Libby Sentenced to More Than Two Years in CIA Leak Case
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JIM LEHRER: Former White House aide Lewis “Scooter” Libby sentenced to 30 months in prison. Carol Leonnig of the Washington Post was in the courtroom and joins us now, as she did often during the trial itself.
Carol, welcome back.
CAROL LEONNIG, The Washington Post: Thank you, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: What was the judge’s stated reasoning for sending Libby to prison?
CAROL LEONNIG: Well, his stated reason was that, as much as he realized that there was a great public service that Scooter Libby had done for the nation by working so tirelessly and so many hours for so little remuneration in various administrations, ultimately, the judge found that the evidence was overwhelming that Scooter had deliberately lied to investigators and obstructed an important probe into the release of national security information.
JIM LEHRER: And that he thought the evidence proved the case, that he had lied about what he knew about what was going on at the time, correct?
CAROL LEONNIG: Absolutely. The judge also, you know, as you know, has a reputation as a “by the book,” sort of long-ball hitter kind of judge, who is pretty hard on criminals, whether they’re white-collar or violent criminals. And what he said to Scooter Libby today was that he agreed with the prosecution, that the prison sentence should be increased because of the seriousness of the investigation that Scooter Libby impeded, and also because the lies that he told forever shielded from the public the knowledge of whether those crimes were committed by Mr. Libby, the leaks, or by someone else.
JIM LEHRER: What did Libby say on his behalf in open court today?
CAROL LEONNIG: Well, you know, I’ve covered a lot of sentencings, and I found his comments really interesting. First of all, he was unflinching, as he was when the verdict was read, and throughout this experience he’s been sort of an emotionless person.
He said that he was very grateful to the court personnel for all their help to him while he had been in the courthouse for the last year-and-a-half. And, finally, he said he just hoped the judge would take into consideration his own life and not just the jury’s verdict.
But, again, what I found striking was that Scooter Libby never said, “I’m sorry” or “I did something wrong” or “I made a mistake and I’ll never do it again.” Most defendants say that, and he did not.
JIM LEHRER: Would Judge Walton have expected that and wanted that, as well, do you think?
CAROL LEONNIG: I think so. I think most federal judges I’ve seen on the bench want to see some contrition and remorse, if only because it’s an indicator that someone’s acknowledged what a jury has found to be true.
JIM LEHRER: Now, how do you read the judge’s take on what happens next on this issue, the request from the defense to let Libby remain free while the appeal is decided?
CAROL LEONNIG: Well, it’s also striking. I mean, I was talking to some legal experts today after the hearing. And the judge definitely broke away from the increasing trend in federal courts to release white-collar criminals pending their appeal and let them be free. The law sort of presumes that Scooter Libby will go to prison immediately after sentencing, but the trend has been in the other direction.
And Judge Walton went, again, by the book and said his feeling was, “You should go to prison immediately after sentencing,” but after the defense pleaded with the judge to reconsider, he said, “OK, I’ll listen to you for another week, and I’ll decide next week at a hearing.”
JIM LEHRER: And is this solely at the discretion of the judge? Can that be appealed itself?
CAROL LEONNIG: It’s at his discretion. There can be back-and-forth over it, but ultimately it’s his discretion.
JIM LEHRER: OK. Carol Leonnig, again, thank you very much.
CAROL LEONNIG: Thank you, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: Now we get two different perspectives on the Libby sentencing. David Corn is Washington editor of the Nation magazine. He's the co-author of "Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War," and Byron York is the White House correspondent for the National Review.
Byron York, what is your reaction to the sentence against Scooter Libby?
BYRON YORK, White House Correspondent, National Review: Well, I wasn't terribly surprised. I thought it would be a little bit less, but, I mean, he had -- after all, he had been convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice. And the judge couldn't just let that go.
You know, I do think that Libby's supporters think that the sentence was too much for a few reasons. One, the prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, never charged Libby or anybody else with violating any of the underlying laws in this case, the Intelligence Identities Protection Act and the Espionage Act. And not only did he not charge it, he never actually proved in court that those violations had actually occurred, and yet Fitzgerald argued that the facts of those violations meant that Libby should have a bigger sentence.
JIM LEHRER: I see.
BYRON YORK: Another reason is that we know, you know, who originally leaked the identity of Valerie Plame Wilson to the columnist, Robert Novak. It wasn't Libby. And then the last reason...
JIM LEHRER: And just -- sorry, Byron. Sorry. For the record, let's identify who that was. It was Richard Armitage, who was then high State Department official, right. OK, continue.
BYRON YORK: That's right, exactly, who was not charged with anything. And the last thing is that his -- the Libby trial was based on conflicting memories between Libby and, essentially, the journalist Matthew Cooper and Tim Russert. And some of the conflicts were substantial, but some of them were somewhat trivial.
So I think, for all of those reasons, Libby's supporters were hoping that the judge would reduce the sentence, which he didn't do.
