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Did the Government Use Excessive Force to Retrieve Elian Gonzalez?

Aired April 24, 2000 - 7:31 p.m. ET


ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: Tonight, the raid to get Elian. Was excessive force used? Should there be a congressional investigation?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Robert Novak. In the crossfire, Republican Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire, member of the Judiciary Committee, and in Boston, Democratic Congressman Marty Meehan of Massachusetts, member of the Immigration and Claims Subcommittee.

NOVAK: Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE.

Being attorney general of the United States means never having to say you're sorry: not sorry for sure about the dead of the night raid in Miami to extract Elian Gonzalez.


JANET RENO, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: We tried our best to make sure that it was done peacefully. I have no regrets whatsoever.


NOVAK: Nor did most Americans flinch at uniformed agents smashing in a front door to enter in a private home with drawn weapons. A new CNN/Gallup poll shows only 40 percent of adult Americans think excessive use of force was used. Indeed, 57 percent approved of the raid.

Top-level Republican politicians clearly disapprove, including the usually moderate House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Today, he asked for a full-scale investigation by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, who is looking into it.

Meanwhile, where is Elian? Still at Andrews Air Force Base with his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez. But what he's doing is a big secret because nobody is let in, not even U.S. senators.

Our guest, Bob Smith, hit a wall trying to get in with the boy's Miami relatives, and they still can't see the little boy. Should they? That's part of our CROSSFIRE -- Bill.

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Senator Smith, Juan Miguel Gonzalez had been unable to see his son for five months. They were finally reunited about 10 o'clock Saturday morning here in Washington. Just before 7 o'clock that evening, senator, you showed up at Andrews Air Force base with the Miami cousins.

My first question is, don't you think that this boy and his father deserved at least 24 hours of privacy before you demanded to see them?

SEN. BOB SMITH (R), NEW HAMPSHIRE: Well, first of all, I didn't demand to see them. You've gotten misinformation. What I demanded was that I be -- go on the base with the family to have the opportunity to sit down in a private location on the base, not where the boy was, and to have these relatives who have been through so much have the opportunity to draw up some information to provide -- let me just finish quickly. They wanted to know how Elian was and they wanted Elian to know that they were all right.

He was hooded and dragged out of that house not -- at gun point not knowing whether those people were dead or alive.

PRESS: Senator, hooded? I've seen a lot of videotape, I've seen a lot of pictures. Do you have one picture of Elian wearing a hood?

SMITH: A blanket was placed over him and it fell off on the way out. A blanket was placed over the boy's head.

PRESS: I think a blanket was placed around him, is what I...

SMITH: A blanket was placed over his head.

PRESS: So let me ask you, you say this family that's been through so much. Who are you talking about? Are you talking about the father who was unable to see his kid for five months? And again, I ask you, he's finally got a chance to get together with his son. Why don't you just leave them alone? Why do you -- why are you demanding that his Miami cousins get into see him?

SMITH: I didn't demand that his Miami cousins get in to see him.

PRESS: You just did.

SMITH: I did not. Do you listen to what I say, Bill?


SMITH: I said that I asked to go into the base to have the opportunity...

PRESS: With the Miami cousins.

SMITH: With the Miami cousins, to go onto the base to allow -- to sit down and prepare a simple little notification that they could provide to that boy and to his father with an intermediary. That's what I asked for, and I was denied access.

You know, you can play up all you want, Bill, about the boy and his father. I'm more than happy to see boy with his father. But let me tell you what: The ends do not justify the means here.

PRESS: But we'll get to -- we'll get to the means in just a second, sir. But I want to show you, you mentioned the boy and his father, and we saw that film that nobody likes to see of a federal agent with a gun going into -- into that house. Blame the family on that, not Janet Reno.

SMITH: Well, it's...


PRESS: But let me show you the other photo agin, when the father is finally -- the boy is finally reunited with his father. We've seen this photo. He's in his father's arms there. This photo was released Saturday, and there are some other photos of the family together.

