On Tuesday 12 of 16 the Puerto Rican nationalists convicted on charges arising from their involvement in a murderous bombing campaign explicitly renounced the use of violence and accepted President Clinton's conditional offer of clemency. With this, it appears that a done deal is at hand. Before this episode is laid aside, however, a little attention should be paid to the claims upon which this clemency has rested, for they have been fundamentally misleading.
The 16 who were offered clemency were all leaders and principal members of Armed Forces of National Liberation (known acronymically as FALN) and a splinter group called Los Macheteros. From 1974 to 1983, FALN conducted a terror campaign that included at least 130 bombings, killing six people and injuring dozens. Advocates of clemency have claimed that all or almost all of the 16 prisoners had -- prior to this week's statement -- expressed regret for these actions and had renounced violence.
The White House has been forceful in advancing this claim. In a column on this subject last week, I wrote 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." False, said James Kennedy, a spokesman for the White House counsel.
All of those offered clemency had expressed regret and renounced violence, insisted Kennedy. "Each of them has indicated that they were renouncing violence, and they have a number of statements that were made in different settings to that effect," Kennedy told me. "They have spoken of their repudiation of violence and their intention to disavow their past actions and pursue peaceful paths."
In support of this claim, Kennedy's office directed me to the President's Interagency Group on Puerto Rico, which faxed me a package of documents. The documents included a joint statement made by the prisoners to Congress in 1997 and a selection of individual statements.
The joint statement rationalizes FALN's terror campaign as service in "a just cause, seeking to end colonialism, a crime against humanity," and asserts FALN's "right under international law to use all means available." The statement adds that FALN (in the commission of 130 bombings) exercised this right with "respect for human life," and took "all possible measures to ensure that innocent people [were] not harmed." But, the wretched thing continues, "that is not to deny that in all liberation processes, there are always innocent victims on both sides."
In the individual statements, it is true, Juan Segarra-Palmer and Alberto Rodriguez do explicitly renounce their past willingness to employ violence and reject the future use of violence. But neither man expresses explicit and specific regret for any of the lethal bombings committed by FALN. All of the other statements are much more limited, much more vague expressions suggesting a softening of views.
Indeed, none of the 16 prisoners has ever admitted to complicity in any of the fatal bombings or expressed specific remorse for those bombings. No one has ever apologized to the families of the murdered. The statement signed by the 12 who have accepted commutation does renounce the use of violence, but it expresses no contrition or responsibility for past actions.
And these selected statements distributed by the White House did not fully and honestly represent the views of the 16. Not included, for instance, was a 1998 statement by one of the FALN leaders, Oscar Lopez Rivera, in which Rivera rejected the whole idea of contrition: "I cannot undo what's done. The whole thing of contrition, atonement, I have problems with that." Rivera is one of two FALN members in prison to reject the commutation offer.
(Kennedy also noted that I had erred in writing that President Clinton, prior to this commutation order, used his pardoning powers only twice. In fact, Clinton has pardoned 108 people who had already served their terms. But he has commuted sentences -- as he is doing here -- only three times before, in very minor cases, out of 3,000 requests.)
The second principal claim is the suggestion, as White House deputy chief of staff Maria Echaveste put it, that none of the 16 had been "found to have anything directly to do with an incident that caused death."
This is in a technical but profoundly misleading sense true, in that none of the 16 was found guilty of perpetrating one of the lethal bombings. But these people were leaders and core members of FALN, and FALN, as a group, perpetrated those bombings. It is a ludicrous thing to pretend that people who conspired to bomb somehow bear no connection to the bombings that resulted from this conspiracy.
Michael Kelly is the editor of National Journal.