JIM LEHRER: David Corn, did Scooter Libby deserve this?
DAVID CORN, Washington Editor, The Nation Magazine: Now, Byron wasn't in the courtroom today, and the judge answered a lot of those issues that Byron and other Libby partisans have raised. The judge said it doesn't matter at the end of the day what an investigation produces; it's the fact that, while the investigation is ongoing, if someone, especially a high government official, obstructs it, then maybe you won't get the ideal or what should be the outcome at the end.
So the fact that there were no underlying indictments on the crime of leaking the information the judge basically said was immaterial. He had an obligation, Scooter Libby, to tell the truth to the investigators, who were involved in a serious investigation. The judge was pretty unrelenting on that point, even though Libby's defense attorneys tried to make that issue.
Connections to the Iraq war
JIM LEHRER: So it didn't matter so much about what the original crime was. It was what he, Scooter Libby, did in terms of obstructing or lying about it, right?
DAVID CORN: What mattered was that, as the judge put it, agreeing with Special Prosecutor Fitzgerald, that there was a serious investigation of a possible crime. When you begin an investigation, you often don't know if a crime has been committed, but it was a serious effort on the part of the FBI and the investigators working under the authority of the attorney general. And so for obstructing that, the judge said you get a pretty high punishment for doing that.
JIM LEHRER: So it doesn't concern you then, David Corn, that nobody named Armitage or anybody else was ever convicted or even accused -- in a criminal matter, at least -- of having leaked the original information about Valerie Plame having been an undercover CIA operative?
DAVID CORN: The Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which makes it illegal for a government official, not a journalist, for a government official to identify an undercover CIA officer is a pretty vague law which has some high thresholds to overcome. You have to prove that the government official knew that the person they were talking about was, indeed, undercover.
Fitzgerald investigated this quite thoroughly. And at the end of the day, one could say maybe he acted quite responsibly and didn't overreach and didn't prosecute because he couldn't make that threshold. But in the course of this investigation, he did find that Libby had lied, and a jury and now a judge have backed that up.
JIM LEHRER: Byron York, what about David Corn's point that was reinforced by the judge himself that the issue here isn't the original crime? If you're a high-ranking government employee, you have the obligation, along with every other American, to tell the truth. And if you don't tell the truth, that's a crime, and that's a serious crime.
BYRON YORK: Well, I think what we're talking about is the severity of the sentence, not whether Libby was going to go to jail. I think a lot of people, including me, would have been shocked if the judge had set, you know, probation for him.
So the question really was, how long was Libby going to go to jail for? I believe the Federal Probation Office, which prepared a pre-sentencing study on this, recommended a range of about 15 to 21 months, which is kind of where I thought that the judge would end up. But he instead chose to go with the higher recommendation from Fitzgerald.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Let's talk about some of the other meanings from this. What do you think the message of this case is, Byron York? How should the American public read what this meant today, when it was all said and done?
BYRON YORK: Well, you know, I think the bigger importance of the Libby case of the CIA leak case involves the war over the war in Iraq. I mean, the Bush administration was divided unto itself in the days leading up to the war and the early part of the war, with the vice president's office being very, very strongly in favor of it, and elements within the CIA, the State Department and other places being very opposed to it.
On the issue of reading the intelligence, those elements turned out to be right. And the Libby case and the whole CIA leak case, it seems to me, stemmed from that. So it's going to be one relatively small chapter in the much bigger book about the war in Iraq.
A matter of the truth
JIM LEHRER: How do you read it, David Corn, the meaning of this?
DAVID CORN: Yes, yes. Special Prosecutor Fitzgerald today put his own message on it, which is that the truth matters. I think that's the big point. No matter where you are in the chain of command, you have to tell the truth.
And now most Americans believe, rightly or wrongly, that the war was sold to them with misrepresentations. Some believe it was lies. And so here you have the highest -- well, the chief of staff to one of the most important vice presidents in American history -- two men who helped really steer the country to war, for good or bad reasons. And now one of them is going to jail for the crime of lying.
So I think this reinforces the view that a lot of Americans have that this is not an administration that can be trusted on its word.
JIM LEHRER: Do you buy that, Byron York?
BYRON YORK: No, I don't think the case was that big. And I think it was essentially kind of a messed-up case from the beginning, because Fitzgerald knew who had originally leaked it, Richard Armitage, and because Armitage wasn't charged, and because so much time was spent on this perjury investigation.
Now, it may be that Scooter Libby's lies somehow kept Patrick Fitzgerald from getting to the bottom of the case, but, you know, you have to look at what he was actually convicted of doing. For example, there was one occasion in which the journalist Matthew Cooper calls Libby, mentions to him that he's heard about Joseph Wilson's wife, and Libby says something on the order of, "Yeah, I've heard that, too." The two men gave conflicting stories to the grand jury, and Libby was charged criminally.
