Transcript Of Reno's Weekly Press Briefing
Sept. 3, 1998
JANET RENO: Good morning.
QUESTION: Miss Reno, do you have any substantive information (OFF-MIKE) the president has committed a crime in regard to fund raising, political fund raising?
RENO: No comment.
QUESTION: Miss Reno, can you give us the date in which the 30- day initial review of the president, the president's activities began?
RENO: I can't comment.
QUESTION: Miss Reno, has there been any indication of terrorism or foul play in the crash of the Swissair plane? And is the FBI in any way assisting in the investigation?
RENO: We've offered our assistance. My understanding is that all initial information indicates that it was an accident.
QUESTION: What will the -- will the FBI be participating in the investigation?
RENO: We've offered our assistance to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
QUESTION: What information were you given that leads to an early examination that it was an accident?
RENO: I would ask the FBI to make any comment that was appropriate.
QUESTION: Are you aware of any U.S. (OFF-MIKE) of the people who were on the plane?
RENO: No. I don't know whether there were any or not.
QUESTION: Miss Reno, last April 14th in a letter to Senator Hatch regarding a review under the Independent Counsel Act, you wrote that -- quote -- "With respect to coordinated media advertisement by political parties, an area that has received much attention of late, proper characterization of the particular (OFF-MIKE) depends not on the degree of coordination but rather on the content of the message." Is that still the policy of the department?
RENO: I -- may I see the...
RENO: This was a letter I sent to Senator Hatch and Congressman Hyde, and it is the policy of the department.
QUESTION: Miss Reno, conflicts in the testimony that Harold Ickes gave the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, and that of his aide, Jennifer O'Connor (ph), were well-known late last year and certainly early this year when the Thompson committee published its report. Was your decision to open a 90-day preliminary inquiry based on new information since then? And if not, why didn't you just do that earlier?
RENO: It was based on information that I received this summer after investigation.
QUESTION: Miss Reno, (OFF-MIKE) be part of the Federal Election Commission's recent report on the -- this final report on the 1996 campaign?
Some believe that that report suggests that there were improprieties regarding the president, the way in which he directed spending on televisions ads. Is that the new evidence?
RENO: I think you're talking about two separate issues.
RENO: Your -- your question on the heels of that question is confusing to me.
QUESTION: How is that confusing?
RENO: No, I -- I think his question referred to something else. And your question was, is that. And so I'm not sure where you all are now.
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) see if I can confuse it even further.
The question here, I believe, was...
RENO: Why don't you just each ask your own question independent of the other, and it might provide for better clarity. I mean, if you would like to ask your own independent question...
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) if I may.
QUESTION: Well, I -- I...
RENO: Why don't you let him have a try at answering -- asking his own independent question?
QUESTION: Is the new evidence that you've learned about recently, this summer, is that the Federal Election Commission report on the close of their investigation on the 1996 campaign?
RENO: With respect to the question that he asked about -- that I answered with -- that I received information this summer, I can't give you the precise timing of when it was received.
The question does not connect with your question. So why don't you just ask a question that is independent of that, but that does use the word "that."
QUESTION: Is -- does the Federal Election Commission's report constitute the new evidence that you've received?
RENO: About what?
QUESTION: Regarding the president, and the report...
RENO: As I indicated, I can't comment on that at this point.
QUESTION: Can you confirm whether there is a preliminary investigation of the DNC spending under way?
RENO: I can't comment.
QUESTION: Miss Reno, yesterday, Senator Specter said on the floor that he was thinking about having the Senate Judiciary Committee issue a writ of mandamus to the Justice Department to require the appointment of an independent counsel. Is that an appropriate function for the legislative branch?
RENO: I'm interested in that because I have -- I am not aware -- and I will check as soon as the availability is over -- that a committee can issue a writ of mandamus.
I always thought that a writ of mandamus was that issued by the court. But there may be some procedure...
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) maybe the thing is he was going to apply for a writ of mandamus.
RENO: He has talked about that for some time.
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) an appropriate thing for the legislative branch to do?
RENO: I don't know what he has in mind, so I don't know whether it's appropriate.
QUESTION: Miss Reno, can you speak about the meeting with the chairman and the ranking members, especially (OFF-MIKE) Mr. Hatch this week? Can you respond to Mr. Hatch's comment?
