F.B.I. Director Was Opposed To Freeing Puerto Ricans
The New York Times - September 2, 1999 - Katharine Q. Seelye
WASHINGTON -- The Federal Bureau of Investigation "unequivocally opposed" President Clinton's offer of clemency to 16 Puerto
Rican nationalists, asserting that the
release of most of the prisoners
would reinvigorate their terrorist
movement, according to a letter prepared by the F.B.I.
The letter, prepared by subordinates for the bureau's Director, Louis J. Freeh, said the clemency would
be likely to "return committed, experienced, sophisticated and hardened
terrorists to the clandestine movement" for Puerto Rican independence.
The letter also said the clemency
would "psychologically and operationally enhance" the militant organization F.A.L.N., which killed five
people and maimed 83 in the 1970's
Freeh's letter came to light at
a Congressional hearing intended by
Republicans to portray the President's act as reckless. Also Tuesday,
Clinton provided his first full
explanation of his decision in a letter
to Congress. [Excerpts, Page A25.]
Freeh did not sign the F.B.I.
letter, which was addressed but never sent to Representative Henry J.
Hyde, the Illinois Republican who is
chairman of the House Judiciary
Committee. But Freeh read it
before it was forwarded to Congress,
and senior law-enforcement officials
said tonight that it accurately reflected his position.
A draft of the letter was sent from
the F.B.I. to the Justice Department
for review before Freeh's signature, law-enforcement officials said.
The letter was among the thousands
of documents sent by the White
House to Congress in response to
subpoenas for information about the
President's clemency decision.
The letter said that Freeh had
objected to clemency when the matter was first raised in 1994, and again
as recently as June 28; even so, the
letter said, Freeh was unaware
that the President was actually contemplating any commutation when
the White House announced its offer
on Aug. 11.
While some officials have privately acknowledged disapproval of the
decision, the letter is the first official
indication of the fierce opposition
among law-enforcement officials to
the clemency offer for the 16 terrorists, most of whom have accepted it.
Casting himself in the tradition of
previous Presidents who have granted clemency in cases that were unpopular, Clinton portrayed his
release of the prisoners as an act of
courage. He cited Theodore Roosevelt's amnesty for Filipinos who
fought United States control and
Jimmy Carter's commutation of the
sentences of Puerto Rican nationalists who had opened fire on the House
"They exercised the power vested
in them by the Constitution to do
what they believed was right, even in
the face of great controversy,"
Clinton wrote. "I have done the
The President did not deal with the
question of whether the release of the
prisoners might reignite the dormant terrorist movement. But Representative Vito J. Fossella Jr., Republican of Staten Island, asserted
that recent statements by a known
Puerto Rican militant and ally of the
prisoners indicated that the release
was stirring old passions.
He quoted Filiberto Ojeda Rios,
the leader of Los Macheteros, a terrorist organization allied with the
F.A.L.N., as telling a Puerto Rican
radio station that if the United States
committed aggression against Puerto Rico, his group would "not remain
with their arms crossed, you can be
sure of that."
Republicans coaxed out of other
law-enforcement officials a concern
that the former prisoners constituted
a threat to American security. While
the officials were bound by the President's claim of executive privilege
not to disclose internal deliberations
over the matter, they catalogued the
violent actions of the F.A.L.N., to
which the prisoners belonged.
Neil Gallagher, assistant director
of national security for the F.B.I.,
told the panel, "These are criminals
and they are terrorists and they represent a threat to the United States."
Congress has acknowledged that it
has no control over clemency matters, which are the sole prerogative
of the President. But Clinton's
explanation today appeared to make
little difference to those in the hearing room. They saw the move as a
political disaster for the President
and for his wife, Hillary Rodham
Clinton, who is likely to seek the
Senate seat from New York and who
has run into political trouble for at
first supporting, then denouncing,
her husband's decision.
Republicans have wanted to draw
out the drama. The panel, led by
Representative Dan Burton, the Indiana Republican who is chairman of
the Government Reform Committee,
called several victims of F.A.L.N.
attacks to testify for the third time in
less than two weeks. They included
Richard Pastorella, a retired New
York City detective who was severely injured in a 1982 attack. He lost his
sight in both eyes.
"Who thinks of us?" Pastorella asked in a bitter voice. "Certainly not Clinton."
The victims and relatives of those
who had been killed in the attacks
said that contrary to Federal requirements, they had not been notified of the prisoners' pending release.
And Republicans took issue with
Clinton's argument that just because the prisoners had not been
convicted of doing bodily harm, they
deserved to go free. Republican after
Republican asserted that there was
no distinction between accessories to
violent crimes and those who actually pulled the triggers.
"The only reason some of them
didn't commit murders or bombings
is because they were arrested before
they got a chance to," Burton
Two Democrats, both African-Americans, offered a minimal defense of the clemency. Representative Danny K. Davis, Democrat of
Illinois, said, "Democracy can be
fellowship as well as punishment."
Representative Edolphus Towns,
Democrat of Brooklyn, urged Congress to "move on" to issues that
"have a real effect on the lives of
average Americans." The committee's ranking Democrat, Representative Henry A. Waxman of California, said reluctantly that he "probably" would not have granted the
In his letter, the President disclosed some of the arguments that
Carter had used in persuading
Clinton to grant clemency in this
case. He said that Carter wrote
to him in 1997 that releasing the
prisoners would be "a significant humanitarian gesture."
Carter also said any concern
that clemency might be viewed as
leniency had been mitigated by the
length of time that the prisoners
served, Clinton wrote. Most of
them had been in prison at least 16
years, a period that Clinton said
was not commensurate with their
crimes, which included sedition, conspiracy and armed robbery.
And for the first time since he
made the offer, Clinton said that
the decision was difficult and that he
had not minimized the concerns of
"I did what I believe equity and
fairness dictated," the President
wrote. "I certainly understand, however, that other people could review
the same facts I did and arrive at a
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