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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House on Thursday accused former President Bill Clinton and his wife, Sen. Hillary Clinton, of hypocrisy for criticizing President George W. Bush's decision to spare ex-aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby from prison.
The administration is on the defensive after Bush commuted Libby's 2-1/2-year sentence in a CIA leak case. It took aim at Clinton for granting 140 pardons, including one for fugitive financier Marc Rich, in the last hours of his presidency.
"The hypocrisy demonstrated by Democratic leaders on this issue is rather startling," White House spokesman Scott Stanzel told reporters.
Bush's decision on Monday was widely seen as an attempt to shore up support among fellow conservatives increasingly skeptical of his Iraq war policy and resisting his domestic agenda in his final 19 months in office.
Libby was saved from jail for his conviction in March on charges of lying and obstruction of justice in an investigation into who leaked the identity of a CIA officer, Valerie Plame. Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, had accused the Bush administration of twisting intelligence to justify the Iraq war.
Clinton, in Iowa to promote his wife's presidential candidacy, told a radio station on Tuesday that the prevailing view in Bush's administration is "they should be able to do what they want to do, and that the law is a minor obstacle."
Clinton also drew a distinction with his own controversial pardons, saying, "I think the facts were different."
Hillary Clinton said in a speech that Bush administration had "elevated cronyism over the rule of law."
Bush said he concluded that the sentence given to Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, was too severe.
Bush left intact a $250,000 fine and two-year probation for Libby but fueled further Democratic anger by refusing to rule out a full pardon for Libby. Libby paid the fine on Thursday with a cashier's check, according to court records.
"When you think about the previous administration and the 11th hour fire-sale pardons and issues that were provided, commutations on the last day ... it's really startling that they have the gall to criticize what we believe is a very considered, a very deliberate approach to a very unique case," Stanzel said.
Asked if he was accusing the Clintons of hypocrisy, he said: "It is amazing to me that they can, with what they did on January 20, 2001, they can criticize the president for issuing a commutation ... It sort of pales in comparison."
Analogies have also been made to pardons issued by Bush's father, then-President George Bush, in 1992 to key figures in the Iran-contra scandal.