He says -- I quote -- "It is now beyond dispute that she is not living up to her duty..." -- that's you, Miss Reno -- "... to enforce the law." Can you reply to Mr. Hatch?
RENO: We had a good meeting with Chairman Hatch and Chairman Hyde and Chairman Burton and Senator Leahy and Congressman Waxman. I thought it was constructive. I think we had a good chance to hear from the various representatives and senators about what their opinions were.
As I have explained on all occasions, I'm happy to hear anybody's arguments. But in the end, I've got to make the decisions. And the statute calls on me to make the decisions.
I do it based on the evidence and the law. I have gone over the law again and again. I have made the best determinations that I can. I'm obviously not afraid to ask for an independent counsel, having done so on seven occasions and referred three other matters to independent counsels.
And at this point, I always will keep an open mind, but based on everything that I've heard, I think I am pursuing the law and implementing the law in the right way.
As I've always said, I will continually look to new information that comes along, new arguments that are raised, anything that will support implementation of the law or nonimplementation of the law. But I'm going to do it free of political pressure, based on what I think is right, and call it like I see it.
QUESTION: Miss Reno, (OFF-MIKE) briefly. His response after the meeting was -- quote -- "She appears to be trying to protect the president and the vice president." How do you respond to that assessment?
RENO: Well, that's what he's regularly told me, and I've explained to him that, if I were trying to do that, I should go home. I've got to call it like I see it, regardless of the consequences.
I've asked for the independent counsel before, and I will ask for it again when the evidence and the law justifies it.
But people -- but people -- it goes back to what Lincoln said. If you read about and listen to what everybody says about you, and calls you names, you might as well close up the shop for business.
I intend to keep on doing the best I can, the best I know how, and I intend to keep on doing it until the end. If I'm right, what people, including Congressman Burton say about me, won't make any difference. And if I'm wrong, 10 angels saying I was right won't make any difference.
QUESTION: Are you concerned at all...
RENO: He didn't have a chance, I don't think. Then you come next.
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) refer to accounts of participants in that meeting. Mr. LaBella's memo includes considerable consternation on his part over the internal deliberations here about independent counsel matters.
And in the text of a letter to you July 20th, I believe, which -- which emerged from that meeting, he specifically raises concerns about the adversarial discussions that had taken place here and raises questions about whether his memo will get a fair hearing here.
Is that an issue that -- that you have felt obliged to address?
RENO: I think he -- he, as I recall the letter, he made very clear that he thought that it would get a fair hearing from me.
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) was about his colleagues here that he had expressed some concern.
RENO: Well, I think he -- he made very clear that he would get a fair hearing from me. And I will say that we have had some excellent discussions with a number of different people being present. And I have found them invaluable.
I do know -- not just in this case, but in other cases big and small, complex and simple that I've discussed in this room and that I've handled over time -- when prosecutors get together, they have very determined points of view, and sometimes they get provoked at each other.
Sometimes they get down right mad at each other.
In the end, the conversation may not be collegial, but it is very informative.
And I think we've got to -- this investigation is under such a microscope.
We've got to remember that when you're engaged in an effort like this -- a large, important, complex investigation with many pieces and many parts -- there are going to be feelings, strong feelings. And if people didn't have strong feelings, I'd begin to worry.
QUESTION: Oh, it's me.
Are you concerned at all that the furor over this matter has damaged the standing and credibility of the department?
QUESTION: You have no such worries (OFF-MIKsn't guide you in any way?
RENO: It shouldn't guide me. I've got to call it like I see it. And if people call me names or say I'm a wimp or whatever, as I told you before, I'm not in this business for popularity. I'm not in this business for reputation and (AUDIO GAP). That's what counts.
QUESTION: Then how do you explain to people (AUDIO GAP) -- under such fierce criticism on the Hill and being held for contempt. How do you tell people that you're not changing your mind now because of all the pressure?
RENO: I let them look at the record when it's over. And I try to give as much information as I can as I proceed with the investigation. And I think you all have done a good job of reporting, too.
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) let us see that record when this investigation is over?