Senator Smith, you see this boy, you see him with his father together again. Are you really saying that you want to get into the middle of that boy and his father, that you want to stand against that? Is that what this is all about?

SMITH: No, it's not what it's about, Bill, and you know that's not what it's all about. This was a -- this was a custody matter that should have been resolved peacefully. You don't go into an unarmed home with weapons drawn, automatic -- semiautomatic -- automatic weapons, assault weapons, and take the boy out at gun point and scare him to death. That's wrong and you know it's wrong. And if it was George Bush or Ronald Reagan that had done it, you would be on the other side of the issue.

PRESS: No way.

SMITH: And you know you would.

PRESS: No way, no way.

SMITH: Come on.

PRESS: Don't accuse me of that.

How you can say this is a custody thing when you have a blood parent, a father, who clearly, who clearly has a right to his son? What's the custody issue?

SMITH: There's no -- there's nobody -- look, they were negotiating with Janet Reno on the phone in -- with the Justice Department, respectable people, intermediaries were negotiating. They were put on hold...

PRESS: And in fact, they refused...

SMITH: ... and broke the door down.

PRESS: ... to cooperate for five months.

SMITH: They didn't refuse to cooperate. PRESS: Refused to cooperate for five months.

SMITH: They did not refuse to cooperate. They were cooperating.

And so you justify them going in with assault weapons. Do you justify that, Bill?

PRESS: You're damn right I do!

SMITH: Good for you.

NOVAK: Congressman Marty Meehan, you have a well-deserved reputation as a liberal with a mind of his own, and I always think of liberals as being interested in civil liberties.

Tell me what your reaction is to the picture of the uniformed marshal with a gun, whether it's pointed at the boy or not -- you can judge for yourself -- of a knock on the door in the night; seconds later, the door's knocked in with a battering ram; the bedroom trashed; the marshals shouting; the -- their guns drawn. Does that bother you?

REP. MARTY MEEHAN (D), MASSACHUSETTS: Well, I think it's a tragedy that it came down to this, but it's the Gonzalez family in Miami, it's their fault that it actually got to this. They could have easily during the course of negotiations made an attempt to peacefully have this boy united with his father.

I'm thankful that no one was injured. I'm thankful that no one got hurt. And I'm thankful...

NOVAK: But it was OK? The procedure was OK?

MEEHAN: ... that this boy is now -- absolutely legal and absolutely OK given the circumstances.

Look it, Janet Reno is from Miami. Janet Reno tried, bent over backwards, went the extra mile, then went the extra 10 miles. There was no way this family was ever going to give that poor 6-year-old boy up. Therefore, in view of the decision of the court, in view of the INS decision, they decided to go in. And within three minutes they were successful in terms of getting that boy back and out of the home and then with his father.

NOVAK: Congressman...

MEEHAN: ... where he should be.

NOVAK: Congressman Graham, Bob Graham, Democrat of Florida -- he may be on your national ticket this year. And I think he's a man of great integrity. I hope you think so, too.

MEEHAN: I do. I do.

NOVAK: He had a -- he had a conversation, he said, with the president, and he asked the president not to take this boy in the dead of night with a nighttime raid, which is familiar -- reminiscent of totalitarian societies. And this is what Senator Graham said the answer was.


SEN. BOB GRAHAM (D), FLORIDA: The president of the United States made that commitment to me that there would be no taking of this child at night. I felt that my -- the promise that he made to me had been abrogated. I don't know if the president knew that the decision was being made by lower echelons within his administration, but it was a clear commitment which was violated.


NOVAK: Is that reprehenseible?

MEEHAN: Well, no -- I would hardly call the chief law enforcement officer of the United States, the attorney general, some low-level employee. I can tell you as a former prosecutor, this was a very dangerous crisis. There had been crowds that had been gotten together around this home. There was always the potential that there was going to be some kind of violence.