So I'm not sure whether his lies, beyond the theoretical stage of, "Everybody should tell the truth to investigators," I'm not sure whether the specific statements that Libby made actually kept Fitzgerald from getting to the bottom of the case.
JIM LEHRER: Do you have a theory on that, David Corn?
DAVID CORN: Well, what it kept Fitzgerald from doing was looking more closely at Scooter Libby himself, and perhaps Dick Cheney. You know, Byron is trying to make it seem that there were some conflicting memories between Scooter Libby and a couple of journalists. Actually, there were six or seven administration officials who all said that they talked to Scooter Libby quite specifically about Valerie Wilson, usually at his demand or request, and yet he told investigators that he knew nothing about this.
One of the people he talked to at the time about that was Dick Cheney. So he had a lot of good reasons to tell the investigators early on in the investigation, where you don't know where it's going, that, "I had nothing to do with this. I had no conversations. I was out of the loop, as was the vice president."
JIM LEHRER: David Corn, another issue here, of course, was the impact a lot of people have said this case will have, or has had, on the press, and how it operates, particularly in terms of confidential source. What's your reading on that?
DAVID CORN: Well, I think that will play out. I think there was a big conflict here, and Fitzgerald went after -- he subpoenaed a number of journalists. I think, at the end of the day, a lot of the claims that were made at the time that this would ruin investigative reporting and reporting in Washington have not borne fruit.
You can still see stories every day in the paper with confidential sources and investigative pieces, some that are winning prizes. So but I do think -- as a journalist, I'm concerned about this. And I have to think in the back of my head now that, when push comes to shove, if it's me versus a prosecutor on the matter of keeping a source secret, I probably won't win that case.
JIM LEHRER: Byron York, what's your reading of all that, the press fall-out?
BYRON YORK: Well, it hasn't stopped investigative reporting, that's true, but I think it has set a terrible precedent for the future, because what Fitzgerald did is he faced a number of journalists who said they couldn't testify about their confidential conversations with newsmakers.
And with the cooperation of the Bush White House, Fitzgerald went to these public officials and got them to sign waivers, waiving any agreements of confidentiality they had had about this case with the reporters. He took the waivers to the reporters and said, "See, your sources have waived confidentiality. Now you can testify or you can go to jail."
And, indeed, one of those, Judith Miller of the Times, New York Times, did go to jail for 85 days, so I think it's a really, really bad precedent for the future.
Repercussions for journalists
JIM LEHRER: And you think it's going to have repercussions in the future? I mean, you think it's a serious matter?
BYRON YORK: Well, there's going to be a leak again in the future some time. Some conservatives thought it might have been the New York Times' leak about warrantless wiretapping, but in the future there's going to be a leak some time, and some prosecutor is going to use these waivers, and it's going to result in reporters going to jail.
JIM LEHRER: And you agree with that, David?
DAVID CORN: I agree. We'll probably see some of that come to pass. The interesting thing is that Fitzgerald, in one of his few news conferences, said that he actually would encourage prosecutors to use this power sparingly, as he believes he did.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Byron York, starting with you finally, do you expect the president to pardon Scooter Libby? And should he?
BYRON YORK: Yeah, that is the really, really big question. The conservative supporters of the president have called for him to pardon him. National Review editorially did today; the Weekly Standard has.
But if you listen to what Dana Perino, the president's press secretary was saying on the plane in Europe today, she basically said the president has decided to stay out of this. He's letting the process work, which I think means that he wants to let the appeals go forward.
The pressure point will be, if Libby is, in fact, ordered to jail in a month or two to begin serving his sentence, will the president, you know, issue a pardon then, or just let him stay in jail, at least until the end of the president's term? It's just unknown, but Bush is not giving any signals that he's going to do anything soon.
JIM LEHRER: What do you expect, Byron? What do you think will happen?
BYRON YORK: I think the White House was kind of confident that perhaps they could do this on the way out the door in late 2008 or 2009; I don't see him doing anything right now.
JIM LEHRER: What do you think on this, David?
DAVID CORN: I don't think they can do a sort of an out the door, you know, on the sly type of pardon, because it does look, at least today, that Scooter Libby is probably going to probably have to report to jail in the next month or two, as Byron just said.
Justice Department guidelines for a pardon usually say that the recipient has to show remorse and contrition for the crime committed. As we heard from Carol earlier, Scooter Libby has not done that. He had a chance to do it today, and he chose not to.
So if the president was to pardon Scooter Libby, he would have to -- and he has the power to do so, but he would have to go over or around Justice Department guidelines. I think, at this stage of his presidency, where his own integrity has been questioned, when the integrity of the Justice Department has been severely questioned in the past few months, it would look very bad for him to sort of give a pardon to someone convicted of lying.
JIM LEHRER: OK. David Corn, Byron York, thank you both very much.
BYRON YORK: Thank you.