Clemency for the FALN--A Flawed Decision?

Prepared testimony of Congressman Dan Burton,
Chairman before the House Committee on Government Reform

Subject: "Clemency for the FALN--A Flawed Decision?"
Dated September 16, 1999
Submitted Tuesday, September 21, 1999

Good morning. Today, we're going to focus on the President's decision to offer clemency to members of a Puerto Rican terrorist group -- the FALN.

Our system is based on checks and balances. The Congress can pass legislation, but the President can veto it. The President is the Commander in Chief, but only Congress can declare war.

But there is one area where the President's power is absolute -- the power to grant clemency. There's nothing the Congress can do about it. There's nothing the courts can do about it. Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution states: "he shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment."

This is an important responsibility. It's a power that the President has to exercise with a great deal of caution. Before the FALN, President Clinton had received more than 3,000 petitions for clemency -- and he had granted only three of them.

Then, on August 11, the President offered clemency to 16 members of the FALN -- a terrorist group seeking independence for Puerto Rico. Almost a month later, 14 of the 16 people accepted the President's offer and were released from prison.

This whole issue has ignited a firestorm of controversy. The FALN was involved in 130 bombings. Five people died. 84 were injured. What we want to know is, why did the President make this decision? What is the public benefit? Who advised him on this issue? Was the FBI consulted? The Bureau of Prisons? That's why we're holding this hearing.

First, we're going to examine what the FALN is. One of the arguments for granting clemency is that these 16 people were not directly involved in any acts of violence. Well, I want to briefly review what they were convicted of.

Most of these people were convicted of things like seditious conspiracy and conspiracy to obstruct interstate commerce. Let's take a look at exactly what that means.

Eight of these people were arrested together in Chicago. They were caught in a stolen van, carrying illegal weapons. They were parked near the home of a wealthy businessman named Henry Crown. It's believed that they were going to kidnap him.

The only thing that stopped them was their arrest.

They were convicted in Federal court. As they were being sentenced, they shouted threats at the judge. Here's what they said, according to the court transcript:

"You are lucky that we cannot take you right now. Our people will continue to use righteous violence. Revolutionary justice can be fierce, mark my words."

"We're going to fight ....Revolutionary justice will take care of you and everybody else."

These are the people who were just granted clemency.

Three other FALN members were planning to break one of their leaders out of Leavenworth prison. They had two safe houses in Chicago, where they had thousands of rounds of ammunition, blasting caps, detonating cord, dynamite, and numerous weapons. They had a schematic diagram of the prison hidden under the floor boards in their kitchen.

The only thing that stopped them was their arrest.

The FBI has a videotape of two of these people in one of their safe houses actually making a bomb. I'm going to show just a brief segment of that tape right now.

(Show Tape)

These are the people who were just granted clemency.

Four of the people who were granted clemency were arrested for their involvement in the armed robbery of an armored car in Connecticut. They're part of a splinter group called in Spanish the "Machete Wielders." This group has claimed responsibility for:

- the murder of a San Juan police officer;
- ambushing a Navy school bus and killing two sailors; and
- shooting a U.S. army officer at Fort Buchanan in Puerto Rico.

These are the people the President has offered clemency and released from prison.

The saddest part is that the Puerto Rican people don't even want what these people are fighting for.

I know a little about this issue. I've been a strong supporter of self-determination for Puerto Rico. I'm an original sponsor of legislation to give them a free and fair plebiscite to decide their fate. I've spoken in Puerto Rico about the issue. The vast, vast majority of Puerto Ricans don't want independence. In the last plebiscite, only about two and a half percent of the people voted for independence.

Congressman Romero-Barcelo of Puerto Rico is here today. He and I have worked together on this issue. I hope he'll tell us a little about the level of support for independence in Puerto Rico.

So I hope we won't have a lot of talk today about how these people were convicted of non-violent crimes. The only reason some of them didn't commit murders or bombings is because they were arrested before they got a chance to. Many of the murders remain unsolved to this day. We don't know who committed them -- it may have been those the President released.

We need to know what was behind this decision to offer these people clemency. I think the American people deserve to know.

- Was the President aware of the extent of their crimes?
- Did the President seek the opinion of the Justice Department or the FBI?
- Did he seek advice from other law enforcement groups?
- What were the arguments for releasing these people?

So I sent a subpoena to the White House. I asked for all of the memos that had been prepared for the President as he made this decision.

I sent a subpoena to the Justice Department asking them for all of the material they sent to the White House on this case.

Instead of complying with the subpoena, the President made a sweeping claim of executive privilege. No documents bearing on his decision can be turned over. Nobody who advised him can testify.

Well, the President has a right to do that. There's no disputing that. But I think it's very unfortunate. What the President is basically saying is that it's his decision, and as far as the Congress and the American people are concerned, it's none of our business.

The President has taken members of a terrorist organization, who committed very serious crimes, and set them free. I think he has a moral obligation to explain to the American people why he did this. I think he has a moral obligation to explain to the American people why putting these people back on the streets isn't a danger to them and their families.

