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Endangering Elian

By Michael Kelly

Wednesday, April 26, 2000; Page A35

Understanding what the administration did in the gunpoint seizure of Elian Gonzalez begins with one incontrovertible fact: In taking the child by force, the attorney general, with the approval of the president, risked the child's life.

The forces of the government stormed the home of Elian's great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, in a manner prescribed only in situations where armed resistance is reasonably expected. They arrived by surprise just before dawn, rushed the house, sprayed tear gas, battered down the door and swarmed in, brandishing automatic weapons. Attorney General Janet Reno, Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and INS Commissioner Doris Meissner all have said this armed assault was necessary because the government had reason to believe there were weapons, and perhaps people prepared to use them, in and around the home. So officials knew this action might result in a firefight that might kill people, including Elian.

What legitimate justification could there be for taking this risk? Well, one would be that Elian was in danger or was being harmed in some way or was a hostage. But he wasn't. Prior to the raid, the best that the Justice Department had been able to offer were the opinions of several friendly "experts," none of whom ever examined or interviewed Elian, to the effect that he was being psychologically abused, a charge also much bruited by Gregory Craig, the attorney for Juan Miguel Gonzalez, Elian's father. But not the slightest evidence was offered for the claim--which is anyway not of sufficient gravity to warrant a potentially lethal assault. Now that Elian is back with his father, Craig says he sees no signs of trauma in the boy, who he says has easily reunited with his father.

With no excuse of imminent danger to Elian, the administration is arguing that armed intrusion was necessary because, with time running out, the Miami relatives still would not agree to turn him over to his father, as the INS had ordered. "They would agree to nothing," said Holder after the raid. ". . . We were forced into the action we took by the intransigence of that family in Miami."

This is a lie on several levels. First, the only deadlines set in this case were those set by the Justice Department. This was not a hostage situation and not a matter of urgency. Indeed, with a court hearing set for May 11 to consider arguments for Elian's request for asylum, there was every reason to allow the judicial process to proceed toward a peaceful resolution that might grant the Miami Gonzalezes their day in court and also reunite Elian with his father.

Second, "that family in Miami" was in fact negotiating in apparent good faith at the very moment of the raid. And these negotiations were in fact progressing toward apparent resolution. The Miami family was considering a proposal to turn Elian over to the Justice Department and to then take part in a transition period in which the Justice Department would, in the words of the final Justice Department offer, "parole Elian Gonzalez into Juan Miguel Gonzalez's care."

At the time of the raid, some backing-and-forthing was still going on, but the Miami relatives had made a series of concessions. No believable explanation has been offered for why they might not have been expected to work through the remaining issues. Indeed, the record of the night's proceedings shows the main resistance to a final agreement came not from the Miami relatives but from Juan Miguel Gonzalez. The four Miami civic leaders who served as intermediaries in the negotiations have declared in a united written statement that "the negotiations were proceeding; they had not broken down. People were acting in good faith."

These facts point to only one logical explanation for the administration's decision to risk Elian's life: Fear of facing the May 11 court appearance, where Elian might be expected to stick with his request for an asylum hearing before a court that had made clear its sympathy toward this request. That fear is now much diminished. With Elian in the custody of his father, and without the influence of his Miami relatives, the asylum request likely will be removed, and Elian will be taken back to Castro's Cuba. Which diplomatic goal is exactly and only what the administration wanted all along--and for which it was willing to endanger the life of a child.

Michael Kelly is the editor in chief of National Journal.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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