RENO: What I've always said is, based on the way I operated before I came to Washington, Florida had a good, open sunshine law, public records law. And what I always said was, during the pendancy of an investigation, it's inappropriate to comment. But whenever I can without infecting the investigation and in compliance with law, I try to lay out why I have done something, the reasons for it so that people can understand it.
Clearly, in these situations, I have always said that as new information is developed, I will look at it. And if it triggers the statute, I will do so. And that is certainly an issue here under consideration.
If I determine that I was wrong, I'm not proud. I'll say I was wrong. But for anybody to be in this job and worried about what people are going to think as opposed to worrying about what's right -- that's when you get into trouble.
RENO: My mother used to tell me, "My dear, you're beginning to worry too much about what people will think of you and not about what you are doing."
And I don't want to be subject to that criticism.
QUESTION: Miss Reno, can you tell us whether the department is reviewing the FEC report about the presidential campaign 1996 as a part of a campaign task force investigation.
RENO: I cannot comment.
QUESTION: Miss Reno, speaking of Chairman Burton, as we were just a few minutes ago, for months now the department has described the task force investigation into his fund-raising activities as ongoing. Isn't it time either to charge Mr. Burton or to clear Mr. Burton, one way or the other?
RENO: I can't comment.
QUESTION: Miss Reno, you were saying that the FBI has been asked to come in or had volunteered to come into the investigation of the recent crash. Has that always been standard procedure for the FBI, on all air crashes, or has it just been international flights, or is this something that's part of the aftermath from Lockerbie?
RENO: I didn't say that the FBI came in. I said it offered its assistance. And in certain situations, based on all the circumstances, they will. I don't think they do it in every case. But I would refer you to the FBI.
QUESTION: Miss Reno, would you say that the LaBella memo, this (OFF-MIKE) memo, contained new evidence that sort of recharged this campaign finance investigation? Did he tell you things you didn't know about the campaign finance situation?
RENO: There are two parts to the memorandum. And so one came later. I think what he has basically -- I would have to go over it and see specifically if there is new information in the first memorandum.
I think what he did -- but then, I -- I would comment on it. Let me ask Bert to check to see what we can say appropriately under 6(e) or not, and then I would...
QUESTION: The reason I ask (OFF-MIKE) is you refer to new evidence. And I was wondering if you were referring to the LaBella report when you said that.
RENO: We have new information independent of the report.
QUESTION: Miss Reno, is it still the case that the department takes its lead, or its guidance, in the interpretation of federal election law from the FEC?
RENO: Under the Federal Elections Act, the FEC is charged with construing the act, developing the policy, defining the civil violations. And we defer to the FEC -- as the Supreme Court has indicated, deference is due on those issues.
RENO: Can you speak a little bit louder, please?
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) there is a plan that you concede that's being implemented in Salt Lake City to deputize -- federally deputize some police officers to control the drug traffic, (OFF-MIKE) drug problem in that county.
This plan, can you explain, can you defend this plan? Why did you decide to do it? Are you planning to expand this program? And how do you respond to criticisms by some Latino organizations saying that it will lead inevitably to abuses against immigrants in that area?
RENO: I had heard it described as my plan, but I don't recall developing it. What happened was we heard prior to attending a meeting at which various people came together in Salt Lake City to describe what was necessary -- we said that we would respond and work with law enforcement and local government to see if we could develop an MOU that would permit that.
One of the things that we wanted to do was to work with the advocacy community, and I had understood that the local advocacy community had been involved in that effort.
We will be happy to consider any suggestions that anybody has, both from local government and from the advocacy community, as to appropriate ways to proceed.
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) you saying that it was not conceived by you or (OFF-MIKE)?
RENO: My understanding was, when it was first submitted to me, was that this was something that local law enforcement was interested in.
QUESTION: Miss Reno, what kind of initiative are you and Mr. Fisher trying to get going up in Baltimore by meeting with Habitat for Humanity and community developers?
RENO: What we're interested in -- and Mr. Fisher has to speak, because I was not with him in Baltimore as to issues that would develop from there.
But last January, I was in Jackson, Mississippi, to see how the habitat program was working there. I worked an afternoon at a habitat program as part of my community service time.
What impressed me so much about the program there -- and I think I even mentioned it on one of these availabilities -- was that they were taking a whole neighborhood and rehabbing it, and that it was not just the rehabilitation or the construction of new housing. It was looking at the neighborhood as a whole and addressing roads and community services.