The attorney general, it's her responsibility to enforce the law and to enforce the rule of law with as little violence as possible, and frankly, she was successful.

NOVAK: Do you know...

MEEHAN: No one was hurt.

NOVAK: Does the name Aaron Podhurst mean anything to you?


NOVAK: Who is he?

MEEHAN: Is he the individual that was involved in the negotiations?

NOVAK: Yes, he's a very distinguished lawyer in Miami, Marty.

MEEHAN: Sure, that's right.

NOVAK: He's a close friend of the attorney general. And he was negotiating with her at the time she had already ordered these stormtroopers in.

And I want you to listen -- I want you to listen what Aaron Podhurst said today.


AARON PODHURST, MIAMI ATTORNEY: I do not agree that we weren't close to a settlement. I believe everybody was acting in good faith. I believe the Miami Gonzalez family was acting in good faith. And I believe we had made substantial progress.


NOVAK: Isn't the truth of the matter that the attorney general, or whoever manipulates her -- I haven't quite figured that out -- had made the decision that whatever happened they were going to go in and smash that door and get that kid?

MEEHAN: Absolutely not. This attorney general...

NOVAK: Then how do you explain Mr. Podhurst's comment?

MEEHAN: ... did everything she could do to prevent this.

Alan got involved in the procedures at the 11th hour. He wasn't involved for the last many months in trying to get this family to reason, trying to get this family to listen to the psychiatrists, to listen to the psychologists, to voluntarily let this 6-year-old boy be with his father rather than to have him continued to be paraded out to the press, paraded out in all these taped interviews that were all put together. This boy deserved to be with his father.

Now, Alan got involved in this at the 11th hour, at the 11th hour. So I don't think...

PRESS: OK. Let me go back to you, Senator Smith, quickly before we take a break. Wouldn't you have to agree that no force at all would have been necessary if the Miami family has just cooperated and handed this boy over to his father, as the attorney general asked them to do?

SMITH: First of all, I would aggree with you that the boy could have been reunited with both parts of his family without force, and it should have happened that way and it would have happened that way had they done it correctly, and they didn't. It belongs in custody. It's a custody matter. It's not an immigration matter. It's not a matter for policemen -- armed policemen with assault weapons to come in and take the child.

How would you feel if he had been killed, if the boy had been killed in this? If somebody had gotten a little edgy and the boy had been killed, you know what? You'd have been saying it's the Miami relatives' fault.

PRESS: Senator, nobody was injured.

SMITH: Luckily. Luckily.

PRESS: Not one shot was fired.

SMITH: Luckily.

PRESS: But I want to read you a quote of Marisleysis Gonzalez, the woman -- the young woman who's been taking care of Elian the last few months. And this was in "The Sacramento Bee" last Thursday morning, that she said to an INS agent -- quote -- "You think we just have cameras in the house. If people try to come in, they could be hurt."

Now, senator, we've done gun control shows. I know where you stand on guns. Are you telling me that knowing that, that the federal agents should have gone in unarmed into that house and you would have sent them in unarmed?

SMITH: Well, let me tell you something. I'm going to respond to that directly. First of all, they said Marisleysis said that. I don't believe she said it. And if she did say it, then why is it that in the affidavit in support of the warrant that they didn't mention the fact that there might be guns there? They didn't mention it at all.

You know, what the...

SMITH: Senator...

SMITH: Do you know what the show of force was? A human chain. A human chain. That's what they had. Read the affidavit, my friend. That's what's in there.

PRESS: Senator, there are two or three cases -- two or three cases where the federal agents found out that there were guns perhaps in the crowd.

SMITH: That is not in the affidavit.

PRESS: I don't care if it's in the affidavit.

SMITH: They had no -- well, it should have been there.

PRESS: The fact is she said there may be -- that people could be harmed in the house.

SMITH: She didn't say that.

PRESS: Are you saying you would send federal agents in unarmed into a situation like that?

