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 and 80'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 of Representatives.

"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 same."

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 said.

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 clemency.

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 law-enforcement personnel.

"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 different decision."

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