If the President made a good decision, then release the documents and the briefing papers and let them reflect that. If he made a good decision, let his aides come up and testify. Don't hide behind executive privilege. At the very least, the President should go before the American people and give them a forceful explanation as to why these people deserve to be released from prison.Unfortunately, none of that's going to happen today. We aren't going to hear from anyone who can explain to us why the President did what he did.

We are going to hear from some people who know a little bit about the FALN.

We're going to hear from two New York City police officers. They were working on the bomb squad on New Year's eve in 1982. One of the FALN's bombs went off in their faces while they tried to defuse it. Detective Sempf and Detective Pascoretti were permanently crippled.

They will be introduced by Congressman Vito Fossella. I'm glad he could be with us today.

We're also going to hear from Thomas Connor of New York today. Mr. Connor's father was killed by an FALN bomb. It was set off at the historic Fraunces (Frawn-Sess) Tavern in New York in 1975. He was 11 years old the day his father died.

We also have Diana Berger Ettenson here today. Her husband was sitting at the same table as Thomas Connor's father. She was 6 months pregnant the day her husband died.

I want to thank all of you for being here. I'm sorry for the losses you've suffered. I know a lot of time has passed, but time doesn't heal all wounds.

I was watching TV a couple of weeks ago, and I saw Tim Russert interview one of these FALN members who was released from prison -- Ricardo Jiminez. I think what upset me the most was that he tried to blame the restaurant owners for the deaths. I'm going to read what he said:

"I think all precautions were taken -- you know -- to make sure that all human life was preserved...the measures were not taken that were necessary by the people who owned those establishments."

He blamed the restaurant!

Mr. Russert asked him again and again if he felt remorse for what they had done. He just danced around and around the issue, and it became clear to me: these people don't regret what they did. They're defiant.

In fact, two of the 16 people the President offered clemency refused to accept it. Oscar Lopez is one of them. He decided he would rather sit in Prison than renounce violence. In 1986, he masterminded a violent plan to break out of prison. He was convicted and received a new 15-year sentence. Did the President know about this man before he offered to let him out of prison? I want to read you what his pre- sentencing report said in 1986:

"It was Lopez who offered to obtain false identification, weapons and explosives. It was Lopez who sent Jaime Delgado to Dallas to negotiate the purchase of the weapons and explosives. It was Lopez, moreover, who gave his approval for Cobb's return visit to Leavenworth and for the murder of Michael Neece. Even behind the bars of a federal penitentiary, Oscar Lopez continued to lead his Chicago supporters in violent plans."

He ordered a murder from behind bars. Fortunately, the FBI prevented it from happening.

What was it about Oscar Lopez that moved the President to offer him clemency? The President had received more than 3,000 petitions for clemency. Was Oscar Lopez the most compelling case out of 3,000? I don't understand that -- especially in view of the fact that the President only granted three before that.

I read an article in the New York Times where Mr. Ruff stated that they didn't make this decision for political reasons. But no where in the article did Mr. Ruff explain why the President did make this decision. If the President is going to do something this unprecedented, there's got to be a good reason for it. I don't understand why the President won't level with the American people.

We have three witnesses from the Justice Department here today. I don't know if they're going to say anything or not. I asked Mr. Gallagher from the FBI to testify about their threat assessment of the FALN. I asked him to testify about the crimes committed by these individuals. He has had an opening statement prepared for over a week. I was informed last night that the Attorney General will not allow him to read his opening statement. He can't read it. He can't submit it.

I have run out of words to describe my frustrations with the political games played by Janet Reno and this Justice Department. I just don't know what to say anymore. So I guess what I will do is issue a subpoena for his opening statement. I can't believe it's come to this.

This has important foreign policy ramifications. We have a serious terrorism problem around the world. Think about the World Trade Center bombing. Think about the tragedy in Oklahoma City. I watched the President this morning making a speech at the U.N. He was saying that we have to deal strongly and severely with terrorism around the world. What kind of message does it send to other countries when we let known terrorists out of prison?

The President also told the U.N. that we have to do more to fight nuclear proliferation. It reminded me of a hearing we had a couple of months ago. A policy expert named Jonathon Fox drafted a report at the Defense Department stating that China was a nuclear arms proliferator.Someone higher up the food chain made him change his opinion 180 degrees. They told him they would fire him if he didn't because this was right before Jiang Zemin was coming to Washington. If we are going to fight nuclear proliferation, we'd better start here at home.

Let me conclude by saying this: Mr. President, don't leave us sitting here reading the tea leaves trying to figure this out. Send us the documents we've asked for. Let your aides come up and testify. If nothing else, go on TV and tell the American people why this is to their benefit. But don't tell the American people this is none of their business.

I want to again thank all of our witnesses for being here. I'm sorry we had to reschedule from last week, but there's nothing we can do about hurricanes. For those of you who are allowed to speak, we look forward to your testimony.

I now yield to the gentleman from California for his opening statement.

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