WASHINGTON – Vice President Dick Cheney thinks his former chief of staff shouldn't have been convicted in the CIA leak case and that President Bush did right by commuting the jail sentence instead of issuing a pardon.
I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby was convicted of lying and obstructing justice in a probe into the leak of a CIA operative's identity. The former operative, Valerie Plame, contends the White House was trying to discredit her husband, a critic of Bush's Iraq policy.
Libby's allies had called for a full pardon, and some conservatives groused that Bush had declined to do so — at least for now. They criticized the middle ground the president sought to strike with his decision, in which he said he respected the jury's verdict but thought the 30-month jail sentence was too harsh. Bush left intact a $250,000 fine and two years' probation.
"I thought the president handled it right," Cheney said in an interview Monday with Mark Knoller of CBS Radio.
Cheney said he has seen Libby socially a number of times since the verdict, but he did not reveal anything about their conversations.
The vice president also said that embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales should keep fighting for his job. "I'm a big fan of Al's," he said.
Cheney said any dispute over the accuracy of Gonzales' testimony is something he and the Senate are "going to have to resolve" and dismissed Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy's lack of trust in Gonzales as irrelevant.
"I've had my differences with Pat Leahy," Cheney said. "I think the key is whether or not he (Gonzales) has the confidence of the president, and he clearly does."
On another matter involving his office, Cheney said "there's nothing to cover up" involved in his refusal to comply with a requirement that executive branch offices provide data on their handling of classified material. Cheney's office provided the information, to the Information Security Oversight Office at The National Archives, in 2001 and 2002, then stopped.
Cheney's office and the White House insist that both the president and vice president are exempt from the order because they are not executive branch "agencies." The issue attracted widespread media attention after Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., charged that Cheney's office had originally argued to the Archives that it did not have to comply with the order because it was not "an entity within the executive branch."
Cheney did little in the interview to dispel that controversy. He said he is part of both the executive and legislative branches — and seemed to weigh his duties as president of the Senate slightly more by noting that he is paid by the Senate and gets only his legislative responsibilities from the Constitution.
"The vice president is kind of a unique creature, if you will, in that you've got a foot in both branches," he said.
Asked if he is principally part of the executive branch, Cheney said, "Well, I suppose you could argue it either way."
"Under the Constitution, I'm assigned responsibilities in the legislative branch," he said. "Then the president obviously gives me responsibilities in the executive branch. And I perform both those functions, although I think it would be fair to say I spend more time on executive matters than legislative matters."
Though Cheney is seen as an unrelenting advocate for more power for the executive branch, he apparently took no advantage of the brief period he spent two Saturdays ago as acting president. For two hours and five minutes, while Bush underwent a routine colonoscopy, the powers of the presidency were transferred to Cheney.
The vice president said he didn't — and wasn't tempted to — take any presidential actions during that period.
"I basically wrote a letter to my grandkids ... a souvenir for them to have down the road some day," he said.