SMITH: They had no such situation. There were 50 people. CNN reported 50 people, 50 people.

PRESS: Answer the question.

NOVAK: He did answer it.

SMITH: I just answered the question!

PRESS: He did not answer it.

NOVAK: Quit badgering! He answered the question!

PRESS: We'll take a break. When we come back, now that they are back together again, will the father and son stay together here in the United States or in Cuba?


PRESS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. Well, now that they're back together again, it seems likely that Elian Gonzalez and his father, Juan Miguel, will remain together. But where? Will they be going back to Cuba or will his father decide to stay in the United States and does he have the freedom to make that decision?

Debating tonight what happens to Elian Gonzalez next, Republican Senator Bob Smith from New Hampshire and Democratic Congressman Marty Meehan from Massachusetts -- Bob.

NOVAK: Marty Meehan, do you think that Juan Miguel, with his relatives back in Cuba, his mother back in Cuba, has the freedom to say, yes, I'd like to stay in this country with this boy? Do you think he is a free agent, or do you think he is lock, stock and barrel controlled by Fidel Castro.

MEEHAN: Everything we know, based on the interviews with the attorney general and the deputy attorney general the other U.S. Marshal officials who have been around him indicate it is his decision. I think ultimately it should be his decision. If he wants to stay in the United States, he should have that opportunity.

NOVAK: You don't think -- you don't think he's in control of the dictatorial police state? You think he's a free agent?

MEEHAN: Well, there's no evidence -- Bob, there's no evidence to suggest that. I certainly haven't seen any evidence, and the Justice Department hasn't indicated that there is any evidence either.

NOVAK: Let me show you something that was said today by the governor of Texas.


NOVAK: He's probably going to be the Republican nominee, I'm sure you're aware of that.


And let's hear what he says.


GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I would hope that the administration would explain to the father that if he so chooses he can raise his son in freedom, that the father can stay here in the United States of America. It's important for our administration to remember that the mom was fleeing for freedom, to bring the son to freedom.


NOVAK: Do you think the administration, Attorney General Reno, who has made this a personal crusade, should explain to Juan Miguel that he can stay here in freedom rather than going back to the communist police state? Do you think she should do that?

MEEHAN: Sure. Sure. And I think he should discuss it with his lawyer, I would think, if he wants to file for asylum. His lawyer is very competent, would be able to handle such a case. So if he decides that he wants to stay, then I think that he should have the legal counsel put together the appropriate papers for that.

NOVAK: Would you -- would you recommend...

MEEHAN: This case has always been about -- this case has always been about reuniting the son with the father.

NOVAK: I know, that's what you say. But would you -- would you say -- think that all things being equal, congressman, it would be better if the boy was brought up in Florida than Cuba? Do you think that would be better for the boy?

MEEHAN: I would say it would be better, Bob, if the father made that decision. I believe the father should make that decision.

NOVAK: No, I'm going to ask you what's your opinion.

PRESS: He just said it, Bob.

NOVAK: Do you think...

MEEHAN: My opinion is...

NOVAK: Wait a minute.

MEEHAN: My opinion is...

NOVAK: Do you see any difference between Florida and Cuba?

MEEHAN: Sure, there are differences, but I think the father should make that determination. I don't think that the -- a congressman in the United States or any politicians in the United States ought to be attempting to take and somehow urge this father where he should raise his son.

Fact No. 1, the son should be with the father. Fact No. 2, the father should determine where he wants to raise his son.

PRESS: Senator, I know you want to speak to that.

SMITH: Marty, real quickly, do you have a problem with the fact that the president of the United States made a commitment to Senator Bob Graham that no violence would be used to remove that boy and that he made that -- Bob Graham passed that on to several others of us in the Senate? Do you have a problem with that?

MEEHAN: Bob, I don't have any -- I don't have any problem with the fact that this is a responsibility of the chief law enforcement officer of the United States, the attorney general, Janet Reno. She's the one empowered to make that decision, and she made it.