Neighbors were working with each other. And you saw before and after pictures. And you saw how not just one house was being either built of rebuilt, but an entire neighborhood was growing up anew because of careful planning and because of planning involved with Habitat.
And I had asked Mr. Fisher to explore with Habitat how we might combine the efforts with our "Weed and Seed" programs and other comprehensive community programs so that we got a greater return on the investment of everybody's services and construction skills -- or a lack thereof -- in a larger community setting.
QUESTION: Miss Reno, (OFF-MIKE) follow up again on this question about deference to the FEC's interpretation of the law? Does that apply only on civil matters or does it apply to criminal matters as well?
RENO: It applies to the definitions -- they've got to define the civil violations first. And obviously, if their definition is -- is one thing and somebody else's definition is another, there is going to be deference to their definition.
And under the MOU and under the framework of the legislation developed by Congress, this elections commission has the initial responsibility for defining these election terms.
QUESTION: Miss Reno, following up, has the FEC recently redefined any substantial terms in such a way that -- that would refocus your attention on what might or might not constitute a violation?
RENO: All I can say is that we have new information. I cannot comment on it.
QUESTION: Miss Reno...
QUESTION: But new information is distinct from a reinterpretation of the law.
RENO: I have new information that I cannot comment on.
QUESTION: Miss Reno, the department's investigation into Haley Barbour's fund-raising activities has been described as "ongoing."
QUESTION: Several months ago now, Chairman Hatch very publicly warned the department against trying to indict Barbour. Have you talked to Chairman Hatch about that public warning or has he mentioned anything to you privately?
RENO: He has not discussed it with me privately. And I have not mentioned it to him privately or publicly because I am devoted to Senator Hatch. He has been very kind and very thoughtful to me. But I've got to make my decisions based on the evidence in the law, and not by admonitions from him.
At the same time, I'm always willing to hear from him or anybody else if they have information or if they have legal issues that I should consider.
QUESTION: Miss Reno, you've often said (OFF-MIKE) specific and credible (OFF-MIKE) the independent counsel statute.
When you say that, do you mean that you would immediately go to the three-judge panel and ask that they appoint an independent counsel as soon as you see the evidence, or would you just go through the normal procedure that we have been of the 90-day preliminary investigations? Or do you have any room in there to do one or the other?
RENO: I would follow the act based on the facts that I had and what they dictated.
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) isn't that presently tied up before Judge Johnson on a matter of what documents should be made available?
RENO: I can't comment. I'll have Bert comment to you on anything that would be appropriate.
QUESTION: Miss Reno, the FBI has issued a warning for United States citizens working outside of the United States, especially through corporate security apparatus.
Ma'am, do you -- can you ratify the warning with regard to Afghan sources of terror threatening U.S. citizens?
RENO: I would refer you to the FBI and ask Bert to confirm precisely what the FBI has said.
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) finally, on the terrorism subject, do any of these fellows that have been arrested and brought to the United States, are they cooperating -- or can you say?
RENO: I cannot comment.
QUESTION: Miss Reno, the successful (OFF-MIKE) of the two suspects that were brought to the United States last week, Director Freeh disclosed in a news conference that that rendition was the result of some discussions he had with the Kenyan government. To bring additional, if additional suspects are located, would it require more discussion with the governments involved to be able to bring them to the United States? Or is there a general understanding now that would allow the United States to bring them here?
RENO: I think it would depend on all the circumstances and the countries involved.
QUESTION: In your meeting with Senator Hatch and Congressman Burton, did the contempt of Congress citation come up, and what is the status of that?
RENO: It was discussed. I think we had a good and constructive discussion, and we will continue to try to do everything we can to honor Congress' oversight responsibilities while at the same time making sure that we do nothing that will interfere with the investigation and prosecution of these matters.
QUESTION: Are there any more meetings scheduled? Or do you plan to have any more meetings with Senators Hatch and Leahy?
RENO: I'm sure I'll have some more meetings with Senators Hatch and Leahy.
QUESTION: They aren't on the schedule, though?
RENO: No. None that I know of.
QUESTION: Miss Reno, the issue of soft money in television advertising -- is the department's investigation specific only to Democrats, or are Republicans being looked at as well?
