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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
- 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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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