WASHINGTON — President Bush on Thursday acknowledged publicly for the first time that someone in his administration likely leaked the name of a CIA operative, although he also said he hopes the controversy over his decision to spare prison for a former White House aide has "run its course."
"And now we're going to move on," Bush said in a White House news conference.
The president had initially said he would fire anyone in his administration found to have publicly disclosed the identity of Valerie Plame, the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson and a CIA operative. Ten days ago, Bush commuted the 30-month sentence given to I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby by a federal judge in connection with the case.
Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, had been convicted of lying and obstruction of justice in the CIA-leak case.
Bush would not directly address answer a question about whether he is disappointed in the White House officials who leaked Plame's name.
"I'm aware of the fact that perhaps somebody in the administration did disclose the name of that person," Bush said. "I've often thought about what would have happened if that person had come forth and said, 'I did it.' Would we have had this endless hours of investigation and a lot of money being spent on this matter? But, so, it's been a tough issue for a lot of people in the White House. It's run its course and now we're going to move on."
He also defended the decision to commute Libby's sentence. "The Scooter Libby decision was, I thought, a fair and balanced decision," Bush said.
Full Libby pardon?
In comments shortly after the commutation was announced, the president left open the possibility of an eventual pardon for Libby.
"As to the future, I rule nothing in and nothing out," the president said a day after commuting Libby's 2 1/2-year prison term in the CIA leak case.
Bush said he had weighed his decision carefully to erase Libby's prison time for lying and obstruction of justice. He said the jury's conviction should stand but the prison term was too severe.
"I made a judgment, a considered judgment, that I believe was the right decision to make in this case," the president said. "And I stand by it."
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Chief Bush spokesman Tony Snow has said Bush was satisfied with his decision to commute Libby's sentence.
"He thought any jail time was excessive. He did not see fit to have Scooter Libby taken to jail," Snow said. Video: President Bush refuses to rule out Libby pardon
The spokesman told reporters at a White House briefing last week that even with Bush's decision, Libby has a felony conviction on his record, two years probation, a $250,000 fine and probable loss of his legal career. "So this is hardly a slap on the wrist," Snow said. "It is a very severe penalty.
While Democrats criticized the president, Snow said Bush was "getting pounded on the right for not granting a full pardon."
U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton, who sentenced Libby to prison, declined Tuesday to discuss the case or his views on sentencing. "To now say anything about sentencing on the heels of yesterday's events will inevitably be construed as comments on the president's commutation decision, which would be inappropriate," the judge said in an e-mail.
With prison seeming all but certain for Libby, Bush suddenly spared Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff. His move came just five hours after a federal appeals court panel ruled that Libby could not delay his prison term. The Bureau of Prisons had already assigned Libby a prison identification number.
Asked whether Cheney — who calls Libby a friend and who has enormous influence within the White House — had pressed for Bush to commute Libby's sentence, Snow said, "I don't have direct knowledge. But on the other hand, the president did consult with most senior officials, and I'm sure that everybody had an opportunity to share their views."
"I'm sure that the vice president may have expressed an opinion. ... He may have recused himself. I honestly don't know," Snow said.
However, the president made the decision without seeking any advice from the Office of the Pardon Attorney at the Justice Department, the White House had previously said.
Snow defended Bush's decision to not follow the usual course of running the matter past the Justice Department, saying details of the case were still fresh in everybody's mind, and that the president did not need to be brought up to date on details.
Democrats have charged cronyism in Bush's sparing Libby jail time. But Snow said, "The president does not look upon this as granting a favor to anyone, and to do that is to misconstrue the nature of the deliberations."
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