White House responds to criticism of clemency offer
September 2, 1999
Web posted at: 2:27 p.m. EDT (1827 GMT)
AUBURN, New York (CNN) -- The White House said Thursday that President Bill Clinton's controversial offer of clemency to 16 members of a Puerto Rican nationalist group was extended only to members of the organization "not associated with the more violent acts that led to injuries."
Congressional Republicans are highly critical of the president's offer, and the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee issued subpoenas Wednesday for the records the president relied on in making his decision.
The committee also subpoenaed members of the Clinton Administration -- including Attorney General Janet Reno and Deputy White House counsel Cheryl Mills -- in connection with the president's offer of clemency for 16 convicted Puerto Rican separatists.
Rep. Dan Burton (R-Indiana), committee chairman, issued the subpoenas and sought all documents and records from the White House, Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Prisons relating to the clemency issue. Copies of the subpoenas were obtained by CNN.
Two leading congressional Democratic sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, told CNN there is some nervousness in the party that House Republicans will force a vote on a resolution voicing disapproval of the president's offer. One of the sources said the issue was certain to be a subject of debate within the Democratic caucus when Congress returns to work next week.
A senior White House official familiar with the process said lawyers for the 16 members of the FALN -- the acronym for the Spanish rendering of the Armed Forces of National Liberation -- were meeting one-by-one with their clients, who are scattered at federal prisons across the country.
The 16 must accept the president's conditions for clemency, including renouncing violence. Eleven would be eligible for immediate release, two would have to serve some additional time and three already released would see their fines reduced.
The White House official said the administration was anxious for an answer from the attorneys, "We are nearing the end of the process and if we don't hear back soon we will tell them the process is ending," the official said.
The official said that pressure was to force a decision, not to indicate the president was considering withdrawing the offer. "That would be operating in bad faith," the official said.
Some Republicans have accused Clinton of making the offer of clemency to boost first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's expected Senate candidacy in New York, a state with a large Puerto Rican population. The White House strongly denied that.
"The president made the decision on the merits," White House spokesman Jake Siewert told reporters covering the president's vacation in upstate New York.
A spokesman for Mrs. Clinton's campaign said she supports the clemency offer - provided those covered renounce violence.
Several people injured in F.A.L.N attacks have criticized the president's offer. Siewert said there had been "misleading reporting" on the issue and said the clemency was offered only to "those not associated with the more violent acts that led to injuries."
Asked if the White House was concerned about the congressional inquiries, Siewert said, "Congress has a right to do whatever it wants."
Congress has been considering conducting hearings on the clemency issue, with many members publicly voicing concern over published reports that the Justice Department never made a formal recommendation on the clemency question to the White House, as is usual in such cases.
Many law enforcement officials opposed clemency for the nationalists, saying it would be bowing to terrorism at a time when the administration has been cracking down on terrorists.
The separatists were convicted on a variety of charges, ranging from bomb-making and conspiracy to armed robbery. They are affiliated with FALN -- a Puerto Rican independence group, which law enforcement officials blame for at least 130 bombings in the United States and Puerto Rico between 1974 and 1983. Six people were killed, and scores of others injured in those attacks.
Supporters of the separatists emphasized that the 11 men and five women who were offered clemency never were directly connected to an act of murder or violence. The activists have already served 14 to 19 years in prison.
In exchange for clemency, the separatists must renounce the use of violence to achieve political goals and agree to the traditional parole terms. The separatists have yet to agree to the clemency terms.
James Wilson, a spokesman for Burton's committee, said the White House has until September 15 to comply with the subpoena and turn over all "relevant" documents.
CNN's John King, Jonathan Aiken and Bill Mears
contributed to this report.