SMITH: No, the president...

MEEHAN: And frankly, I support her decision.

SMITH: ... the president makes that decision.

PRESS: By the way...

SMITH: The president does.

PRESS: By the way, the press...

MEEHAN: Well, I think the -- I think that...

PRESS: If I may, Marty. The press secretary, Joe Lockhart, today said the president made no such commitment to the senator.

NOVAK: Who do you believe, Graham or Lockhart?

PRESS: So there you go. But I want to ask you, senator, on this question...

SMITH: Old pass the buck Clinton.

PRESS: Juan Miguel Gonzalez is now at Andrews Air Force Base, which the last time I checked is pretty much securely U.S. government property. Don't you believe that if he wants to seek asylum and that's his decision, that Juan Miguel Gonzalez has the opportunity to and it should be his decision?

SMITH: Well, if you believe he doesn't care anything about his family in Cuba. his mother, and others, sure, yes, he's free.

PRESS: But senator, there are all kinds of Cuban family that half of them are here and the others are there. He's got aunts and uncles here, and he's got aunts and uncles in Cuba. Why is it different from any other?

SMITH: Do you think -- no, look, do you know that issue is here? We've got this boy who's now surrounded by -- with the counsel, the counsel of Mr. Gonzalez, who's on the other side of this custody fight. Do you understand that? The appellate court said that this boy was going to have a hearing on May 11th. He doesn't have his lawyer. His lawyer cannot see him. I took the lawyer to Andrews. We were denied. He cannot see his client.

And in the -- in the appellate court decision, the boy, Elian, is the plaintiff, the boy. And he doesn't have -- he can't see his lawyer.

PRESS: How much do you think...

SMITH: Is that right?

PRESS: ... Senator Smith, a 6-year-old boy understands about asylum, about court hearings?

SMITH: It doesn't make any difference.

PRESS: And how much -- how well do you think he understood that piece of paper that they made him scratch his name on?

SMITH: He has a right to a counsel. That's what the court says. I'm not...

PRESS: Senator, he's a 6-year-old child.

SMITH: Hold on. The court said it, that he had a right to counsel.

MEEHAN: Bob, could I -- Bob, could I ask a question, because...

PRESS: Quickly.

MEEHAN: ... asylum as a legal matter -- asylum as a legal matter is permission to come into the country. That's all asylum is. It doesn't have anything to do with custody nor does it have anything to do with whether the father decides to go back to Cuba.

NOVAK: Time is up. Thank you very much, in Boston, Congressman Marty Meehan.

MEEHAN: Thank you.

NOVAK: Thank you very much, Senator Bob Smith. And Bill Press and I will be back with closing comments.


NOVAK: bill, I'm a little older than you. When I grew up, you knock on the door. The jack-booted storm trooper with the gun coming in, that was a sign of a totalitarian state. We didn't have that kind of country here. And I -- quite apart from the details of Cuba, I think a liberal, a so-called "liberal," who condones this police action is still a leftist, but he is not a liberal, because now we are moving closer to a fascist state.

PRESS: Well, here's the difference, Bob. Here's the important difference. And I am a liberal, and I break out in hives when I see anybody with a gun or I see federal force. But the difference is this federal force was used to bring freedom, not to take freedom away. It was used to reunite a little boy and his father. And that force would not have been necessary, again, if the family had cooperated.

They were breaking the law. Unfortunately, it had to happen.


NOVAK: They were breaking the law. We can argue that they were breaking the law. But I'll tell you this: All the storm troopers through history who go into homes in the middle of night and trash them always say, we are acting for the sake of order and law.

PRESS: It was three minutes, three minutes, and they reunited this little boy with his father. And I'm glad they're back together.

From the left, good night for CROSSFIRE. I'm Bill Press.

NOVAK: From the right, I'm Robert Novak. Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.



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