RENO: We are following every lead.
QUESTION: When you -- when you met earlier in the year to discuss with the (OFF-MIKE) leaders the Freeh memo, as I understand it, you provided them merely oral summaries.
And at some point in recent days, you've decided that in this case you would go a step further and provide them with written redacted material -- at least that's what they said. Was that intended to be an extra step to satisfy their demands, and do you now feel that -- did they indicate they are satisfied and that this whole issue of contempt is going to go away?
RENO: I would let them speak for themselves. What I have tried to do from the beginning was do everything I could to protect the department's capacity to discuss things openly, vigorously -- often in disagreement -- so that I could get the best opinions possible to make informed decisions.
RENO: I also was dedicated to doing everything I could to make sure that there was nothing done, nothing released, that would impact on these investigations or on potential future investigations. And we will continue that effort in every way that we can.
I'm convinced that people of good faith working together can make sure that Congress' oversight responsibilities are met while at the same time our deliberative processes and the ability to properly and professionally investigate and prosecute cases will remain intact.
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) -- legally, you could only redact 6(e) material and anything specific to the investigation. So obviously, a lot of what the members saw did have to do with reflecting the internal deliberations and arguments. Is that going to chill your aides in the future?
RENO: I think that one of the things that we tried to do was to explain to them the importance of the deliberative process and how important it was that it be permitted to continue. And the fact that we were able to do it in this setting I think will minimize the risk of harm to the deliberative process.
QUESTION: Miss Reno, having opened two or possibly three limited independent counsel investigations on various aspects of campaign fund raising...
RENO: Could you speak a little bit louder, please?
QUESTION: Having opened two or possibly three limited investigations in campaign fund raising, you've clearly started down the independent counsel road. Wouldn't it be simpler to just appoint an independent counsel to look at the issue in total?
RENO: You ask an interesting question. Probably the simplest thing that I could do that would cause me the least fuss, bother, work and everything else would be to abdicate my responsibility, and say: Let's be simple, and let's just bow to pressure and appoint an independent counsel for everything.
That's not what the law says. And so I've got a responsibility to enforce the law based on the evidence. And I'm not going to do the simplest thing. I'm not going to take the easy way out. I'm going to try to do it the way I think it should be done.
And I'm going to try to listen to people. If they've got good suggestions, if they've got evidence, if they've got information, if they've got legal issues that I should consider, I'm going to continue to do that.
I'm going to constantly look for evidence that may trigger the statute, but I'm going to try to do it like it should be done.
QUESTION: Miss Reno, I hate to keep dredging up old business...
RENO: Well, I don't mind you dredging up old business.
QUESTION: Is the OPR review of complaints, I believe filed in February, against Judge Starr and his office, is that review still on square zero? Have they not begun at all? Or are we still deferring to Judge Johnson?
RENO: We're still deferring to Judge Johnson.
QUESTION: Just to be sure I understand you correctly -- when I asked you a little while ago whether the FEC had offered a new interpretation of law that might constitute a violation, you responded saying, I have new information I cannot comment on. That new information relates to FEC matters specifically?
RENO: I cannot comment.
QUESTION: In the course that you were responding (OFF-MIKE)...
RENO: I cannot comment.
QUESTION: Miss Reno...
RENO: I think somebody told me the other day, they said, you've got -- the only way you can have Thursday morning press availabilities every Thursday morning is because you get a chance to say no comment. In our areas of government, we don't have the chance to say no comment. It is a frustration to me because I would like to lay out everything.
But I wouldn't like to do it if it hurts investigations or if it violates the law.
QUESTION: No, I just want to be clear about what you did say.
RENO: You said it correctly.
QUESTION: I said it correctly?
QUESTION: In light of what you said about your mom, your mother and your upbringing, Miss Reno, would you think that it would be appropriate for the president of the United States to be more specific about his transgressions, more contrite about his apologies, and that perhaps even to promise to remedy the problems? Wouldn't your mother have expected that of you?
RENO: My mother would say, you have said all along that you're not going to comment on subjects that are matters for the independent counsel and...
... and why change now?
QUESTION: Oh, I'm not (OFF-MIKE) -- oh, I see.
RENO: Thank you all.