Mrs. Clinton Denies a Role in President's Clemency Offer

September 9, 1999 - ADAM NAGOURNEY - The New York Times

BAY SHORE, N.Y. -- Hillary Rodham Clinton said on Wednesday that she had played no role in any of the decisions that led to President Clinton's offer of clemency to 16 Puerto Rican militants, a move that has created problems for her campaign for the United States Senate.

The First Lady said she heard of the conditional offer only after the President announced it a month ago, and learned from her campaign press secretary on Saturday that the White House on Friday had given the militants a week to meet Clinton's demands.

Mrs. Clinton made her remarks at the first full-fledged news conference she has held since announcing in June that she was considering a race for the Senate. She met with reporters in the orchestra room of the high school here, in a 32-minute session that was dominated by questions about Clinton's offer of clemency to 16 members of the F.A.L.N.

The offer has caused a political furor both for Clinton's White House and Mrs. Clinton's exploratory campaign for Senate.

As a result of statements by Mrs. Clinton on the clemency issue, she has come under attack both by Puerto Rican leaders in New York and groups that opposed the release of the prisoners. With the news conference, Mrs. Clinton sought to defuse an issue that could throw her campaign off stride.

At every turn, Mrs. Clinton said she stood by her statement of last Saturday, when she said that the militants had been given enough time to meet the conditions set in Clinton's offer, which required that they renounce violence. At that time, she called on the White House to rescind the offer immediately.

But Mrs. Clinton, who is known as a quick learner and for her command of policy, said she was not familiar enough with the details of the F.A.L.N. case to offer an opinion on whether her husband should have offered the clemency in the first place. The F.A.L.N., the initials for the Spanish name of the Armed Forces of National Liberation, is a terrorist group that advocates independence for Puerto Rico and that had been linked to 130 bombings, some fatal, in the 1970's and 80's.

None of the 16 offered clemency were convicted of crimes that resulted in injuries or deaths.

"I've never been talked to about that problem," Mrs. Clinton said. "I didn't know anything about the issue. And shortly after it became public, when I found out about it, I guess that day or the next day, I made it clear that if the prisoners renounced violence and agreed to the terms of clemency, I assumed it would go forward."

Similarly, Mrs. Clinton did not suggest that any steps should now be taken to revoke the commutations that have been granted to 12 of the imprisoned F.A.L.N. members who met Clinton's demands.

Mrs. Clinton said she would not share with the public the details of her conversation with her husband on the matter. "There's one thing I'm not going to talk about and that's my private conversations with the President," Mrs. Clinton said.

But the First Lady then said that when she sat down with Clinton at Camp David on Saturday to alert him that her campaign was putting out a statement, the President made no mention of a letter the White House had sent the night before setting the one-week deadline.

The juxtaposition of events -- Clinton setting a deadline of Friday, and Mrs. Clinton saying that the White House should act immediately -- seemed to undercut Mrs. Clinton's attempts to deal with the issue. Several of her supporters said that had she known about the deadline, she probably would not have intervened.

Mrs. Clinton said the first that she learned of the White House deadline was after she had issued her statement, when a reporter called her press secretary, Howard Wolfson, to inquire about it, and Wolfson then called her.

"There are funny ways of finding things out," Mrs. Clinton said.

Asked if she believed that her husband knew about the deadline when she spoke to him that morning, Mrs. Clinton responded with a slip of a smile: "I think that that's a fair bet. Yeah."

The 16 who were offered clemency had gained support from several of New York's Hispanic leaders, and figures like former President Jimmy Carter and John Cardinal O'Connor.

The First Lady demurred when asked if she thought that the 12 clemency offers that had been accepted should be rescinded.

"I stand by what I said on Saturday," she said. "But if this process has now moved forward, I'm sure I share the hopes of everyone that this agreement will be abided by and the prisoners when they are released will be integrated back into society and will carry out their political aspirations and activities in a peaceful, democratic way."

The Clintons came under fire almost immediately after the President made the clemency offer.

Republicans asserted that Clinton had agreed to the clemency to help Mrs. Clinton among Hispanic voters in New York.

Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, the Republican who is likely to oppose Mrs. Clinton in next year's Senate race, called on the President to withdraw the offer, as survivors of F.A.L.N. attacks held news conferences to denounce the decision.

Mrs. Clinton's announcement on Saturday was intended to ease some of the political pressure, by taking a position that, her aides believed, would make it more difficult for Republicans to attack her on the subject. Instead, she has come under attack from both sides.

Giuliani, at City Hall, poked fun at the First Lady for what even Democrats have come to see as a clumsy attempt at separating herself from her husband. When a reporter started a question by saying that Mrs. Clinton stands by her statement on the subject, Giuliani cut him off.

"Stands by her husband?" the Mayor asked mischievously.

"Oh, this is on the terrorist thing. O.K., all right, you know I get confused. Sometimes it's stand by him, sometimes it's stand against him. It's getting confusing now."

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