive Kenneth Lay was one of the most frequent visitors to the White House, Cheney maintained silence on his meetings with Lay and other Enron executives citing executive privilege. But Cheney’s uses executive privilege like a hat that can be thrown onto a hallstand when it becomes an encumbrance and picked up again at a whim.

A 1995 administration executive order, reaffirmed in 2003 by George Bush requires members of the executive branch of government to hand over classified documents to the National Archives and Records Administration.

Ever since 2003 Cheney has refused to comply with this executive order saying it does not apply to him since he is not a member of the executive branch but rather an officer of the legislative branch of government. Indeed, Cheney does occasionally join lawmakers in a vote-breaking capacity.

When the attorney general has been asked to pronounce one way or the other on Cheney’s status he has chosen to remain mute. Returning to the commutation of Libby’s sentence, to be fair this isn’t the first time White House is offering its friends preferential treatment.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is livid about the Libby commutation saying it “was clearly an effort to protect the White House”.

Yet during his last days in office her husband Bill Clinton pardoned Mark Rich, a fugitive financier accused of tax evasion, fraud and doing business with “the enemy”, which in this case was Iran.

That pardon came under fire because Rich’s wife Denise had contributed $10,000 to the Clintons’ legal defense fund, given them a gift of expensive furniture and had paid more than $1 million in Democratic Party contributions.

In 1974, President Gerald R. Ford granted former President Richard Nixon “a full, free and absolute pardon” for his involvement in the Watergate scandal that had earlier shook the nation but he did that on the premise the nation needed to heal.

And in 1992, President George H. W. Bush pardoned six former Reagan administration officials for illegally selling arms to Iran to underwrite the Nicaraguan opposition.

Several of these pardoned individuals were later appointed by his son as senior figures in his government.

One thing is certain: The democratic concept that all men are equal before the law is obviously farcical. The adage “Justice must be done and seen to be done” is just as hollow.

If people at the top and in the spotlight can get away with it, then what incentive is there for anyone else to be an upright and honest member of society?

Pardon me, but this is wrong. Executive privilege is just that — a privilege. It should be used well and wisely and not abused to get cronies off the hook or to ensure they don’t end up revealing more than they should.

(Arab News – – July 5, 2007)

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