With any other administration, it would be absurd to suspect that a president had acted against national security interests and perverted the course of justice to help his wife get out of the house and into the Senate. Ah, but this is the Clinton administration.
From 1974 to 1983, two organizations seeking independence for Puerto Rico -- the Armed Forces of National Liberation (known for its Spanish initials as FALN) and a splinter group called Los Macheteros -- waged a terror campaign against American police, political and military targets. The groups carried out at least 130 bombings, which killed six people and seriously wounded dozens.
Eventually, 16 defendants were convicted on charges ranging from armed robbery to weapons violations to sedition. None was found to have been directly involved in any of the lethal bombings. But, for their unquestioned involvement in the campaign that produced those murders, all 16 received very heavy sentences.
Puerto Rican political activists, New York politicians representing Americans of Puerto Rican lineage and liberal human rights activists have long campaigned for clemency for the FALN prisoners. But this campaign was hampered by the awkward fact that none of the prisoners ever showed the slightest interest in expressing regret for the murders and maimings committed by FALN or in renouncing future acts of terror. (Indeed, Newsweek reports, U.S. Bureau of Prisons audio tapes have captured some of the prisoners saying they would return to violence upon release.)
So, it came as a surprise when, on Aug. 11, President Clinton offered to commute the sentences of all 16 prisoners. The offer was conditional; the prisoners would have to sign agreements to renounce violence, to admit that they had committed criminal acts and to agree not to associate with one another. Still, it was generous. Eleven prisoners would win immediate release. A 12th, originally sentenced to 55 years, would be released in five years. Three others, who have served their time, would have their unpaid fines canceled. And Oscar Lopez, the accused head of FALN, would be released after he had served another 10 years on a separate conviction for an escape attempt.
Cognoscenti of Clintonian ethics noted an evident self-interest in the president's decision; it was undeniable that the offer of even a conditional pardon would win Mrs. Clinton crucial Puerto Rican votes in her assumed Senate bid against lock-'em-up Rudy Giuliani. And it did seem odd that Clinton would choose precisely this moment to grant a petition that (as the White House itself noted) had been pining for his attention since 1993. It seemed odder still given that this president was not known for kindness to the incarcerated. Before this commutation, Clinton had used his presidential pardoning power all of two times. As governor of Arkansas, Clinton pardoned only seven inmates in his last nine years in office. As a presidential candidate in 1992, Clinton left the campaign trail to return to Arkansas for the execution of a profoundly brain-damaged black cop-killer.
But why not give Clinton the benefit of the doubt here? A legitimate case could be made for commutation; and it was asserted that the timing reflected the wish of retiring White House counsel Charles F. C. Ruff, who desired to push the pardon through as his last act.
Ah, but as we learn over and over, the benefit of the doubt is almost never worth the bother in matters pertaining to Mulligan Bill. It turns out, the New York Times reports, that President Clinton did a most rare and remarkable thing: He offered clemency over the unanimous, unequivocal objections of every federal law enforcement agency that reviewed the issue. According to the Times, the FBI, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. attorneys in Illinois and Connecticut flatly opposed clemency.
And the Times reported something else remarkable. It is usual for Justice Department reviews of clemency petitions to conclude with an up-or-down recommendation. In this case, the report that went to Clinton noted departmental objections but made no recommendations. Instead, it offered a range of options, suggesting, as the Times noted, "a diversity of views within law-enforcement agencies that does not exist."
Who handled negotiations with the Justice Department in this most carefully arranged and peculiar decision-making process? Why, Mr. Ruff. Mr. Ruff, whose Senate impeachment-trial defense of Clinton was a masterwork of arguing black into white, assures that no fix was put in to cook the report.
Yes, yes. But just to be sure, why doesn't some interested party in Congress haul Mr. Ruff and the public servants over at Reno Justice up to the Hill, and ask them, under oath, to explain how this curious decision came to be?
Michael Kelly is the editor of National Journal.